Michaela over at Loveletterstooldhollywood is hosting this blogathon all about the actor Van Johnson. Be sure to visit her site to read all the other entries. I can’t wait to read them all myself. Today would also have been Van’s birthday, so happy birthday and R.I.P to him.
Van Johnson was a very popular film actor during the 40’s and 50’s. He was always reliable, and if I see his name in a films credits then I will be sure to give that film a look.
For this blogathon I’m writing about my all time favourite Van Johnson film performance. It’s my favourite for two reasons. Firstly because I really like how he plays his character. Secondly because he gets a chance here to really show off his dramatic acting ability. His role in this film is one which he can really sink his teeth into.
The film I’m writing about is Van’s 1956 thriller, 23 Paces To Baker Street. This is a cracking little mystery thriller, and it is a film that I really wish was much better known and discussed today. Not only is it a very good film, but it also features one of Johnson’s best film performances. The film is also quite unique for the time period in having a handicapped lead character.
I really like how the film shows Van’s character as being able to be independent and live a productive life, despite being blind, and despite his own personal reaction to his blindness and all the problems which that entails.
Van does a very good job here of playing a man eaten up with despair, anger and fear; yet he also shows us that Hannon is also someone who won’t let his disability stop him from doing things. Van also lets us see as the film goes on, that Hannon is becoming obsessed with this case and will push himself harder and harder to solve it.
The plot device of a blind witness adds to the suspense of the story greatly as we are as much in the dark as Johnson’s character is. Hannon’s blindness also makes him very vulnerable when the villains end up turning their attentions on him. I always think that this story (or at least the blind witness aspect of it)would have made terrific material for Hitchcock.
The film is directed by Henry Hathaway, and it is set in London during the 1950’s. Phillip Hannon(Van Johnson)is a successful American playwright who is extremely bitter having recently become permanently blind. Hannon lives in London, in a Thames side apartment with his loyal manservant Bob(Cecil Parker). Hannon is angry at the world and is fast becoming an embittered soul. His current bad temper isn’t helped when his former fiancé Jean(Vera Miles)stops by to see him. Hannon doesn’t want her to feel sorry for him, but he cannot understand that she doesn’t pity him, nor does he understand that he can still have romance and be happy despite his loss of sight.
One night in a pub, Hannon overhears a conversation which troubles him very much, two people are talking about kidnapping a child. Reporting what he overheard to the police, he is annoyed when they say they don’t have enough evidence to do anything. Hannon, Bob and Jean do some investigating of their own. On the streets of a very foggy London, this trio try and find the couple from the pub and try and prevent the kidnapping from taking place. Soon the film becomes a tale of mistaken identity, murder and suspicion.
I really love the relationship between Hannon and Jean. It’s obvious right from the first time they come back into each others lives that they still have feelings for one another.
Hannon deliberately pushes Jean away from him because he doesn’t want to seem vulnerable or pitiable to her. Jean would never see him like that, she just wants to be with him any way she can. Jean happily accepts the role of assistant to Richard Hannon just so that she can be near him and be in his life in some way. She will take anything she can get if it allows her to be with him.
Van and Vera both do a terrific job of conveying their characters complicated relationship. Often they convey us information about their feelings not through words, but through the way they look at each other, or by the way one responds to what the other says or does. Their relationship is poignant, frustrating and believable.
Van is the vital glue that makes this film work. I’m not sure anyone else could have played the role of Hannon quite the way he does. This is my favourite film that Van made and it is one which shows off his dramatic acting talents very well indeed.
Cecil Parker steals every scene he is in as the protective Bob. He wants to help Hannon, but will never force his help upon him. I also like how Parker becomes sort of like Dr. Watson to Johnson’s Holmes. Bob really enjoys becoming an amateur detective as the film goes on.
Vera is very good as Jean, she really makes you feel for her character, and we know Jean wants the best for Philip and that she still loves him.
My favourite scenes are the following. Hannon and Jean’s first meeting. Hannon and Bob on the riverboat, when they talk about describing what they are seeing around them. The sequence at the derelict house. Hannon and Jean interviewing the nurse maid. Hannon overhearing the conversation in the pub. Jean sitting at Hannon’s feet making him tea after the derelict house sequence. The end on the balcony.
I highly recommend this one to fans of Van Johnson and to anyone out there who likes a good mystery thriller. I’d love to read your thoughts on this film. Any other fans? Please leave your comments below.