A classic romantic comedy/mystery thriller, much admired in its day, that has actually dated not the slightest. If anything it's funnier than ever as present-day audiences tend to be more quick-witted and more able to appreciate the screenplay's unceasing flow of double entendres that are tossed off by Tom Walls in the best light comedy of manners fashion. Contemporary French audiences liked it too, so much so in fact that the movie was re-made in France during the Nazi Occupation (without credit of course, and with its spy changed to a serial killer) as "The Murderer Lives at No. 21" (allegedly based on an S.A. Steeman novel, director/adapter H.G. Clouzot introduced a romantic interest, Suzy Delair, for Pierre Fresnay, here playing Steeman's detective from a different and earlier book).
Ronald Adam, who appeared in scores of British films, here in one of his first appearances, has his best role ever. He plays a blind lodger who has two highly charged encounters with our spy-busting hero (played with considerable style and panache by Tom Walls). One of the admirable features of the script is the way it turns convention on its head. We expect the friendly blind man to be a sympathetic character not a cold-blooded killer, just as in the opening sequence we anticipate that the dear old lady, played by Marie Wright, will turn out to be the hero's mother. The unnerving scene in which she laughs at the good guys on her death-bed has to be seen to be believed.
In fact, given interestingly solid yet off-beat characters to work with, the whole roster of players here give refreshing and appealing performances. Even Leon M. Lion who over-acted so outrageously in Hitchcock's "Number 17" is here far more restrained yet all the more forceful and compelling because of that restraint.
Renée Saint-Cyr (in her only English-language movie) makes a charming heroine. One wonders at first how the script-writers are going to work her back into the story, but, like the rest of the plot's many turns, this feat is accomplished with considerable flair. Another beneficiary of the script's copious edge-of-the-seat surprises is the lovely Googie Withers (excelling herself here in a difficult role which she brings off to scintillating perfection). As usual, Tom Walls continues to be ideally cast as the daring, debonair, incessantly witty investigator who doesn't suffer fools gladly. The character's glorious quirk, of course, is that he regards almost everyone as a fool and consistently puts them down with snide remarks either directly to their face or in devastating little asides. I love his authoritarian air and the way he browbeats minor characters like the chemist (Bernard Miles). His scenes with pinch-penny landlady Irene Handl (in only her third film appearance) emerge as true comedy classics.
All told, much as I admire Clouzot and Fresnay, I found this movie assembled a far more appealing cast than the French re-make. And certainly it is more incident-packed. Not only does the central situation strike even the most hardened viewer as highly intriguing, not only does it bring a group of fascinating characters together in suspenseful conflict, but it lends itself to the introduction of romance, thrills, action and tension in over-generous measure. Plus lots and lots of fun. Combining suspense with comedy is always a hard ask. A laugh in the wrong place can ruin a whole sequence. Yet the pacing here is always perfect and most of the laughter arises from the conflicts and quirks of the characters themselves rather than slapstick (although there are at least two such sequences, both very funny).
Assisted by fine photography and expansive sets, Herbert Mason has directed with commendable assurance, flair, impact and atmosphere. (Mason seems to be a forgotten director today, even though he also handled Arthur Askey in the marvelously funny yet intriguing "Back-Room Boy").