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Trent's Last Case

Trent's Last Case(1953)

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teaser Trent's Last Case (1953)

While Orson Welles was knocking around Europe, a postwar Hollywood outcast scrambling from payday to payday, filming piecemeal his own production of Othello (1952) in North Africa, he went before the camera twice for Herbert Wilcox, a prolific Briton married to Transatlantic star Anna Neagle. Although neither Trent's Last Case (1952) nor Trouble in the Glen (1954) is a serious contender for a high rank in Welles' oeuvre, each has its moments, even if they are less than plentiful, or, in the case of Trouble in the Glen, tend toward the deliriously ludicrous. In that entirely forgettable later outing, an attempt to cash in on the success of John Ford's excursion to Ireland in The Quiet Man (1952), Welles plays a South American of Scottish ancestry returning to his land of origin to hold sway as a laird. The only remotely memorable thing about his performance in it is his wig, a towering bouffant meringue subjected to the same sort of blue rinse once favored by ladies attending symphony orchestra matinees.

One didn't direct Orson Welles. One stood aside and joined him in his self-delight at his own flamboyant genius. He was enough of a natural showman to always deliver a good show, even in the inferior material Wilcox handed him. Wilcox was happy enough to oblige Welles, and simply stay out of his way both times out. In Trent's Last Case, Welles shares the spotlight with his spectacular putty nose. It's a mighty ice-breaker of a nose, straight-edged as a steel blade, pulverizing all in its path, including whatever pretension to credibility this creaky British murder mystery might have retained. Welles plays an American gazillionaire whose dead body is discovered near the tool shed in the garden of his English manor house as the film opens. Trent, embodied by Michael Wilding, is the dilettante reporter covering, then solving, the case.

E.C. Bentley's novel regularly appeared on lists of Golden Age classics for four decades since its publication in 1913. (Chronologically, Trent's Last Case is actually his first case, the sleuth being reprised twice more in print, but not on screen, in the 1930s.) Trent's Last Case had been filmed twice in the Silent Era, in 1920 and, with Howard Hawks directing, in 1929. Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers thought highly of its clever plotting. Sayers, and writers as contemporary as Elizabeth George, have kept alive as its archetypal titular detective, an amateur who wears an air of societal entitlement like a halo. But Raymond Chandler, that transplanted English progenitor of the American hard-boiled fiction that supplanted it, dismissed the book utterly. This film of it makes him seem the most convincing judge. It may well be a genre classic, but it's not a timeless classic.

It got a lot of mileage as a refreshingly cheeky parody of Sherlock Holmes-like amateurs who make the police seem bumbling idiots and attend black-tie musical soirees at Covent Garden as a matter of course. But what may have begun as a sendup of genteel murder mysteries, in which a corpse is found in the drawing room and the murderer is unmasked by degrees over the rattle of teacups and the sloshing of whiskey into tumblers, here fades into just another tired example of a dated genre. The only thing it still has going for it is that the smug, suave Trent (a painter turned crime reporter and sketch artist) does his own investigative end run around the police, confidently puts the pieces together -- and gets it wrong. And, en route, manages to fall in love with one of the suspects. Not that any of it seems to matter much. Since the victim was an American, and overbearingly vulgar, his death is viewed by the old-boy network of which Trent is a member, as a matter of less than utmost importance.

Having learned the value of a delayed entrance from The Third Man (1949), Welles isn't seen until just over an hour of this 90-minute film has elapsed. We are told the world's markets tremble before this fiduciary colossus. His death is treated as front-page news all over the world. But the only bit of business savvy we are shown consists of him buying a bag of uncut diamonds. Welles only comes on in the part that shows us what happened, and how. His instinct seems to have been to put as much between himself and this farrago. Initially, we see him wearing heavy-framed glasses, industrial-strength bushy eyebrows, a wavy wig you could practically surf on, and that nose that makes you wonder if he might be rushing directly from the set to an audition for Cyrano de Bergerac.

His vocal choice was to forego his usual sonority in favor of a nasal Midwestern rasp. This choice was justified by the fact that in the original novel, Sigsbee Manderson, the hated plutocrat, hails from Chicago. Welles was born nearby, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. To help boost U.S. receipts, we learn of Manderson's death in a scene set in a Chicago broadcast studio, complete with a copy of Variety prominently displayed and an Irish-accented deejay breaking the news. At least Welles was able to have a little fun. At one point, the understandably sour Manderson, toying with the right-hand man (John McCallum) he caught kissing his much younger wife (Margaret Lockwood), quotes Shakespeare's Othello, the role Welles had played onstage at Laurence Olivier's St. James Theatre, and was struggling to get filmed. Referring to having seen that stage production, Welles' Manderson mutters, "Didn't like the leading actor much."

Neither, in fact, did London critic and enfant terrible Kenneth Tynan, whose review called him "Citizen Coon." Welles insisted that his blackface approach was intended to stress Othello's "otherness." Trent's Last Case understandably was purged of the novel's jaw-droppingly matter-of-fact bigotry and stereotyping. And it does feature enjoyably polished performances by Wilding's Trent, Lockwood's widow, McCallum's prime suspect, and the ever-reliable Miles Malleson's art critic uncle of the widow and tweedy, knickered golfer. Welles worked with Lockwood, whose wide-set eyes and dark-haired glamour made her face a perfect vehicle for sensitive distress, and McCallum in Trouble in the Glen, too. As for Trent's Last Case, it's undermined (apart from its societal baggage) by two things that carry forward from the original. We in no way sense that Manderson deserves to die. And Trent, the gentleman paparazzo, is pretty much insufferable, with his self-satisfied air of superiority.

The film feebly tries for a veneer of class by inserting stock shots of Covent Garden and footage of Eileen Joyce, a leading artist of the day, more than doing justice to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24, but the manor house of the richest man in the world is a modest two-story affair, minimally staffed. Other signs of corner-cutting are present, perhaps not surprising in view of the fact that Trent's Last Case was produced by Herbert J. Yates, kingpin of Republic Pictures, which despite having produced Welles' Macbeth (1948), and taking other stabs at quality, never quite escaped its Poverty Row beginnings. On the plus side of the ledger, it's amusing when Trent's boss, almost as full of himself as Trent, asks his secretary to find out why six weeks have gone by and Trent still hasn't handed in his story. Snaps the amazingly (until then) patient boss: "Try his club, his studio, anywhere!" But that flourish and, for the first time in genre history, the detail of false teeth figuring as a clue, aren't quite enough. Trent's Last Case is still pretty much D.O.A. Cause of death, multiple shortfall wounds.

Producer: Herbert Wilcox
Director: Herbert Wilcox
Screenplay: E.C. Bentley (novel); Pamela Bower
Cinematography: Mutz Greenbaum
Art Direction: William C. Andrews
Music: Anthony Collins
Film Editing: Bill Lewthwaite
Cast: Michael Wilding (Philip Trent), Margaret Lockwood (Margaret Manderson), Orson Welles (Sigsbee Manderson), John McCallum (John Marlowe), Miles Malleson (Burton Cupples), Hugh McDermott (Calvin C. Bunner), Jack McNaughton (Martin), Sam Kydd (Inspector Murch).
BW-90m.

by Jay Carr

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