As has been noted previously on this blog, the work of detective fiction writer Edgard Wallace was often used as source material for British interwar films. Wallace was a prolific writer, so despite his early death in 1932, there were plenty of opportunities to translate his work to the screen for years afterwards. One such crime thriller is 1938’s The Gaunt Stranger. What sets this story apart from most British interwar crime fodder is that, very unusually, the criminal escapes the police at the end of the story.
Like so many interwar texts, The Gaunt Stranger existed in multiple formats and under different titles. Wallace originally published the story as a novel in 1925 under the title The Gaunt Stranger. Shortly after its publication, Wallace adapted it for the stage in collaboration with celebrated acter Gerald Du Maurier under the same name. In 1926 Wallace re-published the novel, now titled The Ringer, with some modifications to the text based on the stage production. The Ringer appears to have been put on stage again in 1929, and was also adapted as a film in Britain in 1928, 1931 and 1952. The second of these films was directed by Walter Forde, who in 1938 directed the story again under the auspices of Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios, but this time under the book’s original title.
The story of The Gaunt Stranger is almost as intricate as its production history. Set over a period of only 48 hours, it centres on lawyer-cum-criminal Maurice Meister, who receives warning that he is to be killed on 17 November, in two days’ time, by the notorious criminal ‘The Ringer’. Everyone in England, including Scotland Yard, believed the Ringer to have been killed two years’ previously in Australia. After the Ringer’s apparent death, Meister took in the Ringer’s sister as his secretary. It is insinuated that his relationship with the woman was more than just professional, and she committed suicide on 17 November the previous year. The Ringer appears to have come back from the dead to avenge his sister.
The Scotland Yard team is made up of DI Alan Wembury, Scottish police surgeon Dr Lomond, and Inspector Bliss, who has recently returned from Australia and who was the man who ostensibly killed the Ringer two years previously. Wembury calls in the help of small-time criminal Sam Hackett, who is one of the few men in England who would be able to recognise the Ringer. Wembury also has an admiration for Meister’s current secretary, Mary Lenley, whose brother Johnnie is also a criminal recently released from Dartmoor. Finally, in the course of the investigation the police identify and question Cora Ann, the Ringer’s American wife.
With a runtime of only 71 minutes and a comprehensive cast of characters with complicated interrelations, The Gaunt Stranger moves at a rapid pace. Nonetheless, Forde makes effective use of repeated panning shots of empty rooms inside Meister’s house. The film opens with several shots of these empty rooms, ending with a shot of Meister playing his piano. Similar shots are repeated several times during the film, to stress Meister’s solitary living arrangements and highlight his vulnerability. As the 17 November dawns, Scotland Yard effectively imprison Meister in his own house to ensure he stays safe. Little do they know that the danger will not be coming from outside the house.
The closed circle of characters and the physical closure of Meister’s house set The Gaunt Stranger up as a classic murder mystery. What remains unclear until the end, however, is the identity of the Ringer himself. Johnnie, the criminal brother of secretary Mary, is a possible contender. More suspicious is inspector Bliss, who so recently returned from Australia. He acts oddly throughout the film, and seems reluctant to trust Wembury or collaborate fully with the investigation. Wembury does not know Bliss personally, opening up the possibility of him being someone other than who he pretends to be. Cora Ann also behaves oddly, first insisting that her husband is dead, before changing her story and admitting that he is still alive.
Meister himself is also anything but a sympathetic character. Like other books of the period, Wallace opted to make his victim an unpleasant character, so that the audience is not too concerned whether the murder is prevented or not. More unusually, however, Wallace also arranged for the Ringer, when his identity is eventually revealed, to make a spectacular escape from the police and the country. Once the Ringer’s identity is confirmed, it is clear to the audience in retrospect that Cora Ann has been playing along with her husband throughout the film. Their escape, which involves piloting a plane from a nearby airfield, was clearly planned in advance.
The police in The Gaunt Stranger are depicted as organised and capable. They effectively arrest multiple people throughout the film and are not fooled by Meister’s attempts to come across as a respectable lawyer – they are fully aware of his criminal activities. When Sam Hackett, the criminal informer, attempts to steal some of Meister’s silverware, he is apprehended by a Bobby almost immediately. Johnnie, too, is arrested as soon as he tries to break into a house. The film puts some of the police’s technological infrastructure on display, such as telegrams and cars wired with radios. Nevertheless the Ringer’s unscrupulous nature allows him to escape despite the police’s efforts. The Gaunt Stranger is one of the few British interwar films which entertains the possibility of a fallible police force that can be outwitted by master criminals.
The Gaunt Stranger is available on DVD from Network on Air.