While drowning his sorrows at the local bar, blind writer Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) eavesdrops on a nearby conversation. Convinced that he's just overheard details of a kidnapping plot, Hannon runs to the police. When they dismiss his suspicions as the ravings of a blind man, Hannon takes matters into his own hands. With the help of his ex-fiancée, Jean Lennox (Vera Miles), and his loyal secretary, Bob Matthews (Cecil Parker), Hannon uses his four remaining senses to track down the criminals. Cinematography by Milton Krasner (Three Coins in the Fountain, All About Eve, An Affair to Remember).
If you watch enough thrillers or suspense pictures, you'll no doubt come across the plot descriptor "Hitchcockian." It's an often overused term to describe a film's plot that hinges upon the lead character's chance discovery of an insidious plot that forces them to go after the McGuffin - whatever that may be. Hitchcock was a master of suspense and many filmmakers tried to ape his stylings and few succeeded. Thankfully, Henry Hathaway managed to pull it off with 1956's '23 Paces to Baker Street' starring the always reliable Van Johnson as a blind man who overhears a kidnapping plot.
Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) has his name splashed over major marquees from New York to London. His plays are major hits that draw in the crows. Only he doesn't get to see the accolades. After losing his sight in an accident, Phillip lives out his days in a fancy London apartment dictating dialogue to his assistant/butler Bob (Cecil Parker). When his one-time love Jean (Vera Miles) appears out of nowhere, Phillip doesn't want her pity. He doesn't want to be taken care of. He doesn't want to be seen as some sort of invalid. He'd rather not be seen at all. In a fury, he storms out to go to the local pub. As he tries to enjoy is double whiskey, he happens to overhear a conversation - one that instantly piques his interests as a writer. A woman and a man, speaking in hushed voices, discussing a job and money and other nefarious dealings. When Phillip fails to enlist the help of the police, he must turn to Bob and Jean to help him stop a crime that's already in progress.
As I said at the outset, "Hitchcockian" is a very overused term to describe a clever thriller. Clever being the operative word there. Most films that are given this moniker don't deserve it. They're clever, but not very good and any genuine mystery is tepid at best. However, once in awhile "Hitchcockian" is an apt way to describe a film and Henry Hathaway's '23 Paces to Baker Street' earns that distinction. Playing with the best elements of 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' and 'Rear Window,' '23 Paces To Baker Street' takes just enough time to build its primary characters before tossing them into a plot that's too big for them to handle - but they're going ahead with the investigation anyway.
At the lead of this little show is Van Johnson respectably playing a blind man. I've always thought Johnson was a bit of a stiff actor, like someone who didn't know how to move, but in '23 Paces to Baker Street' he's in terrific form. His stiffness is an attribute that makes his blind character believable. He moves deliberately, carefully, and gets frustrated when he bumps into things. It's also interesting to see his character grow. When we first meet him, he hates his disability almost as much as he hates himself. Even though he can still write terrific dialogue, he laments the loss of his eyes and thinks of himself as undeserving of a normal life. But when he stumbles onto the diabolical plot, all of a sudden his disability becomes his best asset. Because he wasn't too busy "seeing" everything, he was able to hear the voices, detect the tones of menace and fear in the conversation and drives his obsession. Vera Miles does a fine job here, but she's more or less simply playing another version of Grace Kelly's Lisa Fremont from 'Rear Window' while Cecil Parker is Thelma Ritter in that equation.
Going into '23 Paces to Baker Street,' I didn't know quite what to expect. The plot outline was intriguing, but I'd seen movies like this go bad fast. Henry Hathaway working from a script by Nigel Balchin worked to make the film a solid, entertaining jaunt through London. While it may not quite stand up to Hitchcock's best efforts from his prime years, '23 Paces to Baker Street' does stand on its own two legs. The film moves at a smart and deliberate pace peppering the screen with hints and clues to the big mystery without becoming boring or overstaying its welcome. The movie proves to be the perfect piece of evening entertainment.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'23 Paces to Baker Street' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard Blu-ray case with reversible cover artwork. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Sporting a fresh 4k restoration, the 2.35:1 1080p transfer is a bit of a mixed bag of highs and lows. Thankfully, the highs outweigh the lows as this is a finely detailed, good looking image presentation. Film grain is present without being noisy or intrusive. Detail levels are fairly good, middle and close up shots tend to look the best. There are a few process shots with optical backgrounds that just look odd - considering the scenes in question making you wonder why they were shot that way - but those are the only real low marks. The source elements are in fairly good shape with only some slight occasional staining and speckling to report. Colors have that late 50s punch to them with tanned skin tones and heavy primaries. Black levels are solid all around with plenty of great shadow separation giving the image a notable sense of depth. Far from perfect, this is a very respectable transfer for a film of this vintage.
With a terrific English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono mix, '23 Paces to Baker Street' earns full marks. Due to the character and the plot, this is a film that is one hundred percent about the sound design. From the first time we meet Van Johnson's Phillip all the way to the climax, sound is essential. Elements are well layered throughout allowing for a terrific sense of atmosphere and spacing. Dialogue is clean and crisp and maintains its proper front/center station. The score by Leigh Harline rounds out the mix allowing for the suspenseful mood to simmer as the sound effects and dialogue do the heavy lifting. Free of any age-related issues, there isn't anything to complain about here. d
Audio Commentary: Film historian Kent Jones does a terrific job of detailing the film's production offering up plenty of trivia about the proceedings.
Theatrical Trailer: (SD 2:15)
'When 8 Bells Toll' Trailer: (HD 2:49)
'The File of the Golden Goose' Trailer: (HD 2:37)
'Foreign Intrigue' Trailer: (HD 1:55)
'Cast a Giant Shadow' Trailer: (SD 3:38)
If you're ever caught in the hypothetical argument of having to choose between watching 'Rear Window' or 'The Man Who Knew Too Much,' you can split the difference with '23 Paces to Baker Street.' Henry Hathaway smartly moves the action and suspense around a series of great performances and an intriguing plot. It's a slow burn but the building suspense pays off by the end. Kino Lorber brings the film to Blu-ray in terrific order providing a solid image transfer, a great audio mix, and a nice commentary track to round out the bonus features. Fans will want to take the plunge and newcomers can call this one Recommended.