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A successful writer is asked by his publisher to write a biography on a man who recently died in a plane crash. Initially reticent, the writer finds himself drawn to the story as he begins to uncover the case’s details. But some would rather this mystery remain unsolved, and the situation soon becomes dangerous for all innocent – and seemingly innocent – characters involved. Despite facing censorship from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), Wendy Toye delivers a fast-paced story whose unraveling compels us to continue watching in The Teckman Mystery (1954). (RMM: 3/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan
On a plane headed to London, English fiction writer “Philip Chance” (John Justin) meets the beautiful “Helen” (Margaret Leighton), who happens to be reading his newest novel. In a somewhat awkward conversation, Philip expresses his annoyance at being called back from abroad by his publisher, “Maurice Miller” (Raymond Huntley), who wants him to write a biography on a man who recently died in a test plane crash. As it turns out, Helen is the sister of that man, whose name is “Martin Teckman” (Michael Medwin).
When Philip arrives at his London apartment, he is shocked to find that someone has broken in. Though the intruder left the living room a mess, it seems that he hadn’t found whatever he was looking for, as nothing has been stolen. With inspectors investigating the scene of the crime, good-natured Philip seems relatively unphased by it all. He will maintain a charming air and bemused disposition throughout the film, as though all this mystery is great fun.
Philip has already made clear his unwillingness to write the biography. However, he agrees to consider the offer and finds his interest peaked after an interview with a Mr. “Garvin” (George Coulouris). According to Garvin, Teckman did not disintegrate along with the plane but landed it instead and is alive. Later that night, Philip meets with “John Rice” (Meier Tzelniker), the apparent director of a travel magazine who wants him to write a series of articles on Berlin. The director, later described as “middle-European,” offers Philip free accommodations in Berlin as well as a large check.
Philip takes the offer but remains interested in the Teckman story and decides to postpone its writing. However, the inspectors from earlier realize – after some sleuthing – that Philip is about to walk into a potentially fatal trap. Rice and his men have connections to Teckman and likely want Philip dead before uncovering any more details from the whole plane affair.
Back in the apartment, the film takes a more severe and mysterious tone t when Philip finds Garvin stabbed dead on the floor. Now fully committed to uncovering the truth about Teckman’s supposed death and its circumstances, Philip sets out in search of answers. Meanwhile, he grows closer to Helen, who might seem innocent, but has her own secrets as well. When Teckman himself enters the picture, alive, the plot thickens with interest and intrigue.
When watching older movies, I often find myself either amused at or confused by the choice of language used in situations. Take Ida Lupino’s semi-thriller Outrage (1950), for example. The main character suffers from psychological trauma after she is raped. Throughout the film, police and civilians alike refer to the crime as a “vicious assault” only and give no further details. I’m not quite sure why I fixate on this vagueness, but it has led me to research further into its circumstances.
In my review of Outrage, I discuss the atmosphere of censorship that existed at the time of the film’s release. This was the era of Hollywood when the Motion Picture Production Code – or Hays Code – stipulated what was morally acceptable and what was not for audiences to see. After watching The Teckman Mystery (1954) and identifying similarly vague language in reference to politics and crime, I wondered if there might have existed a similar set of rules for British cinema.
The language I’m referring to relates to Helen’s character. In a twist at the film’s end, Philip discovers that she is behind much of the mystery of Teckman’s case. Not only is Helen void of innocence, she is the ringleader of a “subversive leftist group” that her brother has been a part of but wants to leave. It seems clear to me that this group probably has communist ties. The years after WWII saw the ushering in of the Cold War, a silent and sneaky war of opposing ideals fought between the U.S. and the Soviet Union as well as their respective allies. But if the tensions of the time were widely known, why couldn’t the characters simply state the obvious?
According to the Hays Code, crime should never be explicitly shown or described so as to not give the audience any similar ideas. After some light research, I found that there did exist a similar organization in the U.K. at the time, and it was called the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Founded in 1912, the BBFC was responsible for the national classification and censorship of films released in British theaters. Though it did not spell out violations as explicitly as the American Hays Code did, it eventually included its own list of written guidelines to be followed by filmmakers. Violations included things like cruelty to animals, nudity and sex, illicit relationships, and . . . (ding ding) references to controversial politics.
Until the mid-’50s, the BBFC strictly prohibited the depiction of “controversial politics,” such as communism or fascism. As the cinema became a more socially powerful medium, governments feared it could be used to disseminate disruptive propaganda just as it had in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. And though director Wendy’s Toye released her film when such restrictions were slackening, perhaps she deemed it safer to simply gloss over the topic and use it solely as a tool in naming a clear villain. Whether she lamented the prohibition of expanding this backstory further or whether she didn’t care at all, I’ll never know.
While on the topic of the vagueness of language, I want to draw attention to another curious choice of words in The Teckman Mystery. At some point, the police refer to Mr. Rice (the head of that American travel magazine, remember?) as a “middle-European” man. The term made me uncomfortable when I heard it because its vagueness makes it dehumanizing. This film was released when white actors were still playing Black, Asian, and Middle Eastern characters without controversy. These races were almost exclusively used to portray villains or comic relief in film. To a lesser degree, white Eastern Europeans were also treated like tropes, and white Western Europeans and Americans played the heroes.
In the case of Mr. Rice, the scriptwriters don’t even take the time to assign him an ethnicity or nationality. What am I supposed to make of the description, middle-European? After some quick research, I found that the actor, Meier Tzelniker, was born in Romania to Ashkenazi Jewish parents. He would perform in the Yiddish theatre and film for most of his adult life. This information is not hugely relevant to the film, but if its filmmakers insist on identifying their indifference to racial and ethnic visibility through vagueness, then I certainly don’t mind exploring its specifics.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (11/13/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Philip Chance comes home to find there’s been a break-in.
Photo Credits: Ray Hearne