British actor Donald Pleasence has played his fair share of nutters and villains through the years from infamous grave robber William Hare in The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) to Blofeld, James Bond’s nemesis, in You Only Live Twice (1967) to the dangerous religious fanatic in Will Penny (1968) to the insane scientist of The Mutations aka The Freakmaker (1974). At the same time, he has also specialized in playing cold, analytical authority figures who, while on the side of good, is often more unsettling than comforting as in his iconic role as Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978) and four of its sequels. His portrayal of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, the most notorious murderer of the Edwardian Age, in Dr. Crippen (1963), however, doesn’t really fit into either category and displays yet another side of the Pleasence persona – a quiet, unassertive enigma, a blank slate for us to fill in the details. The eyes, which reveal nothing, seem to look right through you.
As one police officer says to his partner after questioning Crippen in this true crime story, “I’ve had enough of those codfish eyes for one day….Crippen doesn’t look like he ever had an emotion in his life.” Yet Pleasence slowly reveals traces of humanity as the film progresses, displaying weaknesses and strengths alike, and in the final moments of the film as the doctor faces death by hanging, he is even sympathetic and moving.
I particularly like this comment from a 1964 review of Dr. Crippen by Time Magazine: “The doctor is portrayed with formidable skill by Britian’s Donald Pleasence. Fans of British films have long been aware of the unpleasant presence of Pleasence, and he is remembered by Broadway audiences as the transcendental tramp in The Caretaker. In most of his roles, Pleasence resembles something dragged unwillingly out of a drainpipe. As Dr. Crippen, he contrives to look like something sculptured in grey Jell-O.”
An almost forgotten film after more than fifty years, Dr. Crippen is a modestly budgeted dramatization of the famous murder case which has the look and feel of a made-for-TV drama and is blocked like a stage play (The film is directed by Robert Lynn from a screenplay by Leigh Vance, best known for his teleplays for such TV crime series as Mannix, Matlock, The Saint and Mission: Impossible). Most of the film takes place in either the courtroom or in flashbacks where the main characters are seen in their drab, claustrophobic homes or offices – spaces which convey an overwhelming sense of repression and sublimated desires. Interestingly enough, the cinematography is by Nicholas Roeg, who would develop a much more personal, innovative visual approach as a director in later years.
Despite an ad campaign in the U.S. that promised a more lurid exploitation film, Dr. Crippen is remarkably low-key and conventional in its storytelling techniques (In many cities, it was paired with a co-feature like AIP’s The Raven). It’s not at all surprising that it was barely noticed by moviegoers at the time and mostly dismissed by film critics. Yet what makes it stand out is the movie’s depiction of Dr. Crippen; it challenges and questions the long-held belief that he was a cold-blooded fiend who poisoned his wife, dismembered her, buried the remains in the basement of their boarding house and calmly boarded an ocean liner to Canada with his mistress Ethel Le Neve.
The idea that Dr. Crippen was quite possibly innocent was still a minority opinion in 1963 so the decision to present him in a more sympathetic light in this film is a compelling hook. But the glue that holds it all together is the excellent ensemble cast with Donald Pleasence, Coral Browne as Belle Crippen and Samantha Egger as Ethel Le Neve sharing the spotlight. Donald Wolfit as R.D. Muir, the crown prosecutor, brings some much needed vigor to the courtroom scenes and James Robertson Justice has a memorable cameo as the ship captain who suspects that Dr. Crippen’s traveling companion is not his so-called son but a young woman in disguise. More about this later.
With a production schedule of less than a month, Dr. Crippen was a pleasant working experience for the cast and crew. Pleasence later stated in an interview, “I made Doctor Crippen at Elstree in 1962 and I think it was a good film….I played Crippen as a sympathetic character, and at the time I was quite into criminology and often would go and watch real-life murder trials at the Old Bailey.” In a more recent interview with Eggar for the website The Terror Trap, the actress said, “What I remember about Dr. Crippen was that Donald was one of the sweetest — and nuttiest — people I had ever met. Of course, we had Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) on that one, a brilliant director of photography. The walls of the Old Bailey were made out of cardboard and Nicolas made them look as if they were carved of antique wood. He photographed me amazingly.”
By today’s crime standards, Dr. Crippen seems almost benign next to such noted multiple murderers as Richard Speck or William Gacy but for Edwardian England, the 1910 murder of Belle Crippen was shocking. Even though Dr. Crippen was only credited with one murder, it was unthinkable at the time that a physician, a member of a respected profession, would kill his own wife and then dispose of the body in such a gruesome manner. The fact that Crippen was a small, mild-mannered man and innocuous looking in appearance only added to the public’s fascination with the case plus the knowledge that he had been having an open affair with his secretary Ethel and tried to escape with her across the Atlantic after his wife’s disappearance.
Another reason the Crippen case is so well known is because the suspect was allegedly the first criminal to be apprehended through the aid of a wireless radio transmission (Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi tested his first transatlantic wireless signal in 1902).
Dr. Crippen is less about the actual crime itself than the circumstances leading up to it and it certainly paints the Hawley-Belle relationship as a marriage in hell. They certainly are an odd couple and one wonders how they ever got together (Although Hawley and Belle were married in 1894, the movie picks up their story around 1908 when Hawley begins an affair with his office secretary Ethel). In flashbacks, we learn that Belle had aspirations of a career on the stage or in show business and that she still entertains that notion by rehearsing songs with a pianist/admirer. In fact, it soon becomes obvious that Belle enjoys the attentions of many men and earns extra money by taking in boarders, a situation that allows her to carry on affairs right under the nose of her husband.
She also makes no secret of her contempt for Hawley, insulting and humiliating him in front of guests and friends at every occasion. Yet Hawley takes the abuse, rarely fighting back. He behaves more like her servant than the master of the house and is a classic case of the henpecked/cuckolded husband. Coral Browne brings a lively, coarse vulgarity to Belle but also manages to make her pitiable in one intimate scene that offers an explanation for why their marriage is such a disaster.
Belle: I have to beg you to even touch me. Am I so repulsive?
Hawley: No, of course ‘tisn’t that.
Belle: Well, what is it then? When was the last time you came to me as a husband of your own free will? When was the last time you kissed me, let alone made love to me?
Hawley: You said yourself you had no lack of male admirers.
Belle: But you’re my husband. I want my husband to admire me. If you’re ill, why don’t you say so. At least I’d understand that.
So much of the dynamic here is psychosexual and Ethel makes her own demands on Hawley, making him promise not to have sex with his wife but save himself for her. Samantha Eggar exudes a radiant, yearning appeal as Ethel but is also an unintentional femme fatale; she is the one who first suggests giving Belle a drug to quiet her so Crippen can slip away for a rendezvous (some recent assessments of the case suggest she was a true accessory to murder and not the falsely accused accomplice in this film).
You might think the idea of Eggar and Pleasence as passionate lovers an unlikely pairing but Eggar is totally convincing in the role and demonstrates why she was one of the best British actresses of her generation. Not every critic agreed though and the reviewer for Variety noted, “It’s difficult to believe that such an attractive young woman could be drawn sexually to the faded, non-descript, middle-aged Crippen.” Well, different strokes for different folks as they say. Eggar would go on to win the Best Actress award at Cannes the following year for her riveting performance as an abducted art student in The Collector as well as snag a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for the same film.
It’s a shame her film career never really flowered despite some promising roles (Return From the Ashes, Walk, Don’t Run, The Molly Maguires). Unlike her peers, Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Christie, Eggar began to appear in low budget genre films that were beneath her talent in the ‘70s and ‘80s such as The Dead Are Alive (1972), Welcome to Blood City (1977), The Exterminator (1980) and Demonoid: Messenger of Death (1981), which featured a possessed severed hand that stalks and kills people. The film is ludicrous but Eggar brings a tongue-in-cheek playfulness to her role which accents the absurdity of it all and makes it a campy delight.
Coral Browne is another actress like Eggar who deserved bigger parts and better opportunities in film but her relatively short resume includes such memorable, scene-stealing roles in Auntie Mame (1958), The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), The Killing of Sister George (1968), The Ruling Class (1972) and Theater of Blood (1973), co-starring Vincent Price. Browne met Price on the set of the latter macabre satire and they married in 1973, remaining together for the rest of their lives. Browne’s animated, high-spirited performance as Belle almost hijacks Dr. Crippen during her on-screen time but she is also such a vindictive, nagging harpy that one can understand Hawley’s desire to kill her; it’s his only option to escape her clutches since she refuses to divorce him.
At the climatic turning point when the doctor prepares Belle’s tea and gives her a dose of hyoscine, a drug used to treat motion sickness which is dangerous if administered in anything more than a tiny amount, we see him momentarily distracted; he doesn’t notice that he accidentally emptied the entire packet of hyoscine into Belle’s tea. But even if Hawley is innocent of Belle’s death, he is still guilty of desiring it and his behavior from this point on is not that of a crafty, cunning killer but of a man blinded by his passionate feelings for another woman.
The final act of Dr. Crippen is the most curious chapter in the famous case and one that could be played for comedy. The idea that Hawley convinced Ethel to cut her hair and pose as his young son in order to avoid detection by the police and not arouse suspicions seems foolhardy at best. In real life, the ruse failed miserably as Ethel was completely unconvincing as a male impersonator and in the film, the disguise is equally absurd. The odd couple end up attracting more attention than they intended due to the fact that Hawley can’t disguise his feelings for his traveling companion whom he introduces as his teenage son (Ethel was 28 at the time). The captain of the Montrose, the ship that carried Hawley and Ethel to Canada, was not fooled: “She’s got a very feminine figure for a boy of sixteen and he can’t keep his hands off her even in public.”
One wonders what a director like Claude Chabrol could have done with this true crime story and, in the right hands, it could provide rich material for such edgy directors as Catherine Breillat (Bluebeard, 2009) and Steve McQueen (Shame, 2011). But Dr. Crippen, which Time magazine accurately pegged as a “tidy thriller,” is well worth pursuing for anyone interested in the case or Pleasence at an early stage in his career (he was still two years away from his bizarre breakout role in Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac). Dr. Crippen would make an intriguing double bill with 10 Rillington Place (1971), Richard Fleischer’s grim, depressing account of John Christie (Richard Attenborough), another notorious murder case which captivated the attention of the British press and public.
The case continues to puzzle and intrigue criminologists and amateur sleuths more than a century later with more and more experts protesting Crippen’s guilt and providing conflicting accounts of the evidence (recent DNA findings have also muddied the waters). One theory is that Belle really did travel to America to see relatives and didn’t bother to alert the authorities when her husband was arrested for her murder (she hated him enough to see him hang). Another theory suggests that Dr. Crippen was a secret abortionist and the remains of the body in his basement was not his wife’s but that of a patient who died in his care. Yet another theory is that the body under the basement floor was buried there before the Crippens were ever tenants in that house. Too many questions remain unanswered. That’s why the Dr. Crippen case has continued to thrive in pop culture, inspiring the 1942 German film Dr. Crippen an Bord with Rudolf Fernau in title role (he appeared in Wallace thrillers like The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle and The Mad Executioners), 1958’s Dr. Crippen Lebt (another German adaptation featuring Peter Van Eyck as the chief inspector on the case), the 1961 stage musical Belle by Wolf Mankowitz, the 2004 John Boyne novel Crippen – A Novel of Murder and many more.
Dr. Crippen is not currently available for purchase on any format in the U.S. but if you have an all region DVD/Blu-ray player you can purchase a Studio Canal PAL DVD of the film from sellers in the U.K.
Other websites of interest: