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Francis Iles' original novel, written in the 1920s, broke the mould for
crime fiction as it was not a wholly serious 'whodunnit' but a black
which revealed the murderer right from the outset and allowed the reader
be privvy to his every calculated thought as he conceives and executes his
crime and then copes with the consequences of his actions.
This BBC adaptation, first broadcast in March 1979, is faithful to the book. All the names, characters and key scenes are intact and it captures perfectly the subtle underlying comedy without detriment to the drama of the piece.
Hywel Bennett is superb in the main role of the murderer, Dr Edmund Bickleigh. Fresh from appearing in the acclaimed Dennis Potter serial "Pennies From Heaven", he was about to achieve further success with this serial, then "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and the sitcom "Shelley" which made him a household name. His performance here as Bickleigh is probably the pick of the bunch as he effortlessly steers the character through his many guises - hen-pecked husband, charming lover, scheming murderer and worried defendant.
Shot entirely on video and almost entirely on location this is a glossy television production for its time that, thanks to its 1920s setting, has hardly dated since its original transmission.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Dr. Edmund Bickleigh is a man who is very careful and very determined.
And he is especially determined to not get caught committing the
perfect murder of his wife. In the end he succeeds but then finds
circumstances are "agin him".
Francis Iles was an innovative detective story novelist, whose best known work (BEFORE THE FACT) was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as SUSPICION and became a successful motion picture. But the film had to cripple the full effect of Iles' novel. In his novel Johnny Aysgard (Cary Grant in the movie) had proved to be the murderer his wife suspected, and she (Joan Fontaine in the movie) became his victim. But she willingly dies to help him (he needs the life insurance on her life to save himself from an embezzlement charge). He is a crushed man as a result of her sacrifice. In the film, due to problems by the studio and Grant's agent (but not Grant, who wanted to play a villain) Hitchcock had to change the ending so that Grant is not the murderer his wife fears, and they are reconciled to face their uncertain future together at the end.
Hitchcock wanted to shoot MALICE AFORETHOUGHT with Alec Guinness as Dr. Edmund Bickleigh. The project never got put together, so it is one of those ideas of this master film maker that we can only wonder about. However, given Hitchcock's track record with comedy films (MR. AND MRS. SMITH, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY) it may be just as well that he did not do this one.
Iles was basing Dr. Bickleigh (a hen-pecked country physician who turns on his wife and kills her) on two cases which occurred within a dozen years of each other, and gave him the character's profession, the setting, and the undoing of the killer. By the sound of his name, Bickleigh is based on the hen-pecked wife killer Dr. Hawley Harvey ("Peter") Crippen. But the setting in the English countryside (Crippen killed his wife Belle in a London suburb) is based on the murder site of Hay, near the Welsh border. In 1921, eleven years after Crippen hanged, a solicitor named Major Herbert Armstrong was married to a strong willed wife. She was the sort of person who did not think twice of stopping a tennis game her husband was playing in, by reminding him it was time to take a bath.
Armstrong poisoned his wife Katie, and successfully passed off the killing as an illness. But shortly afterward he spoiled his perfect crime. Armstrong tried to kill his rival solicitor Oswald Martin with poison at a tea party. This reopened issues about the death of Mrs. Armstrong, and her corpse was exhumed. Arsenic was found in her body, and Armstrong was arrested for her killing. After a hard fought trial he was convicted and later hanged (he is the only lawyer hanged for murder in Great Britain in modern times).
The combination of the two wife killers is not too difficult. Bickleigh (Hywel Bennett) has a hideously bossy wife (Julia Bickleigh - Judy Parfitt) that he would like to get rid of so he can pursue a fascinating younger woman (Madeleine Cranmere - Cheryl Campbell). He does this by getting the unsuspecting wife hooked on opium. As a result he sets up the situation that she is stealing drugs from his dispensary for her habit. This will lead to her "giving herself a fatal overdose". The killing works perfectly.
But then Madeleine turns out to be more of a nymphomaniac (and less considerate of previous promises she made to him) than he expects. She is also seeing more of a young rival of Bickleigh's named Denny Bourne (Christopher Guard). Bickleigh is angered by this - although his treatment by Madeleine is actually the same as his own dropping of his original girlfriend Ivy Ridgeway (Bellinda Carroll). He is also less than happy about a rival doctor in the area (William Chatford - David Ashford). He tries to get rid of Chatford, and makes the same mistake there that Armstrong did with Oswald Martin.
But the difference is that Iles is rewriting history to have some fun. There is a trial of Bickleigh for the murder of his wife. But he is able (through his barrister Sir Francis Lee - Bannermann - Thorley Walters) to demonstrate flaw after flaw in the prosecution case. Chatford's illness was faked in a way, and this is shown to extend doubts to his veracity. Madeleine (who in a moment of stupidity Bickleigh threatened)is willing to testify about this, but she is shown to be neurotic and narcissistic. Ivy gives him a good defense about an alibi he needs. And then he is questioned heavily. Remaining totally cool he lies perfectly well (as he says to himself - and the audience hears this - "And I can keep doing this until the cows come home!"). Bickleigh wins acquittal.
SPOILER COMING UP.
Bickleigh wins up to this point. But his rival Denny Bourne has died prematurely after a picnic that Bickleigh also attended. Bickleigh is arrested and this time loses. As he hears the sentence of death being given, he realizes that the symptoms of poisoning Denny showed are similar to cholera, and he remembers that he had warned Madeleine and Denny to clean the drains of their home. He is screaming (to nobody's attention), "It was the drains" as the series ended.
The story was well played, particularly by the droll Bennett, who looks harmless, until one sees his eyes looking fiercely through his spectacles. Parfitt is the perfect dragon-wife, but gains our sympathy as we watch her physically collapse due to opium. Production values were good (I especially liked the 1920 automobiles). The story was redone well in 2005, but the original series was best.
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