One of my favourite genres is suspense. Give me a good Hitchcock film, and I’m a happy camper (Hitchcock happens to be among my favourite directors, but no, that doesn’t mean I regard only him as a great director when it comes to suspense films; there are many films not directed by Hitch that are favourites of mine, including Charade, Gaslight, and How to Steal a Million).
Anyway, talking of suspense: someone mentioned Chase a Crooked Shadow, telling me that it was a good suspense film, and I decided I had to watch it. This one wasn’t directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but by Michael Anderson.
The story begins in Barcelona, in a brief scene in which a woman (Faith Brook) and a man (Richard Todd) discuss a beautiful heiress, Kimberley Prescott (Anne Baxter). Miss Prescott, according to a news article, has just come from South Africa to stay in her villa in Spain (it’s eighty miles from Barcelona). The news article goes on to mention Miss Prescott’s late father, as well as her brother Ward Mackenzie Prescott, the racing car driver…
And the scene shifts to Miss Prescott’s villa. It is late night, and Kimberley is seeing off guests after a party. One of them, Uncle Chandler Bridson (Alexander Knox) stays back briefly to arrange a date with Kimberley the following day, and once he’s driven off, Kimberley goes inside the villa.
She says goodnight to her housekeeper/maid Maria (Thelma D’Aguiar), and goes upstairs. But she’s barely got there when she hears footsteps on the gravel outside. Kimberley steps out, and finds herself face to face with a stranger, the same man we have already seen in that preliminary scene in Barcelona. He addresses her as “Kim” and seems to assume that she knows him.
Kimberley is flummoxed: who is this man? She doesn’t know him from Adam, she’s never met him before. But he calmly makes himself at home, even walks right into her house. Kimberley gets so agitated at his brazenness (which is pretty scary, really) that she phones for the police.
A short while later, the Commissario, Senor Vargas (Herbert Lom) arrives. Kimberley is relieved, and Sr Vargas sets about questioning the man, asking for his papers, and so on. His driving license is in order, so is his passport… Sr Vargas holds out the passport for Kimberley to see, now suspecting that she’s the one pulling a fast one on him. The passport is in the name of Ward Mackenzie Prescott, Kimberley’s brother.
This man is not her brother, Kimberley insists. Her brother died a year ago in a car accident in South Africa: she identified his body, she was there at his funeral! But ‘Ward’ laughs, telling Vargas that Kim always liked a good joke. Kimberley is so agitated that she’s trying all she can think of to prove that this man is not her brother. She phones Uncle Chan, hoping that he’ll come over and identify this stranger as not Ward.
But Uncle Chandler’s phone is off the hook, and he’s fast asleep.
Kimberley then remembers that she’s got some photos of her brother’s, upstairs in her room. One of Vargas’s men is right there, and Vargas sends him to the room to fetch the photos. Unfortunately for Kimberley, the two framed studio shots the policeman brings from her room do nothing to support her assertion.
Oh, but there’s one more thing, Kimberley remembers: Ward had a tattoo of an anchor just above his right wrist. Whoever this impostor is, he can’t have that!
The man, however, pulls up his shirtsleeve, and there, on his wrist, is the tattoo.
By now, Vargas is certain that Kimberley is playing some odd sort of prank on him. He leaves, and Kimberley finds that the stranger has no intentions of leaving. ‘Ward’ makes himself at home, and quickly begins to try to break down Kimberley’s defences, to convince her that he is, indeed, her brother. He does seem to know too much: for instance, he casually refers to Uncle Chandler as the ‘foster-father’ of the Prescott siblings. He seems very familiar with the villa, and seems to know a lot about Kimberley. He confronts her with the fact that she had been in hospital for a while (for what seems like a nervous breakdown; he appears to know what it was, and Kimberley appears to understand that he knows).
Who is this man? And what does he want? Kimberley can only suspect that he’s after her wealth; she’s a very wealthy young woman, after all. So she pulls off the massive pendant she’s wearing, and holds it out to him. Take it.
But ‘Ward’ refuses. And Kimberley is left even more dazed and confused.
She tries to flee, but goes downstairs to her car to find that her car keys are missing. Just then, Ward comes along and holds out her car keys, and Kimberley, looking beyond him, sees Ward’s car parked further along. Ward’s car, which had been wrecked in that crash which killed him… Ward explains that he had it repaired and refurbished.
Kimberley is so panicky by this time that she goes racing up to her room, locks herself in, and cries herself to sleep.
She is woken up the next morning by Maria bringing in her tea… but it isn’t Maria. It’s a stranger (we, the audience, have seen this woman before: she was the one talking to ‘Ward’ in that first scene in Barcelona). The woman says she’s a friend of Ward’s and her name is Elaine Whitman; she’ll be staying at the villa for a while. Maria, she explains to Kimberley, has gone away for some days. She also hands over the car keys and the pendant which Kimberley had flung at ‘Ward’: he’s returning them to her, he doesn’t need them.
When Kimberley, now getting even more scared—not only has she been unable to get rid of ‘Ward’, whoever he is, but he’s now bringing in other people too, distancing her from everybody she can rely upon—goes downstairs, only to be confronted by yet another stranger. ‘Ward’ introduces him as Carlos, and says he’s a butler.
Kimberley is feeling more and more trapped. Elaine Whitman also casually mentions that Uncle Chandler had called to speak to Kimberley, but has been told that Kimberley has gone off to Madrid to meet some friends passing through. Which basically means, reading between the lines, that even that one slender thread of hope has now been cut off.
Kimberley is so frantic, she jumps into her car and drives off down to the village to meet Uncle Chandler. But his housekeeper tells her that he’s gone out with some people, and she doesn’t know when he’ll be home. Kimberley then goes to meet Vargas, but Vargas throws up his hands. ‘Ward’ Prescott has all his credentials intact, down to the letter from the bank for foreign exchange—and banks, as Kimberley knows, are notoriously strict about identity. There’s nothing Vargas can do; there is nothing to support Kimberley’s claim.
Outside Vargas’s office, Kimberley runs into ‘Ward’ again, and he decides, unilaterally, that he’s going to spend some time with his sister. Soon, more evidence piles up, all of it seeming proof that this man is indeed Ward Prescott. His cigarette case is the very one which Kimberley gifted to her brother when he won an important race. Ward’s skill at racing (he could cover a four-mile stretch along the coast in a dizzying three minutes) is intact, too: ‘Ward’ proves it, with Kimberley sitting beside him all through the hair-raising ride.
He knows the very specific, customized drink Kimberley liked to have when she went swimming (though he does look a little unsure when she asks him to make it for her; but Kimberley tastes it, and agrees that yes, this is it). He knows the drinking motto Ward and Kimberley shared.
Who is this man? He cannot possibly be Ward. But who is he, and what does he want?
What I liked about this film:
The absolutely brilliant twists. Just when you start thinking, “This is what’s happening,” and come to your own conclusions about what’s going on, Chase a Crooked Shadow takes a sudden turn that catches you unawares. It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game, but every now and then you begin to wonder who’s the cat and who’s the mouse. Very well plotted.
Anne Baxter as Kimberley Prescott. Her acting’s superb, and it contributes a great deal to the effectiveness of the film.
What I didn’t like:
Some questions that remained unanswered at the end of the film. They’re minor, and they didn’t really impact my enjoyment of Chase a Crooked Shadow, but still. (I’m not going to say what these are, because they would constitute spoilers, and pretty major ones at that).
Highly recommended. If you like suspense films, do give this one a try.