Acorn Media // 1978 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // April 29th, 2009
Jen's getting married in the morning;
V.F, she loves her life of crime.
Jen is the honey, but
Fair gets the money
If she gets Jen to the church on time...
In 1980, Mystery! debuted on PBS with a curious little film made by BBC2 a few years earlier. Based on a 1935 novel by Dornford Yates, She Fell Among Thieves is a tale right out of the "no situation is too dire for a proper Englishman with the proper school ties" -- which as we shall see, can be both good and bad.
The criminal mastermind Vanity Fair (Eileen Atkins, Last Chance Harvey) is rushing to meet a deadline -- her late husband bequeathed his £20 million estate to his daughter Jenny (Karen Dotrice, Mary Poppins). If however, Jenny gets married before coming of age, everything goes to Vanity Fair. If Jenny should die, however, everything goes to charity. Vanity has but a few days left, and will stop at nothing, even murder, to get Jenny good and hitched.
Enter Richard Chandos (Malcolm McDowell, Time After Time), an English gentleman touring in the French Pyrenees. After encountering a corpse drifting down a river, Chandos seeks advice from the British Embassy, apprehensive as to how the French might react. An embassy official, Carson (Bernard Hill, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), reveals to Chandos that the corpse in question is that of a known associate of Vanity Fair, a criminal mastermind. After explaining the terms of the will, Carson enlists Chandos' aid in infiltrating Vanity Fair's castle to determine what has become of poor Jenny.
Chandos soon finds himself trapped in an insidious web of intrigue, participating in a potentially deadly battle of wits.
As the end credits began, I thought to myself, "How odd." I've not read the book, but my suspicion is that they took a 100-minute story and trimmed it to 78, cutting out a lot of exposition and connective tissue. That works both for and against it. On the plus side, it makes for a fast-paced story; on the downside, you spend a bit too much time trying to make sense of things, only to discover the futility of the endeavor.
The plot itself is hopelessly contrived. On a basic level, consider that the plot involves the British government undertaking an undercover criminal investigation on French soil; yeah, that won't ruffle a few feathers. That's getting a bit picky, though, and isn't even needed; really, just look at the will. Who in the name of Howard Hughes writes a will like that? Might as well tattoo a bulls-eye on your daughter's forehead. Just a little more development might have served to tie things together a bit better -- what hold does Fair have on her accomplices? Exactly what has she done to gain such a reputation? It just seems as though characters make things more difficult than they need to be simply for the sake of plot.
The resolution strains credibility far beyond the breaking point, as it asks us to believe that Vanity Fair, who has heretofore demonstrated that she makes a point of possessing any information that might be relevant to her interests -- no matter how arcane, a woman who has also demonstrated herself to be well-learned -- doesn't understand a word of Latin.
The picture did not get much of a cleanup. There are a lot of scratches and blemishes, particularly in the opening credits. Colors are in pretty good shape, with consistent saturation, though there is a little fuzziness in exterior scenes. The varied hues of green make the mountain exteriors quite lovely. The sound fares better -- the mono track is clear and free from hisses, though there are a few times when certain sounds, such as Vanity Fair's cane on the stone floor, are a bit too loud. The only extra is a cast biography.
Trivia: Karen Dotrice is the daughter of Roy Dotrice (Amadeus); this film marked her last screen appearance; she had a few additional stage roles before retiring in 1984 to raise her children.
If you can watch the movie as a sort of gothic camp fairy tale, it's not that bad, as Chandos is consciously playing the part of knight-errant. The film has a wonderful hook, opening on a previous attempt to get Jenny married, one that fails when the groom passes out, having been drugged by the best man, Candle, who despite years of service to Vanity Fair has fallen in love with Jenny. He and Jenny attempt to flee, but it ends rather badly for Candle -- it is his corpse that Chandos encounters in the river. It's a stylishly shot sequence -- in fact, the whole movie has a certain flair.
Acting is also a plus. McDowell handles the role of Chandos with aplomb, not batting an eye as he is basically drafted into service as an undercover agent. Eileen Atkins, though, steals the show; her turn as Vanity Fair is a scene-chewing marvel -- imagine Bette Davis somewhere in between All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and add crack. She sees all, knows all, and has a caustic wit that matches her ruthlessness. A female Moriarty, if you will. That arch personality makes the grim concluding tableaux seem perfectly appropriate -- it's just one additional plan that she's worked out well in advance.
The movie is really a conundrum. If you view it as a fairy tale of sorts, the plot works. The movie clearly wants to feed off that fairy tale vibe, right down to the wicked stepmother, but in the end, it just doesn't quite work. It's probably worth a rental for the style, though.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Cast Bios