It’s always the person one least suspects. Is that not how the old saying goes whenever a murder mystery is elucidated? The element of surprise catches people off guard on two fronts: the characters within the film as well as the audience. There are more ways than one to play that game when relating the story of a potential murder investigation. Of course the butler can be blamed, but what if no butler is around to be borrowed as the scapegoat? For one, a film can take a slightly different angle, such as director-screenwriter Andrew L. Stone’s 1953 drama, A Blueprint for Murder. In a strange bit of coincidence, Stone’s picture ends up being a competent companion piece to a film recently parsed with a finely toothed comb for Friday Noir: My Cousin Rachel.
Whiney Cameron (Joseph Cotton), a wealthy, healthy bachelor, arrives at a hospital in distress. His young niece is suffering from a physical and perhaps even mental affliction the doctor’s are struggling to pinpoint. It seems clear that the Camerons are a cursed, for it was not so long ago that his brother, father to the currently sick girl, also fell victim to a bizarre infection. Tragedy finally strikes as death whisks the girl away from this world to the next, leaving Cameron to temporarily take care of his brother’s widow, Lynne (Jean Peters) and nephew Doug (Freddy Ridgeway). Lynne had done wonders for the children following her husband’s passing, and vows to cherish Doug with every fibre in her body. She and Cameron get along very well, and the latter is reassured that, despite all that has recently befallen the family, Doug has Lynne to lean on. Things take a dramatic turn for the worse when, under the persistent observations of Maggie (Catherine McLeod), wife of friend and lawyer Fred (Gary Merril), it I suggested that Cameron’s niece and brother may have been poisoned. But if so, by whom?
As much as Cameron and Fred try to shut Maggie down, her amateur sleuthing through their personal encyclopedic library at home proves, much to the protagonist’s dismay, anything but amateurish. As it turns out, the symptoms suffered by his brother and niece reflect those inflicted by a specific type of poison. Worse still, further evidence points to non other than Lynne as the possible angel of death, especially given that the family will states that, were something to happen to the father and children, everything is bequeathed to Lynne.
Thus begins a harrowing ordeal as Cameron wrestles with a nightmarish prospect of having to investigate a woman he fully believed in, and, in some way, even loved. As previously stated, the film reflects the structure of My Cousin Rachel in more ways than one. First and foremost, the heroes in both movies hold strong emotions for a woman once tied to another close family member (Cameron’s brother in Murder and Philip’s uncle in Rachel), both close family members are now dead, and in both cases the women they fancy may or may not have been directly involved in the aforementioned deaths. Where Murder differs is in the filmmakers’ decision to have Cameron initially refute accusations of murder and what he deems ludicrous plots of poisoning through drinks and food, whereas in Rachel Philip is at first steadfast in is attempt to expose his cousin but eventually succumbs to her charms.
At its center, the mystery is a reasonably simple one: did Lynne commit the crime some claim she did, or didn’t she? Having known Lynne for some time already, Cameron desperately struggles to come to terms with that possible reality, and does everything in his capacity to reason his way out of agreeing to investigate Lynne’s homely practices. Joseph Cotton, probably most well known for his collaborations with the legendary Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and The Third Man, is excellent in the role of a deeply conflicted man being forced to reckon with something he would have laughed off under any other circumstances. Cotton is particularly convincing at communicating the fatigue and frustration that result from engaging in an act he knows must be done, but disgusts him all the same. The more evidence piles up in favor of Lynne’s guilt, the more stunned and defeated he appears. Inching closer and closer to what looks to be the truth makes him feel all the worse, which puts a fresh spin on the murder mystery template.
In turn, Jean Peters, as Lynne Cameron, is tasked with a vastly different sort of role. At first her interpretation of the Lynne character is a cookie cutter copy of the dutiful mother (-in-law) tending to a child in the wake of tragedy. It isn’t an especially profound performance, but efficient nevertheless. As the story evolves, Peters is given meatier material to chew on; revulsion at the revelation that she is considered to be a murderer, and then frustrating and shock during police interrogations. Here she is, suddenly looked at from a very different angle, a highly accusatory one, in such a way that her future as well as that of her son-in-law may be forever altered for the worse, to say nothing of her bruised relationship with Cameron.
Partly what makes the movie so engaging is the personalities at the center of all the drama and how they are equally hurt and incredulous at what is happening. Neither party is fully coming to terms with what’s transpiring, producing a battle on two fronts: both between the characters and within themselves. The film isn’t very long and has a lot of plot to handle, therefore arguing that A Blueprint for Murder is a profoundly in depth analysis of familial strife would be an exaggeration. Still, there is enough material there for a reasonably affecting piece of drama involving two parties the viewer comes to like very on.
Surprisingly enough, for a film that only runs 77 minutes, director Stone and company opt to pull the rug from under the viewer’s feat by having the potentially defining court case result in Lynne’s innocence proclaimed. This is followed by Cameron going solo in a renewed effort to thwart Lynne’s plans to take Doug on a European trip, out of fear that she will make the most of the opportunity to off the young boy too. The climax almost has to be seen to be believed, in which Cameron, having surprised Lynne and Doug on the cruise ship they set sail on, tricks Lynne into consuming one of the pills that poisoned his brother and niece and expects a confession out of her before he can save her with the ship’s medical crew. One can certainly appreciate someone’s resolve to see justice done, only that in this instance it comes across as far-fetched and much less believable than most of what happened before. Does Cameron have no care for what might happen to him if it turns out that the pill was in fact poison? After all, it seems doubtful that Lynne would be the only one going to prison. Therefore what of Doug? Adoption by strangers? For a film that had set itself on sturdy, relatively believable ground, the final 15 minutes come out of left field, but not necessarily in a good way.
It’s unfortunate that A Blueprint for Murder’s final lap falters somewhat. Even so, the dubious finale does not supersede the quality of its first hour. It presents a solid drama to enjoy with two very high caliber, believable performances inspired by a strange and harrowing plot.