Guess Who Killed The Woman in Question (1950)

THE WOMAN IN QUESTION, from left: Jean Kent, Dirk Bogarde, 1950

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My mother loved mysteries. Loved them. It was her favorite genre (science fiction and adventure were a close second and third) and whenever I discover a new one, it makes me think of her. One of the pleasures of watching a good mystery is trying to figure out who did it – I’m sorry, I meant whodunit – before the detective, amateur or pro, reveals everything at the end. In many cases, there simply isn’t enough information because the writer is holding out so that the reader/viewer can’t figure out the ending. I’m sure there are many mystery fans that like that but I prefer being able to figure it out, if I can, and when I get it right, there’s a sense of satisfaction, not disappointment. I discovered a new mystery recently (new to me I mean, it was made in 1950), The Woman in Question (aka, Five Angles on Murder), directed by Anthony Asquith, and starring Jean Kent as the titular character, Agnes/Astra, a palm reader at the amusement park and, unfortunately for her, a murder victim. We get to know her and the situation surrounding her murder from five people who knew the victim. And, yes, I figured out whodunit. And, no, that didn’t ruin the movie for me.

One of the most famous murder stories ever is Rashomon (1950), so famous that its storytelling technique coined a term, “The Rashomon Effect,” in which multiple characters give the audience multiple points of view about the same situation. Everyone is, to some degree, an unreliable narrator and it’s up to the audience to figure out what to believe and what to throw out the window. The Woman in Question employs this technique by having the five different witnesses give five vastly different accounts of Agnes, her sister, her lover and themselves. One of them is the killer and since they all present themselves in the most flattering light, and everyone else in a negative light, it’s hard to suss out at first but eventually, the audience has a good suspect at hand and the movie wisely doesn’t drag out the suspense once that happens. They throw in one last red herring near the very end but only to quickly panic everyone who’s figured it out.

The story begins as a newspaper boy discovers a dead woman, Agnes Huston, in the upstairs room of the house that Mrs. Finch (Hermione Baddeley) rents out. She’s been strangled and the police are sweeping through the apartment looking for clues. They find a St. Christopher’s medal under Agnes’s body but no one knows if it’s hers or not. With the cleanup done, the head detective, Superintendent Lodge (Duncan Macrae), begins questioning anyone who might know something more about the victim and the circumstances surrounding her murder. They begin with Mrs. Finch, who gives the police, and the audience, their first glimpse of Agnes as a living, breathing person.

According to Mrs. Finch, and Mr. Pollard (Charles Victor), the pet shop owner, the woman in question was quite nice and refined, despite being a clairvoyant at the local amusement park, working with carnies and catering to drunken sailors. She had clients who came to the flat and one of them, a man she called “the man in the cowboy hat,” Baker (Dirk Bogarde), wanted more from Agnes than a reading. Another visitor was Agnes’ sister, Catherine (Susan Shaw), a woman Mrs. Finch clearly doesn’t like. She paints her as a greedy, mean, selfish woman, one who thinks she’s entitled to anything and everything and enjoys pushing people around. According to Mrs. Finch, Catherine and Baker become an item and together, the day of Agnes’ murder, they barge into the house, get into a fight with Agnes, and storm out but not before saying in full earshot of Mrs. Finch and Mr. Pollard, that they’d gladly kill her if they could.

THE WOMAN IN QUESTION, Jean Kent, Susan Shaw, 1950

Next, Lodge questions the sister and Baker, both of whom seem very different than the picture painted by Mrs. Finch. The sister paints Agnes as the awful, drunken, entitled woman and Baker paints her as more of a seductress, using and manipulating him. Another witness shows up, a sailor (John McCallum) who met her at the park and hooked up with her. None of the witnesses, neither the landlady, pet shop owner, sister, lover, nor sailor, have an alibi or even seem interested in trying to come up with one. “Where were you at the time of the murder” is consistently met with some variation of “I don’t know, just hanging out in my apartment/house/quarters.” They all seem perfectly shocked that anyone would even suspect them. And, of course, I’ve left out multiple details about each character that would help you figure out who it is. Naturally, you still could (you’ve got a one in five chance at guessing correctly), but it would only be a guess. The good thing about the movie is that you honestly can deduce from the available evidence and stories who the killer is. I like that, a lot.

The Woman in Question is one of those programmers from back in the day when they had such things as programmers. It runs only a meager eighty minutes and doesn’t have a single gram of fat. What’s all the more remarkable then, is how well shot it is, how beautifully edited and expertly directed. The talents in question (director Asquith, editor John Guthridge and cinematographer Desmond Dickinson) all do a stupendous job of bringing John Creswell’s screenplay to life. Asquith doesn’t let the actors go overboard or play it too lightly, Guthridge keeps the action tight and tautly paced and Dickinson lights the film as well as any great Hollywood noir you’ve ever seen. And each actor does a great job as well, especially the two sisters, Kent and Shaw, who get to play good and evil in the same movie as the same character, depending on whose telling the story. The Woman in Question doesn’t break any ground and it didn’t win any awards, but it did what it did well. Or perhaps I should say, it dunnit well. As to whodunit in the movie, you’ll just have to watch and see.

Greg Ferrara

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