The movie begins in the sordid state of marriage; it ends in the sweet first blush of introducing the beau to papa; and these and all other states of being are conveyed to the viewer with formidable cinematic efficiency.
In the opening scene, a man berates his wife, a middle-aged Hollywood star, for consorting with "boys." She dares him to call her a whore. When he inaudibly does, she slaps him. He steps silently out of the house into fake rain, in front of a photo-projected waterfall, as his eyes twitch venomously at the camera. Cut, and in the next scene her corpse is splayed out on the white sand of a beach while the belt of a raincoat writhes like an eel in the ebb and flow of the tide beside her. A young man, recognizable as the male romantic lead thanks to his glistening curls and his not-yet-quite-incipient jowls, spots the body from the top of an escarpment, scrambles down, and upon reaching it, says, “Christine!” in a plummy voice. Is he one of her “boys”? He runs, somewhat ambiguously, away, as two young women who see him are quick to tell the police.
At the station, the young man admits that he knew the dead woman, that she “paid him for a story” in Hollywood (“received money from the deceased on former occasions,” the interrogator writes down), and that his raincoat was recently stolen. It looks bad, but the young man, named Robert Tisdall, keeps up the jocular tone conventional with leading men accused of murder until the police reveal that the late actress left him £1200 in her will. At that he faints, leaving the detectives at a loss. Erica Burgoyne, the chief constable’s daughter, a young woman whose artificial-looking eyebrows mark her as the female romantic lead, rushes in to hold Tisdall’s head, twist his ears, and slap his face—tricks that she claims to have learned in the Girl Guides, at boxing matches, and in the back seat of detectives’ automobiles respectively. When Tisdall revives, he lolls his head suggestively against her bosom for a few moments before he’s fully conscious. Then he’s put into the hands of a near-sighted, incompetent barrister, who fully expects to see him hang.
Determined to prove his innocence, Tisdall slips away, rendering himself invisible by the expedient of wearing his barrister’s goggly glasses. His smug grin makes it a little hard to keep liking him. And surely, even in 1937, the audience wouldn’t have believed in the efficacy of thick glasses as a disguise? But becoming anonymous at will is a fantasy that movies are good at indulging. Another such fantasy is belief in the innocence of a young man whose raincoat belt has strangled an older woman who has left him money. But Erica, with no consciousness that she’s in a movie, does believe, and when Tisdall stows himself away on the side of her car, a Morris which only she seems capable of driving, she falls in with his quest for his raincoat. She has a terrier as well as a car, but it’s the car that seems to be her familiar. It’s thanks to the car that she can move quickly away from her father. Not too quickly. This is the 1930s, after all. The point of the chase scenes seems to be not so much the thrill of vertigo as the pleasure of watching English landscape trot by. Dangerous speed is an attribute of trains, which can look quite menacing if your lover leaves you alone in a railyard all night, as Tisdall eventually does to Erica. (She sleeps through it, trustingly.) Cars are amiable and a little hapless, like women, whose competence is charming because it so often gives way to a need for reassurance and a nap. Only men and trains can be relied upon. Or can kill you.
The tensions of the plot are fairly simple. Will Tisdall find his raincoat before the police recapture him? Will Erica be forced to choose between her love for a fugitive and her love for her father the chief constable? Will every type of British character actor be adequately represented in the cast? In the nick of time, the true murderer outs himself in a hotel ballroom, and the chief constable and Tisdall are able to live happily ever after, shining together in Erica’s eyes. It’s never explained, though, why the strangled actress left Tisdall that money—or why he fainted. But that’s a Hollywood story. This is England.