Aka (in the US) Five Angles to Murder.
The last English-language film I reviewed on my blog was Anatomy of a Murder, which, while not strictly a multiple narrative film, was one of those that peeled back layers of a character and a story as the film progressed.
Then, last weekend, I finished Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool, where the detective arrives on the scene of a gruesome murder a year after it’s been committed. He ends up learning all about the victim from those around her—and there are some very conflicting opinions there. Was she a saint, a saviour? An opportunist, a neglectful wife, what?
A few hours after I finished Died in the Wool (since it was Sunday night), I decided it was time to watch something on Youtube. I was looking for nothing more specific than ‘50s suspense films’, and The Woman in Question was among the search results. I began watching it simply because it starred Dirk Bogarde (whom I like a lot)—and then suddenly it took an interesting turn, and there I was, faced with multiple narratives, multiple perspectives, all over again.
The film begins in a small seaside village, where one morning, little Alfie Finch is busy delivering newspapers. He pops into the house of Mrs Huston (Jean Kent), runs up the stairs—that’s where she wants her newspaper left—and next, we hear Alfie screaming. Mrs Huston has been murdered, strangled with a silk scarf.
The police arrive, and begin examining the scene of crime. The only tangible clue they find is a small piece of jewellery, something that looks like a little pendant on a watch chain. It’s lying under the body, and since Alfie’s mother, the widowed Mrs Finch (Hermione Baddeley), who used to keep house for Mrs Huston, says that it certainly wasn’t “Mrs H’s”, it was probably dropped inadvertently by the murderer.
Superintendent Lodge (Duncan Macrae), who’s heading the investigation, begins by questioning Mrs Finch. This garrulous woman is more than eager to tell the cops the sad story of Mrs H. Mrs H lived alone in the house, her husband (a sailor) having long been in the Naval Hospital: he died only recently. Mrs H had been keeping body and soul together by working as a fortune teller. She had a booth at the nearby fairgrounds, and she took appointments for people to come to her home to have their fortune told. Her professional name was Madam Astra.
What emerges from Mrs Finch’s recollections is an image of a genteel, quietly charming and beautiful woman who was put upon by nearly everyone: Mrs Finch, it seems, was perhaps the only real friend and confidante Mrs H could have laid claim to.
For example, explains Mrs Finch, look at Mrs H’s younger sister Catherine Taylor (Susan Shaw). Mrs Finch recalls one rare instance when Catherine came to visit Mrs H. Brusquely shoving aside Mrs Finch (who had opened the door), going rudely up the stairs and bursting—without even knocking—into Mrs H’s room. A vile young woman, that, and Mrs Finch learned later, from a broken-hearted Mrs H, that Catherine had admitted to what Mrs H had long suspected: that Catherine had been having an affair with Mr Huston, Mrs H’s husband.
And Mrs Finch recalls Bob Baker (Dirk Bogarde). Baker, who stayed behind after the American forces left England, is a magician of sorts and was interested in doing a mind-reading act along with Madam Astra. Mrs Finch had once come upon them, Baker having come to visit Mrs H, and had been shocked by the brusqueness of Baker: he had been yelling at Mrs H, berating her for not having learnt her lines.
Mrs Finch has further, more sensational information to share. The previous night—that is, the night of the murder—Baker and the nasty sister Catherine had turned up. They had pushed Mrs Finch aside, and insisted on barging into Mrs H’s room. When, some loud shouting later, they came down, both of them were still yelling curses. Catherine even went so far as to explicitly scream out what she’d do: Strangle her sister.
If it hadn’t been for her (Mrs Finch’s) quick-wittedness in running across the street and fetching Mr Pollard (Charles Victor), who knows what would have happened. Not that Mr Pollard (who runs a pet shop and has been doing odd jobs for Mrs H) managed to achieve much in the way of quelling Baker and Catherine, but still.
Superintendent Lodge and his assistant, the Chief Inspector, next go to meet Catherine. She consents to meet them at a small commercial hotel, right next to the railway tracks. What bet that this is where Baker is staying, the cops wonder sardonically. It is obvious to them that there’s definitely something going on between Catherine and Baker. Catherine, anyway, is—from what Mrs Finch has said—a nasty piece of work.
But when Catherine is questioned, the scenario changes, and turns completely on its head. Catherine admits that she did go to visit Agnes (Mrs Huston), on that long-ago day when Agnes’s husband Charlie was still alive, but slowly wasting away in that Naval Hospital. Catherine had brought along some things that Agnes could take to Charlie the next time she went to visit.
But a frumpy, hungover Agnes, stumbling out of bed and looking blearily about for something to drink, said she had no intention of going to see Charlie.
She was sick of Charlie, she had never really been in love with Charlie, and she was certain Catherine herself had been more than a little besotted with Charlie even before Charlie married Agnes. Agnes went on to accuse a horrified Catherine of having an affair with Charlie.
As for Bob Baker, and Catherine’s turning up with him at Agnes’s house the evening of the murder: yes, Catherine agrees that they did go to Agnes’s house. And there’s a good reason behind it. She and Bob Baker are planning to get married and Agnes was throwing a spanner in the works.
Catherine explains: some months back, she met Bob at Agnes’s house, when he was getting thoroughly frustrated, trying to get Agnes to learn her part in the mind-reading gig he had planned. Bob and Catherine got to know each other over the next few weeks, and she would often walk down to the seaside with him. He confessed to her that he was no American, but a Liverpudlian who had never been further west than Bristol—the American accent and manner was all calculated to raise his standing in the world of show business.
When he asked her to marry him, Bob also made another confession: that he was technically a married man. He had got married in a hurry, and the marriage had lasted all of five days. Now he’s waiting for the divorce to come through, and as soon as that is done, will Catherine marry him? Catherine had said yes, and they had been waiting patiently all these months for the divorce to come through…
Until last evening, when Bob had come rushing to Catherine, with some news: Agnes, he had discovered, had been trying her best to prevent the divorce. That was why they had gone, both of them furious at Agnes for her interference, to confront Agnes. And no, they had not said anything about murdering her, or anything of the sort.
Catherine agrees that she and Bob had left Agnes’s house after Mrs Finch had fetched Mr Pollard. Asked about their whereabouts after that, Catherine says that she and Bob spent the rest of the evening together: they had a meal and some drinks, wandered about, talked. She cannot remember till when. On being prompted, she finally settles on 11 o’clock. Yes, she was with Bob till 11.
And what does Bob say when the police call on him? Not something substantially different when it comes to the sequence of events, but—and this the crucial part—he describes the murder victim as a woman very different from either the genteel and polished lady Mrs Finch appears to have known, or the tipsy slattern Catherine was saddled with for a sister.
Worst still, there are other people whom the cops are yet to question, and the descriptions of Agnes/Madam Astra/Mrs Huston that emerge from these are wildly disparate. Who was the dead woman, actually? Was she the lovely, romantic dream for whom a young man mourns?
Was she the beautiful but comfortingly kind, gentle middle-aged woman whom an older man found charming and easy to talk to?
Was she the predatory vamp, the bold and brassy woman who had no qualms about pursuing a man who had made it clear that he wanted to have nothing to do with her?
Or was she the Agnes Catherine described: decrepit, foul-mouthed, permanently drunk?
Or does Mrs Finch, the very first witness to have been questioned, have it right? Was Mrs H really a lady, in the old-fashioned sense of the word? Genteel, sophisticated, incapable of anything vile or dirty?
Which of these was the woman in question? And what bearing does this have on who murdered her, and why?
It’s interesting to note that in the same year that Anthony Asquith directed The Woman in Question, on the other side of the world, a much more renowned director directed another film that has gone down in cinema history as probably the epitome of multiple narrative: Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon was released in the same year as The Woman in Question. Like The Woman in Question, Rashômon too centres round a woman and her interaction, even if brief and violent, with two men: a bandit who rapes her, and her own husband. There the resemblance ends, not just in the plot and the setting, but even in the way the concept of the Rashômon Effect plays out.
In Rashômon, the multiple narrative is exactly that: different people giving almost completely different versions of what happened. What the criminal says does not match with what the woman says, or wat the woodcutter says, or even what the murdered man—contacted through a medium—claims is the truth. There are different stories here, and no way of saying which is the correct one, the real truth.
In contrast, The Woman in Question is not so much about multiple narratives, but about multiple perspectives. Asquith is careful to show scenes only as the person recalling them would have noticed, not what happened behind the scenes for that person. So, while Mrs Finch does not witness the quarrel between Mrs H and Catherine (she only hears snatches of it, sees Catherine rushing angrily out, and later is told what happened by Mrs H)—she does have an idea of what took place. In its essence, Catherine’s story isn’t different from Mrs Finch’s; she did, after all, have a quarrel with Agnes and rushed out, angry at being accused of having an affair with Charlie.
What differs is the perspective. Mrs Finch’s near-worshipping of Mrs H makes her blind to her patron’s flaws (and possibly also encourages Mrs H to put on an act of long-suffering patience and goodness in front of her?). Catherine, on the other hand, has other reasons to despise her wreck of a sister: a woman who is selfish, unfeeling, and thoroughly mercenary.
What we see as The Woman in Question proceeds, therefore, is not strictly the Rashômon Effect, but a variation of it.
Little bit of trivia:
Wikipedia lists The Woman in Question as having inspired the Tamil film Andha Naal (which, by the way, I have reviewed on this blog, here).
What I liked about this film:
Jean Kent as Mrs Huston/Mrs H/Madam Astra/Agnes. Besides the makeup, the props and the cinematography, all of which serve to highlight the characteristics of the particular persona of the woman in question, there’s Jean Kent’s acting. She’s brilliantly versatile, her entire aura seeming to shift depending upon the perspective of the person talking about her. The contrast between the lady and the frump is stark enough to not be horribly difficult to pull off; but subtler differences, like the way she appears to two different men who are attracted to her, are superbly done as well.
The script and the direction, both of which are carefully done, every little detail matching up.
Another point that appealed to me was the fact that, at the end of it all, we are not explicitly told that Agnes/Mrs Huston/etc was exactly so and so, that she possessed these traits and not those. That this person was right in their assessment of her, or that person was wrong. We are left to draw, on the basis of what we learn of her life and death, our own conclusions—and I found that an interesting one, because it presented us with a more ‘shades of grey’ character than an outright black or white one.
What I didn’t like:
Nothing, really. This film needs to be far better known than it is. If you like the concept of multiple narratives, put this film on your list.
P.S. If you want to watch The Woman in Question, it’s here on Youtube.