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The Woman in Question

Posted by martinteller on September 19, 2013

The widowed fortune teller Agnes “Madame Astra” Huston (Jean Kent) has been found dead in her home, strangled to death.  Inspectors Lodge (Duncan Macrae) and Butler (Joe Linnane) are on the case.  They interview five people involved with Astra, and get a radically different picture from each.  There’s Mrs. FInch (Hermione Baddeley), a busybody neighbor who often looked after Astra.  Catherine Taylor (Susan Shaw), Astra’s shopgirl sister.  Catherine’s beau Bob Baker (Dirk Bogarde), an American vaudeville performer, who wanted Astra to join him for a psychic act.  Albert Pollard (Charles Victor), who runs the bird shop across the street.  And Michael Murray (John McCallum), a mysterious, intimidating Irish sailor who was seen lurking around her place.

A year before Kurosawa’s Rashomon took the world by storm with its unusual structure of different narrators describing the same events, Anthony Asquith was doing the same thing.  Asquith doesn’t mine it for quite as much as psychological or philosophical depth, but he uses it excellently as a storytelling device.  (Another movie that came to mind was Nightmare Alley, which revolves around the same phony psychic scam that Bob employs.)

What’s most interesting is how each narrator sees Astra in a different light.  To Mrs. Finch, she’s a respectable and saintly woman.  To Catherine, she’s a washed-up floozy.  To Bob, she’s a manipulative femme fatale.  To Pollard, who is in love with her, she’s a damsel in distress and he’s the hero.  I won’t reveal Murray’s perspective because it comes late in the film.  But in each telling, she’s a different person (even with different décor in her home), making Kent’s performance quite an impressive accomplishment.

But the other actors all come off very well, too.  There’s a lot of humor in the film, much of it from the gossipy, interfering Baddeley, who pulls off nosy, pushy and judgmental with aplomb.  Bogarde handles an American accent quite adeptly.  Shaw has to act out a couple of different personas of her own, depending on the narrator, and she’s as graceful with the task as Kent.  And Macrae — a fine and recognizable character actor — anchors the whole thing nicely, injecting some occasional sardonic wit.

The mystery of who killed Astra is put together well enough but it’s not incredibly compelling, and it gets wrapped up a bit too neatly.  But the film is a marvelous study of how separate individuals view the same events differently… and how they inflate their own virtues and importance in the telling.  The very tone of the movie itself shifts from witness to witness.  On the whole, I consider this another win for Asquith, an underappreciated director who rarely disappoints.  Rating: Very Good (83)


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