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August 2014

Home At Seven

cast: Ralph Richardson, Margaret Leighton, Jack Hawkins, Campbell Singer, and Michael Shepley

director: Ralph Richardson

82 minutes (U) 1952
Network DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by J.C. Hartley

Home At Seven

Now I know nothing about HD streaming of movies, which it has been claimed is heralding the death-knell of the DVD, but I would imagine that where DVDs retain a toe-hold is in the release of obscure, cult, genre, and just plain neglected films. Unless of course the online and TV streamers have access to exhaustive back-catalogues of movies; like I say I know nothing about this. The other thing I know nothing about (my ignorance is vast but we're only viewing one small corner of it today) is the economics of putting obscure, and critically little regarded films, out on blu-ray, or even on bog-standard formats like this one, while absolute gems like Michael Winner's I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name remains available only on VHS, region 1 DVD, or European import. Hello BFI... Hello Network.

Thus we come to Home At Seven (aka: Murder On Monday). This strange little 1952 production from London Films features Ralph Richardson as star and director, and very good he is, too. Richardson had a decent film career around this time, making Graham Greene's The Fallen Idol for Carol Reed in 1948, and Joseph Conrad's Outcast Of The Islands, again for Reed, in 1951; after Home At Seven he made The Sound Barrier with David Lean.

The film begins with David Preston coming home from work, the theme music is quite jaunty at this point; music is sparingly used throughout. Preston is the typical bowler-hat-and-umbrella city gent; perhaps the film will show a comedic fall from grace with pomposity duly punctured. Preston is some sort of senior teller at a London bank; we learn later that promotion to manager at an Eastbourne branch is on the horizon. The mystery starts when Preston greets his wife (Margaret Leighton), she is distraught, Preston has not been home for 24 hours. It is Tuesday, and Preston believes it is still Monday. Initially sceptical, Preston is only convinced by the daily paper and a call from his manager at the bank. Doctor Sparling is summoned, played reassuringly by the stalwart Jack Hawkins.

Preston has had an inexplicable memory lapse. A certain shifty evasiveness in his manner is explained by the fact that he has been in the habit of taking an out-of-hours cordial in 'The Feathers' pub on his way home, and Mrs Preston does not approve of booze. Resolved to explain away his missing day to his boss, by claiming to have stayed in London with friends, things turn worse for Preston when his neighbour Major Watson comes round for the subscription money for the social club where Preston is treasurer. The steward of the club claims to have seen Preston removing the cash, some £500, from the safe. Preston denies the claim, using his story that he was in London with friends. The steward Robinson is later found murdered.

When the police come for a statement, Preston repeats his alibi which collapses almost as soon as it is made up. Preston visits Dr Sparling and reveals he hated the steward, and has remembered hiding the money in the woods where the body was found. Sparling insists that Preston is a victim of auto-suggestion. Things look bad for Preston when it transpires that he has been pursued by a money-lender while attempting to clear debts run up by his late father. Preston starts making preparations for the noose, ensuring that his wife will be able to manage on her own. A certain bleak tension is resolved when Peggy, the joint landlady of The Feathers, turns up to reveal that Preston spent his missing 24 hours at the pub, after a back-firing motor vehicle triggered a forgotten trauma related to a bombing during his service as an ARP warden in the war. Inspector Hemingway arrives to reveal that the culprit has been caught and the money recovered, and mundane normality is restored.

Richardson's acting lifts this parlour-piece; much of the action takes place in the Prestons' home. His intense, evasive playing suggests that there is more going on in the Preston psyche than we are being allowed to see, but sadly there isn't. The film is based on an R.C. Sheriff story. Sheriff had a successful career as a playwright with Journey's End, and as a screenwriter; could he have done anything with this? The actual screenplay was by Anatole de Grunwald who also enjoyed a pretty successful stage and screenwriting career, so the fault must be with the slightness of the material and its straightforward execution.

The gist of the plot, a missing day, a wrongful accusation, secrets, and lies to the police that return to haunt the protagonist, are commonplace enough, a Hitchcock or a Lang would send the hero on the run to solve the mystery themselves. Instead, our hero goes to the Doctor, and visits the local police station to give a statement, where Dr Sparling proves to Major Watson that it is all too easy to be falsely accused through coincidence and circumstance.

This is not to say this film is boring or without a certain tension. As the case against Preston seems cast-iron he behaves in an alarming way, calmly explaining the household accounts to his wife, planning her future without him. We are genuinely concerned that he is going to find his father's old service revolver and blow his own brains out, or hang himself from the light-fitting. When the lady from the pub arrives with a genuine alibi, such is his mental state that he believes she is perjuring herself to save him, when the Inspector arrives Preston urges her to sneak out unseen and he himself rushes upstairs.

Inspector Hemingway is ready to break the good news to Preston but he is delayed when Peggy holds him back to harangue him about the shortcomings of the police accusing innocent people of murder. That Inspector Hemingway has behaved throughout with jocular patience and sympathy makes this scene anachronistic in the extreme. Hurry upstairs we cry, he is already swinging from the curtain rail, but no, Preston has simply packed an overnight bag and prepares to meekly accompany the Inspector to the nick.

So what is it all about? A post-war examination of PTSD, perhaps? A psychological piece, showing how even those who served on the home front paid a price, some seven years after the war was over? Given the provenance of the piece, and its author, this may have been the original message. Other than that are there any life lessons? Don't drink out of hours, don't lie to your wife, don't lie to the police, don't bottle up aggressive impulses, and don't take out pay-day loans?

The thing is, such is the complexity of Richardson's nuanced performance that we feel there is more going on than is being revealed. We grasp at this as an example of the domestic uncanny, will there be a big reveal, did he really do it, or was he innocent all along, a victim of circumstance who will tragically take his own life to escape the shame? No, although an almost gothic mystery has seeped into suburbia its resolution will be low-key and reassuring; our own experience of life, and its depiction on the screen, has made us too susceptible and suggestible, on this occasion at least explanations, like Preston himself, were purely innocent.

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