“The Case of the Frightened Lady” is a tightly written murder mystery based on a play by Edgar Wallace that takes place on an English estate called Marks Priory. The Lebanon family, which has lived there for centuries, prides itself on being able to maintain their elite status, but they also harbor a much more terrible secret that eventually unfolds throughout the movie.
As the credits open to the film, the central staircase in the grand foyer of Marks Priory is shown up close. Maybe it is the stairs that represent the many years of what has come to the house, and the final descent of what the Lebanon’s will come to when they discover the secret has finally been exposed to the outside world. The camera pans the staircase a bit closer and shows a young lady coming down the stairs into the foyer, ending with a scream emitting from her. Two servants finally show themselves and Isla Crane (Penelope Dudley-Ward) asks them why they were following her. Lord William Lebanon (Marius Goring) quickly arrives by Isla’s side. His mother, Lady Lebanon, has William and Isla join her in the drawing room. Isla tells Williams’ mother the house is plain creepy with an air about it that makes it sinister, as if something is waiting to reach out and grab her. Isla then tells Lady Lebanon her bedroom door has been bolted from the outside. She confronts Lady Lebanon about this issue when Richard Ferraby (Patrick Barr) enters the room. Ferraby is from a house restoration and repair company who has a contract to do some work on Marks Priory. Ferraby sees an ornately carved door, something commonly found throughout the house and will later prove to be a hint of the somewhat complex events that have happened over the years in the Lebanon family. He notes that the door is in fact locked but hopes to see what is on the other side once he exacts permission from Lady Lebanon to open it.
Isla’s maid reminds her of the dance that evening while Ferraby looks at a blueprint and promises Lady Lebanon he will do his best about getting the proper repairs done to the house. The dance is a merry occasion, something everyone on the estate looks forward to attending, including the hired help. While everyone is thinking of the dance, Lady Lebanon can only think of marrying her son William to Isla, who is a niece of hers. William and Isla have the proper extended family relationship, but neither are in love with each other enough to get married. The family doctor, Lester Charles Amersham (Felix Aylmer), shows up early that evening upon Lady Lebanon’s invitation. She tells him that she plans to have Isla married to William. William, however, is not terribly fond of Amersham, and it is evident in the way he speaks of the doctor. There is still discussion about the dance, which Arthur Studd, the chauffeur, plans on attending after he gets off from work, but Amersham does not want him to be there. Amersham threatens to fire him, but Studd has no fear of him. Like the other servants, he is outspoken and not afraid to tell their employers that they are important as hired help, for without the hired help, their employers would have to do everything themselves.
At the dance, Isla dances with Studd, who is dressed like a Hindi. Lady Lebanon speaks with Jim Tilling (Torin Thatcher) and his wife (Elizabeth Scott), who is dressed up in a hand-sewn Dutch dress and cap. A “Gentleman’s Excuse Me” dance commences, which means that a gentleman says “Excuse me” to another gentleman, cutting in to dance with another lady. Jim does not like seeing his wife dancing with Studd, who tells her to meet him out back during the party. Mrs. Tilling does sneak out, and thinking they are alone with no one watching, carry on with an intimate affair. Jim hides around the corner of the house in the shadows and sees his wife with Studd. Jim is an admittedly jealous man, and hears Studd telling her that she should meet him there again the following evening. Jim’s wife seems to favor Studd for his warmth and caring demeanor, while her husband is more distant. Ferraby and Isla leave the dance and head towards home through the vast yard, only to hear a muffled scream, as if someone is being strangled. They find the body of Studd lying on the ground with a silk scarf by him.
Scotland Yard is called in on the case. Detectives Sergeant Totty (Ronald Shiner) and Inspector Tanner (George Merritt) step in and review what evidence has been found in the murder. The first suspect is Jim Tilling, who obviously disliked Studd for having a relationship with his wife. In fact, when the detectives come to pay a call at Jim’s home on the estate, he admits he is happy Studd is dead, but had nothing to do with the murder. As one of the detectives said, if Tilling was the perpetrator, he would have used his bare hands, not an elegant silk scarf from India. Lady Lebanon immediately calls up Amersham to tell him about Scotland Yard’s involvement. Amersham immediately becomes the secondary suspect, and soon the first suspect, in Studd’s death.
Silk scarves are seen practically everywhere in the movie; in Lady Lebanon’s desk in the drawing room, Amersham’s desk in his house, and hidden in the real murderer’s clothes. At one point, Lady Lebanon tries to dispose of the silk scarf in her desk by tossing it into the fireplace but Tanner extracts part of the evidence, which bears the maker’s tag, marked India. William decides to remove 200 pounds from his mother’s cashbox and give it to Studd’s sister, though Lady Lebanon tells him he should have asked her first before taking the money. That evening, Isla is asleep in her room when the door is bolted shut; footsteps are heard running down the stairs followed by a sinister laugh and valuables breaking. Isla finally escapes from her room and heads towards the main staircase. William was in his own bedroom, with the door being locked from the outside, when the intrusion occurred. William asks one of the servants why his door was locked, the servant responds there was trouble downstairs and he thought William might be safer if kept in his bedroom. Amersham left that evening not too long ago. Upon being asked who caused the mess, the footman replied “Someone who doesn’t like Dr. Amersham.” William doesn’t like the doctor but the footman provides an alibi for him; an unusual move on his part.
Totty and Tanner visit Amersham to learn of any further information that led to Studd’s death. Amersham possesses no alibi and was seen leaving the Lebanon estate seven hours after the murder. Lady Lebanon continues to protect Amersham, most likely because the detectives later reveal that he is in fact her second husband, the man she married only three months after the senior Lord Lebanon died due to illness. She claims that Amersham blackmailed her into marrying him, and that he is really an unscrupulous character with a less than stellar military record. Amersham unexpectedly becomes the next dead body in the case. His body is found in the garage of the Lebanon estate when a detective from Scotland Yard informs the rest of the detectives at the Yard about the case.
Totty and Tanner have their humorous exchanges throughout the movie, especially with regards to who Totty suspects as the murderer. First it was Jim Tilling, but now, it is Lester Amersham. The detectives get a search warrant for Amersham’s house and discover a desk drawer full of silk scarves made in India. William makes a trip to Scotland Yard, promising full cooperation on his part in getting the murder solved. Soon Totty and Tanner drill the hired help at Marks Priory about the murders. One of the footmen admits to having a bank account, which probably is not all that unusual for hired help to have.
As the case winds down, Ferraby is doing his job inside the house, finding out what needs repairing. Right outside of the late Lord Lebanon’s bedroom, he measures a section of three feet, which does not show up on the blueprints. The three feet belong to a secret passageway which leads from the inside of the house, to the outside of the house. The deceased Lord Lebanon was not just physically ill, but also mad, insane, possibly as the result of being a product of a family intermarriage. The Lebanon’s have long married each other, and as wrong as William sees this, wants to put an end to it. He knows that the constant intermarriage has caused many psychological problems for the family, including the death of his father.
In the final scenes of the movie, Totty, Tanner, Ferraby, and William talk, play cards, and remain present in case another murder should happen that evening. Isla almost becomes a target of the expected murder, revealing who has been knocking off people close to the Lebanon family, and eventually revealing the reason for the termination of the family line. The perpetrator eventually commits suicide, while standing on the infamous foyer stairs.
The majority of screen shots of the front door of the estate are through a pergola which suggests a passage to the front door and later on, through the house. This subtle key later proves the existence of an external door in the outside wall of the house to the senior Lord Lebanon’s private quarters, walled up with large stones after his death from a long illness.
Probably one of the best scored films of the 1940′s, with the piano dirges being played throughout the movie, “The Case of the Frightened Lady” is a fast moving story with direction from George King. Marius Goring turns in a credible performance as the last male heir of the Lebanon family, up to the very end where he seemingly undergoes a personality change. Penelope Dudley-Ward is Isla, the delicate “Frightened Lady” who is much stronger than she thinks she is, being able to lure the murderer out into the open for the detectives to see. Supporting acting from Torin Thatcher, Patrick Barr, Ronald Shiner, Roy Emerton, George Hayes, and George Merritt round out the cast for this movie. “The Case of the Frightened Lady” remains a classic for those who enjoy this genre of film. While there are many memorable moments in the film, it is perhaps the final scene where Lady Lebanon’s closing words of “A thousand years of being great, gone out like a candle in the wind” resonate with the plot of the story and why her desire to keep the family line going was extinguished by her son, who knew what was best for the Lebanon name.