Home Video Hovel: 23 Paces to Baker Street, by David Bax
23 Paces to Baker Street–directed by Henry Hathaway and released in 1956, now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber–is not exactly the most original idea ever committed to celluloid, to put it lightly. But that’s no reason not to have a good time with a movie and this one, more often than not, provides exactly that. Hathaway executes numerous tense set pieces, from small dramas like a blind man pretending to play pinball to keep from being identified to bravura moments like a man teetering at the edge of a room with no wall high up in a building bombed in World War II.
Van Johnson plays Phillip Hannon, a successful American playwright currently living in London to oversee the opening of his new play. Well, not to literally oversee it; he’s blind. 23 Paces to Baker Street came just two years after Rear Window and, if you think that’s a coincidence, I’ve got a London bridge to sell you. In that film, a man who can’t walk thinks he’s seen evidence of a crime. In this one, a man who can’t see think he oversees one being plotted. Not taken seriously by the police, he enlists the help of his butler, Bob (Cecil Parker), and his former secretary and former fiancee, Jean (Vera Miles), to do some detective work of his own. For what it’s worth, the film may owe a debt to Hitchcock but the finale deserves credit for predating Wait Until Dark by a whole decade.
Hannon is a proud man who tries as much as possible to get around on his own. Hathaway respects the autonomy of his protagonist, allowing entire scenes to play out without reminders of his blindness. When Hannon does come up against his limitations, though, Hathaway puts us in his shoes. The inciting incident, for example, is masterfully framed. The two potential conspirators are placed just behind Hannon’s head and on the other side of a pane of frosted glass, two blurry silhouettes. We can no more make out their physical identities than Hannon can.
That visual acuity on Hathaway’s part serves 23 Paces to Baker Street well. A handsomely mounted widescreen production with exteriors shot on location in London, the film is a marvel to look at. If you don’t mind the derivative plot, it’s worth your time and money.
Kino’s Blu-ray release comes from a new 4K restoration and it shows. Clearly, the source element used was in terrific shape, especially for a less celebrated title from 60 years ago. It does great favors for the location photography and the production design. It also sounds great, which is key to a movie about a man who spends so much time listening.
Special features include a commentary by film historian Kent Jones.