Black and white 1939 murder mystery crime drama Black Limelight is unearthed for DVD. It stars Raymond Massey (Things to Come, East of Eden) as Peter Charrington, a man accused of murdering a young woman (Coral Browne). When he flees the murder scene, the police are convinced he’s their man, but his loyal wife Mary (played by Joan Marion), fights to clear his name.
Black Limelight runs to only seventy minutes, and is extremely linear in it storytelling. There are no subplots to be found in this straightforward whodunit. It may be three quarters of a century old, but Black Limelight is like something out of another epoch entirely. Whilst the script is talky and feels more like the stage play on which it is based, it’s the performances that date Black Limelight so badly.
Joan Marion as the central character of the wife with a sleuthing instinct plays everything with a melodrama approaching full-on mania. It’s impossible not to laugh and nod in agreement with the police inspector’s assessment of her as “an hysterical woman”.
Raymond Massey almost manages to transcend the ravages of time. The brilliant Canadian actor, perhaps not brought up with safe early Twentieth Century West End theatre as his field of reference, is almost credible as the wrongly accused man, and manages to create an interesting character out of the pot-boiler script. Massey not only had talent but a fine face to match, and his tidy if somewhat animated performance offers a sharp contrast to Joan Marion’s ludicrously over-the-top am-dram arm-waving. A young Coral Browne, who went on to have a very interesting life (Alan Bennett wrote An Englishman Abroad about her unlikely encounter with Guy Burgess in Russia), is also impressive in the few short scenes she is afforded as Massey’s mistress. It’s easy to see why Massey wanted to dump Marion for Browne.
Taken on its own merits, Black Limelight is a weak and preposterous story which unfolds with few surprises, and suffers from some horrible performances. The moral of the story, that wives should be dutiful and look out for their husbands, even when they admit to philandering, won’t sit well with feminists; though the fact that it’s the wife who unravels the identity of the murderer was progressive for the time. It’s impossible not to find the whole film rather silly.
With a movie of such an age there aren’t any extras to be found save for an image gallery, but the DVD release ensures that the film survives to find a new audience. Certainly, film historians, Raymond Massey devotees and those who love delving through the archives will find most to enjoy here.