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Chris Jansen (Patric Knowles), a struggling, underpaid office clerk, gives his fiance Mamie (Mabel Poulton) an engagement ring which he acquired on approval from Bayleck (Morris Harvey), a notorious moneylender. When Mamie runs off with another man without returning the ring, Jansen is forced to reveal the bad turn of events to Bayleck who demands the full amount of the ring in 24 hours or he will report Jansen to the police. Unable to secure a raise or a salary advance from his boss Arthur Stevens (Frederick Piper), Jansen returns to Bayleck to beg for an extension on his note but finds him murdered - shot in the head. The killer, hiding behind a curtain, is suddenly discovered by Jansen. Still holding the murder weapon in her hand, the woman threatens Jansen with it before fleeing, leaving a key piece of evidence - Bayleck's account book - burning in the fireplace. Jansen also slips away from the murder scene unnoticed and decides not to go to the police for fear of being implicated or fired from his job. Later he is sent on an errand to his boss's home and comes face to face with the murderess - Stevens's wife Doris (Beatrix Thomson). She is equally shocked to learn that Jansen works for her husband but then begins to spin a web of lies and deceit to cover the tracks of her crime, using Jansen as a pawn in her schemes.
Crown v. Stevens (1936) is one of the last of Michael Powell's "quota quickies" for Teddington Studios before moving on to a project of his choosing, The Edge of the World (1937), which marked the beginning of a remarkable directorial career. Based on a novel by the prolific Laurence Meynell, the film is a highly melodramatic but entertaining thriller that features several plot elements that were already being popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in such films as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and Strangers on a Train (1951) - i.e. an innocent man caught up in dangerous circumstances beyond his control and the duality of good and evil expressed through the protagonist and his double. Of course, the Hitchcock connection is no coincidence. Powell had previously worked for the British director as a stills photographer on Hitchcock's Champagne (1928) and Blackmail (1929). In addition, Crown v. Stevens also looks ahead to the film noir cycle of the early forties with the character of Doris Stevens serving as a prototype for the quintessential femme fatale.
Cast in the lead role, Patric Knowles was a rising young British actor at the time who bore a resemblance to Errol Flynn. Crown v. Stevens was his last film for Teddington before being brought to Hollywood by Warner Bros. who signed him to a contract and cast him in Give Me Your Heart (1936) with Kay Francis and George Brent the same year. He followed it up with what is possibly his best known film, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), in which he plays Errol Flynn's brother and ends up with Olivia de Havilland at the fadeout. Flynn himself had gotten his first real start at Teddington Studios appearing in an uncredited bit in I Adore You (1933) followed by the lead in Murder at Monte Carlo (1934). After that producer Irving Asher recommended Flynn to Jack Warner who brought him to the U.S. for his first U.S. film, The Case of the Curious Bride (1935). Asher was also responsible for Knowles and Ian Hunter being signed by Warner Bros. Ironically, all three actors - Flynn, Knowles and Hunter - ended up together in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
On the other hand, Beatrix Thomson, who easily steals Crown v. Stevens away from her co-stars, was primarily a stage actress. This was one of her few film roles but her portrayal of Doris Stevens as a habitual and deadly liar bears favorable comparison to Mary Astor's poisonous Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Other actors you may recognize in Crown v. Stevens are Googie Withers as a fun-loving party girl and former theatre acquaintance of Doris Stevens and Glennis Lorimer as a company client who becomes Jansen's girlfriend during the course of the police investigation. Withers would later become a leading lady of British cinema in the forties with such memorable films as Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), Dead of Night (1945) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). Glennis Lorimer was almost at the end of her screen career when she made Crown v. Stevens. Her last feature was Alf's Button Afloat in 1938 but she is best remembered as the woman featured in the Gainsborough Studios' opening logo.
In his autobiography A Life in Movies, Michael Powell is quick to dismiss Crown v. Stevens and the other low-budget features he made for Teddington toward the end of his tenure there. He does admit, however, that compared to his earlier B-movies these "were a damn sight more honest and more entertaining, because they were not trying to be anything but what they were, and they were tailored from first-class scripts."
Mark Duguid of Screenonline noted that toward the end of his life "Powell joked that if any more "lost" films were to reappear, his reputation would be in tatters - but they reveal a talented and fast-learning young filmmaker struggling to transcend the limited tools at his disposal, reaching for something magical and, just occasionally, brushing a fingertip or two against it."
Producer: Irving Asher
Director: Michael Powell
Screenplay: Brock Williams, Laurence Meynell (novel)
Cinematography: Basil Emmott
Film Editing: Bert Bates
Art Direction: Peter Proud
Cast: Beatrix Thomson (Doris Stevens), Patric Knowles (Chris Jansen), Reginald Purdell (Alf), Glennis Lorimer (Molly), Allan Jeayes (Inspector Carter), Frederick Piper (Arthur Stevens).
by Jeff Stafford