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Dr. Crippen

In the annals of true crime, a special niche is shared by convicted murderers Hawley Harvey Crippen (1862-1910) and Henri Desire Landru (1869-1922). Their victims' remains may have grown cold, but public fascination with them lives on. France's Landru and Crippen, an American living in England, have had multiple media treatments in books, films, and TV. There even exists an American publishing firm of crime classics called Crippen and Landru. Such prominent billing would likely have surprised the real-life Dr. Crippen. As played by Donald Pleasence in Dr. Crippin (1964), mild-mannered doesn't begin to describe him. Next to the fading but boisterous and unabashedly lusty music hall performer wife he was hanged for killing in order to run off with his younger lover, he's a pillar of passivity. He's also extremely unlucky, having acted on precisely the wrong side of a scientific breakthrough, more on that later.

Pleasence, whose unprepossessing looks - balding head, bland voice - gave him a head start in slipping into this character's skin, obviously took a cue from the much-circulated 1910 photo of Dr. Crippen that accompanied the sensational press coverage of the case. In his high starched collar, thinning hair, big eyes behind rimless spectacles with oval lenses and walrus mustache, he transmits a deer-in-the-headlights look. Pleasence's Crippen is so browbeaten and emasculated that he behaves apologetically when he enters a room and finds his wife (Coral Browne) in an extremely relaxed state with one of their younger male boarders. He internalizes his anger, though, partly because he has retaliated by sleeping with a pretty but naïve secretary (Samantha Eggar), with whom he falls in love (and she with him).

A Scotland Yard inspector (John Arnatt) who questions him after Mrs. Crippen has gone missing describes Dr. Crippen as a cold character with "codfish eyes." This is probably the place to mention that although the Crippens lived comfortably enough in their house on Camden Road, the doctor did not occupy the upper reaches of the medical profession. He was licensed as a homeopathic physician and made his living mostly by dispensing patent medicines and, sometimes, dentistry. But he knew enough about chemistry to administer a sedative and anti-aphrodisiac to his wife. In fact, his last feeble defense is that he may have overdosed her, but unintentionally, and didn't bother bringing it up at his trial because, having read press accounts that said he was worse than Jack the Ripper, figured he didn't have a chance. Most of the background is fed to us as flashbacks during the trial scene (and Death Row scene) that frame the story, with Donald Wolfit's prosecutor hammering away.

Leigh Vance's screenplay, apart from intelligently playing down the case's tabloid aspects, provides an interesting dynamic for the Crippens. Browne's unwanted wife could easily have been painted as a harridan who drinks too much, talks too loudly, and belittles her husband unremittingly. But she emerges as a sympathetic figure when it becomes clear that aging and unemployment on the stage have left her pitifully needy. She takes up with other men at least partly to goad her husband into jealousy and writhes with humiliation at the fact that he has gone off her, describing her as coarse and vulgar, and drugs her at night to avoid sleeping with her.

She's loud and pathetic, and then she's gone. This film, directed by Robert Lynn, is a discreet one. Although the story has its gruesome and sordid aspects, we never see anything explicit. In fact, it wasn't so much the murder that aroused such a mix of outrage and morbid curiosity as the aftermath to it. It seems that after Mrs. Crippen had gone missing, and Crippen's lie about her having gone back to America fell apart, that some particularly lurid aspects of the case emerged. Crippen was charged with mutilation of the corpse after investigators found the remains of a torso buried in Crippen's basement and decided it was his wife's after a scar on the abdomen was held to be hers. Neither the head nor limbs were ever found.

This on the whole absorbing film's muted tone and Pleasence's Crippen seeming to sleepwalk through events that seem forever beyond his ability to contain, while admirable in their avoidance of sensationalism, at times grays out a bit, even if the principals all get turns acting right into the camera, looking us in the eye (or, rather, the camera's eye). Eggar, spirited and pretty, is given limited scope. Browne expertly negotiates Mrs. Crippen's maddening slatternliness and lonely awareness of shrinking options. Pleasence, whose long career ran the gamut from creating roles in Harold Pinter plays to recurring appearances in the Halloween slasher franchise, supports the film's view that Crippen was railroaded by public opinion. The jury found him guilty of murder after only 27 minutes of deliberation. The evidence and verdict have remained in dispute.

The film gives us a Dr. Crippen who was far from a cold-hearted monster, but an amateur who panicked and just kept complicating a case he might have survived if he had kept his head and played it straight. In other words, not precisely a sympathetic character, but an understandable one. Oh, and science? He and his younger lover, Ethel Le Neve, who didn't help matters by moving into the Crippen house and wearing Mrs. Crippen's clothes and jewelry in public, fled London for Brussels, then sailed from Antwerp to Canada, with Le Neve posing as a boy. The suspicious ship's captain (an authoritative James Robertson Justice) used Marconi's newly invented wireless to notify Scotland Yard. The inspector on the case then boarded a faster ship, overtook them, landed in Canada before they did, and arrested Crippen and Le Neve.

Crippen had little enough going for him, timing least of all. The dramatic capture was the first time wireless caught a criminal -- a circumstance foreshadowed by the reading of a newspaper article about Marconi and his invention at the Crippen dining room table. Dr. Crippen condenses events, but makes a decent effort to get the story right, even if it does end on a sentimental note with Eggar's Ethel dressed in black standing outside London's Pentonville Prison the morning Crippen was hanged. In fact, Le Neve (acquitted) was aboard a ship bound for the US that morning. She died in South London in 1967, aged 84.

Producer: John Clein
Director: Robert Lynn
Screenplay: Leigh Vance
Cinematography: Nick Roeg
Art Direction: Bob Jones
Music: Ken Jones
Film Editing: Lee Doig
Cast: Donald Pleasence (Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen), Coral Browne (Belle Crippen), Samantha Eggar (Ethel Le Neve), Donald Wolfit (R.D. Muir, as Sir Donald Wolfit), James Robertson Justice (Captain McKenzie), John Arnatt (Chief Inspector Dew), Oliver Johnston (Lord Chief Justice), John Lee (Harry), Olga Lindo (Mrs. Arditti), Elspeth March (Mrs. Jackson).
BW-98m.

by Jay Carr

Sources:
Article, New York Tribune, July 23, 1910
The New Murderers' Who's Who, by J.H.H. Gaute and Robin Odell, Intl Polygonics, Ltd., 1991
www.drcrippen.co.uk
www.met.police.co.uk
www.dailymail.co.uk
www.titanic-whitestarships.com
Crippen, by John Boyne, St. Martin's Press, 2007
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