Black Limelight (1939) | DVD review - an atmospheric and engaging vintage British thriller

Black Limelight (1939)

A house in south west London stands full in the ugly glare of publicity, with a police cordon round it and angry crowds lurking outside. Inside, Mary Charrington (Joan Marion) waits in bewilderment for the next act in the tragedy. Her husband Peter (Raymond Massey) is wanted for the murder of Lily James (Coral Browne) at a seaside bungalow in Dorset, which the tabloids have dubbed the work of the ‘moon murderer’. When Peter sneaks back home after three weeks on the run, Mary takes in onto herself to unmask the real killer. But in doing so puts herself in terrible jeopardy…

Black Limelight (1939)

THE LOWDOWN This vintage British crime thriller, which was called Footsteps in the Sand in the US, and directed by former silent movie helmer Paul Stein, certainly doesn’t attempt to hide its stage roots, being based on a 1936 play by Gordon Sherry, which scored much success on Broadway and in the West End.

This being Britain of a bygone age, manners are prim and proper, everyone speaks the Queen’s English, children are seen but not heard, and women are regarded as hysterical creatures, not to be listened to. But not our heroine Mary… With her husband on the run, Mary juggles useless Scotland Yard detectives, a nosey American reporter (Dan Tobin), and unwanted neighbours, while also turning sleuth to prove Peter’s innocence. And she does so with jolly good bravado.

The drama very much wears its heart on its sleeve: men are portrayed as fools for straying from the marital home where wives provide all the love they need. Even the Monthly Film Bulletin drew attention to this in their review about Joan Marion's performance, which it described as ‘so convincingly restrained that a film which begins as just another murder thriller almost ends up as a social document’.

Black Limelight (1939)

Social comment aside, Black Limelight is an engaging and atmospheric affair, featuring some sprightly performances. Never one to stand for convention herself, Coral Browne was the perfect choice to play free-spirited Lily, whose tragic story gets told in flashback. Despite only having a few minutes on screen, the Australian actress’ scenes give the stage-bound proceedings a well-deserved lift, while also providing a neat counterpoint to Marion’s wholesome Mary. And as loyal maid Jemima, Elliott Mason provides some much needed light relief. Raymond Massey, however, does little more than look like a lost puppy throughout.

While the killer’s identity is rather obvious, this musty drawing room mystery will draw you in, and it’s great fun watching Marion’s Mary practically sacrificing herself to unmask the culprit courtesy of a single handkerchief. A woman's work is never done when there's a killer to catch...

THE UK DVD RELEASE Part of Network Distributing’s The British Film collection, Black Limelight