“Saloon Bar” is an entertaining murder mystery directed by Walter Forde that combines elements of Hitchcock in the story and comedy. The film itself combines a number of entertaining minor stories that take place inside a pub, eponymously named. Customers at the pub discuss the latest news, which involve the hanging of a convicted murderer, but when a clue to the murder case is found inside the pub, the regulars decide to become actively involved in solving the crime and finding out who the real murderer is.
An image of newspaper titles flash across the screen at the start of the film, along with a “Wanted for Murder” bill that is posted on the wall of a building. A similar element is found in Hitchcock’s murder mysteries, like “Young and Innocent.” The suspenseful score unfolds with the opening of the movie, showing the outside of the pub, when the viewer becomes a witness to the solving of the murder case while at the same time being amused by the exchanges of the other customers. The story allows the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall, observing the different people coming in and going out, a Sherlock Holmes type character who is largely responsible for finding the real murderer, and saving the convicted murderer from being hanged.
One of the barmaids, Ivy (Anna Konstam), is hanging up a piece of mistletoe over the floor on Christmas Eve. Another employee, Fred (Al Millen), describes the symbolism of the mistletoe to her. Fred has a crush on her and sometimes finds it hard to conceal when he works with her. The owner of the pub, Bill Hoskins (Norman Pierce), comes downstairs announcing that his wife in in labor and that the doctor must be called soon to help deliver the baby. From the way Bill talks, it is certain that this time he will finally be a father, hopefully, to a son. The first customer to enter the bar is Charlie Wickers, a regular who is known by everyone who works there. Ivy picks up a newspaper that mentions Eddie Graves (Alec Clunes), the convicted murderer to be hanged, on the front page. Normally news like that does not affect one personally, but in this case, it affects everyone who works at the bar, for Eddie’s fiancée, Queenie (Elizabeth Allan), works there. She is not on duty that evening, for she has been allowed to take time off from work ever since she heard Eddie was arrested. She does, however, show up late in the evening to help recall the events which led up to his arrest, which enable Joe Harris (Gordon Harker) to solve the case.
The murder case begins when Ivy finds a banknote in the cash drawer that bears the serial number that goes to a bundle of cash that was seized after the victim, Mrs. Truscott (Annie Esmond) was found by Eddie when he came home one evening after work. Even though Eddie did the right thing in going to the police when he found the body, he was held as a suspect and on insufficient evidence, convicted of her murder. Queenie tells Joe how she met Eddie during his last hour of work at Mr. Garrod’s Garage, and how an exchange between Eddie and his boss (Torin Thatcher) caused Eddie to quit his job and want to invest his money in another business venture. Eddie and Queenie go out to eat, then return to their own homes.
Since the customers at the pub heard the news on the radio that the petition to let Eddie go free has been overturned by the court. Queenie goes to pieces, and at that point, Joe uses the information she gave him to get a lead on the case. As with any other murder mystery, one ominous figure, Jim (Gordon James), a blind man, is initially suspected of handing the banknote clue to Ivy, but he is not the murderer. Instead, it is discovered the money came from another pub across the street where a barmaid, Doris (Judy Campbell) is the one who can positively identify the murderer, who initially handed her the money. The second clue Doris provides Joe with is a description of the man’s car who she dated one evening, and the interior, which was a light blue Moroccan leather. The car was serviced at Garrod’s Garage, the next place Joe visits to get the name of the owner of the car. He successfully gets the name of the man who did murder Mrs. Truscott, and with a few more clues and visits, one of which includes meeting the murderer’s wife, who is a practicing psychic, manages to solve the case.
Once the murderer (Cyril Raymond) enters the pub late that evening, he tries to keep a low profile so that nobody suspects anything, but eventually loses his cover. Doris is called by Harris to come over to identify the murderer, which she does, but he does not reveal himself until Queenie start to talk incessantly about Eddie. The murderer escapes, only to be trapped in his own home where he falls off the balcony in the house and dies.
“Saloon Bar” is a fast moving story, kept that way through the anecdotes that take place which provide most of the comic relief during that gloomy Christmas Eve, which is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, not worrying over a fellow employee losing her fiancé to the gallows. The female half of the young couple who are seated at a table for the majority of the film is telling risqué stories which Fred tries to eavesdrop on, Jim’s entering the pub and bumping his cane into the girl’s leg, and the recurring group of boy carolers who keep screaming off key instead of singing, provide entertainment while the murder case is slowly being worked on. A young Roddy McDowall is one of the carolers, who are constantly being yelled at by Joe to get lost and stop making such a racket. One of the high moments of the film is when Joe meets the murderer’s wife, and claims he can see her aura. Of course, he is really there to obtain an alibi for Eddie, which he is able to do successfully.
Tight directing from Forde, with top casting is what makes this movie work so well in addition to being enjoyable. Gordon Harker portrays a character that gets something done now, never wasting time since it could mean the death of an innocent man, in this case. Elizabeth Allan is the distraught Queenie who finds it hard to be away from her workplace and seeks the support of her co-employees. Alec Clunes, the well known Shakespearean actor, does an outstanding portrayal of convict Eddie Graves, a man who neither acts nor looks like a murderer, but only wishes to be married to Queenie. Supporting acting roles from Joyce Barbour, Anna Konstam, Al Millen, Norman Pierce, and Torin Thatcher are memorable. Well scored by Ernest Irving with the story written by John Dighton and Angus MacPhail, “Saloon Bar” is a murder mystery that can be viewed not only on Christmas Eve, when the story takes place, but enjoyed again and again, just for its watchable quality.