Cast & Crew
Phillip Hannon, a successful playwright whose recent blindness has driven him to move from New York to London, is paid a surprise visit one day by Jean Lennox, the woman to whom he was once engaged. Phil, bitter and self-pitying since losing his sight, abruptly dismisses Jean and then leaves the apartment. In Phil's absence, Jean tells his secretary, the devoted Bob Matthews, that Phil broke their engagement after becoming blind. Phil walks to the Eagles Bar, and while slumped in a booth there, overhears a muffled conversation between a man named Evans and a whimpering woman, in which Evans browbeats the woman to agree to do a disagreeable task on the 10th of the month. Obsessed by the encounter, Phil returns home, dictates the couple's dialogue into his tape recorder, and then summons the police. With the 10th just a week away, Phil speculates that kidnap or robbery may be involved, to which Inspector Grovening responds that Phil is suffering from an overactive imagination. Afterward, Phil recalls the scent of perfume worn by the woman and ascertains its name. To humor Phil, Bob and Jean join his search for the reluctant woman. When Phil recalls her stating that she took the #73 bus and that she worked for nobility, they spend the night pouring over the peerage books for names of Lords with small children who live in the Knightsbridge area. The next morning, Bob narrows the list to Lady Syrett. Upon discovering that Lady Syrett's nurse is named Janet Murch and that she works for the Unity Domestic Bureau, Phil sends Jean to the bureau posing as a prospective employer. When Jean asks about Janet, the bureau's head, Mr. Pilling, becomes suspicious and asks for Jean's address. Rattled, Jean provides him with Phil's address, and soon after, a woman identifying herself as Miss MacDonald comes to apply for a job. After a brief interview, the woman leaves, and Phil, recognizing the scent of her perfume, sends Bob after her to take her picture. Trailing the woman to a department store, Bob buys a camera, and then returns home hours later, tired and wet, with the news that although he snapped her picture, he lost her once she entered a deserted house. When Lady Syrett states that the woman in Bob's photo is not Janet, Phil, frustrated, lashes out at Bob and Jean and then decides to place a classified ad in the paper asking Janet to call his phone number. Soon after, a shadowy figure at a bar pays a drunken woman to impersonate Janet and ascertain Phil's name. Meanwhile, the real Janet, in a quandary, decides to call Phil from a phone booth near the river. As Phil answers the phone, Evans appears at the booth and forces Janet to arrange a meeting with "her father" in one hour at the Eagles Bar. After Janet hangs up, Evans stabs her and tosses her body into the river. One hour later, a man enters the Eagles Bar and introduces himself to Phil as Murch. Although Phil pretends that he can see, the man realizes that he is blind and offers to take him to Janet. After Murch escorts Phil out of the bar, Bob arrives and tries to follow them. Leading Phil into a partially demolished building, the man locks him in a room that has no back walls. When a portion of the floor collapses, Phil senses that he is in danger and calls for help. Hearing his cries, Bob locates Phil and comes to his rescue. Back in the safety of his apartment, Phil tells Jean that his brush with death made him recognize that he still cares about living. After Janet's body is found in the river, Inspector Grovening begins to seriously consider Phil's story. As the morning of the 10th arrives, Phil, feeling responsible for Janet's death, becomes consumed with preventing the planned crime. While replaying the tape once more, Phil realizes that the name Mary really refers to the ocean liner the Queen Mary , which docked that morning in London. With the help of the police, Phil checks the passenger list for wealthy couples traveling with children. When the De Mesters, a wealthy Argentine couple with a seventeen-year-old daughter, appear to be the only candidate, the police hurry to their hotel and learn that their retarded daughter has disappeared with her nursemaid. After a search of the area turns up the girl's wheelchair and her doll, Phil smells perfume on the doll and, associating it with MacDonald, insists that the police search the empty house to which she led Bob. Later, the police phone Phil with the news that they have found the child and two of her kidnappers, but that MacDonald was not among them. When the phone line goes dead, Phil senses that danger is near and deliberately insults Jean to drive her from his apartment. Hearing noises outside his doorway, Phil hurriedly records several greetings to Evans and then smashes all the light bulbs, throwing the apartment into darkness. When Evans slips in through the back door, Phil plays the recordings, thus disorienting his attacker. Catching Evans off guard, Phil wrestles him onto the stairway, where he loses his balance and falls to his death. The police and Bob arrive soon after, and when they turn over the body, they find that it is MacDonald, dressed in men's clothes. The next day, Phil tenderly caresses Jean's face and then kisses her.
Terence De Marney
A. Cameron Grant
James B. Clark
Harry M. Leonard
Maurice De Packh
Walter M. Scott
Lyle R. Wheeler
23 Paces to Baker Street
Based on the Phillip MacDonald novel Warrant For X (and previously made as the British film The Nursemaid Who Disappeared (1938)). Johnson plays Phil Hannon, a frustrated blind playwright who's retreated to London with his reel-to-reel tape recorder to dictate dialogue for his next play. But his sojourn is shattered when he overhears a sinister conversation at the pub. After recreating the conversation onto tape, he goes to the police with his suspicions. When they fail to take an interest, he solves the mystery, with the aid of his long-suffering girlfriend Jean (Vera Miles) and his butler (distinguished British actor Cecil Parker), by uncovering the significance of details like the scent of a certain woman's perfume. "You people with eyes," he chides his friends, "you're so busy looking you never notice anything."
A prickly blind recluse was an unusual dramatic role for Johnson that went against the grain of his cheerful boy-next-door public persona (not to mention his position of esteem among swooning bobbysoxers, a fan base that earned his nickname "The Voiceless Sinatra".) But Phil -- mistrustful, stubborn, difficult and independent -- was closer to Johnson's own personality. (His stepson Ned Wynn recounts in his own memoir how inconsequentials like "the [wrong] color of the candles on the dinner table" would result in the depressive and avoidant Johnson retreating to his bedroom for hours). Abandoned by an alcoholic mother and raised by an indifferent father, Johnson didn't find the love and stability he craved until he entered the all-powerful studio system at MGM, a machine he unironically described as "one big happy family . . . I used to dread leaving the studio to go out into the real world, because to me the studio was the real world.".
23 Steps to Baker Street was made at an uncertain period of Johnson's life, as his marriage to actress Eve Abbott -- a union she would later bitterly denounce as a sham to cover Johnson's long-rumored homosexuality -- was dissolving just as Johnson was cut loose from MGM and the shelter of its faltering studio system. In fact, Johnson only considered the role because the story's London location satisfied his legendary wanderlust ("What other way can you see the world so well?" he rationalized). As it turned out, to his great disappointment, he and the rest of the cast stayed in Hollywood on soundstage sets while the second unit crew went overseas.
Unlike the depiction of blind characters as dark-sunglassed, stick-tapping objects of fun ("Mr. Muckle" in W.C. Fields' It's a Gift (1934)) or of saintly pity (the blind flower seller in Chaplin's City Lights (1931)) , Phil's blindness does not define who he is -- in fact, the audience isn't made explicitly aware of his condition until well into the movie, when he confesses to the pub's barmaid (the irreplaceable Estelle Winwood) that he can't see. Sound technicians Bernard Freericks and Harry M. Leonard create an extraordinary auditory landscape inside that pub (the clanging of a pinball machine, a whispered conversation full of vague threats and muffled sobs) that allow the audience to experience the world as incompletely -- and as richly -- as Phil does.
Critical response to 23 Paces To Baker Street was mixed, with Mirror-News remarking that Johnson had a "high-strung, perceptive performance", while Bosley Crowther of the New York Times regretting the film's leisurely unfolding plot didn't do justice to its "clever idea". The film did not do well at box office, but making it during that trying portion of his life left an impression on Johnson. "Since playing this part of a blind man, I often think how often we take for granted the sunrise and sunset," he said. "We are so lucky."
Producer: Henry Ephron
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Nigel Balchin (screenplay); Philip MacDonald (novel)
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Leigh Harline
Film Editing: James B. Clark
Cast: Van Johnson (Phillip Hannon), Vera Miles (Jean Lennox), Cecil Parker (Bob Matthews), Patricia Laffan (Miss Alice MacDonald), Maurice Denham (Inspector Grovening), Estelle Winwood (Barmaid at The Eagle), Liam Redmond (Joe), Isobel Elsom (Lady Syrett), Martin Benson (Pillings), Natalie Norwick (Janet Murch).
C-103m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Violet LeVoit
Davis, Ronald L. Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy. University Press Of Mississippi, 2001
Harmetz, Aljean. "Van Johnson, Film Actor, Is Dead at 92". New York Times, December 12, 2008
Crowther, Bosley. "Johnson Takes '23 Paces to Baker Street'" New York Times, May 19, 1956
23 Paces to Baker Street
According to Twentieth Century-Fox publicity materials contained in the film's production files at the AMPAS Library, some location shooting was done in London and interiors were filmed at the Fox studio in Los Angeles. The 1939 British film The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, starring Peter Coke and Lesley Brook and directed by Arthur Woods, was also based on Philip MacDonald's novel.
Released in United States Spring May 1956
Released in United States Spring May 1956