Henry Hathaway does Hitchcock
Everyone who watches "23 Paces to Baker Street" says the same thing, it is very similar to a Hitchcock movie. From the styling through to the storyline director Henry Hathaway has crafted a movie which feels and looks like something Alfred Hitchcock would have made, maybe only lacking in Hitchcock's dark wit. But it works, the whole story revolving around a blind man over hearing what sounds like a nefarious plot between two people in a London pub then using his heightened senses to unravel a possible crime is both entertaining and clever, not without issue but most importantly entertaining.
Having lost his sight playwright Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson - Three Guys Named Mike) has settled in London where with the help of his assistant Bob (Cecil Parker) leads as normal life as he can, but bitter by the limitations his disability causes. When one night he over hears what appears to be a nefarious conversation by two people in a pub he is convinced a crime is going to happen. With the police sceptical over what he tells them Phillip, Bob and his former girlfriend Jean (Vera Miles - The Searchers) attempt to unravel the mystery of what he heard using his heightened sense of hearing and smell to try and piece things together before the crime takes place.
In a way "23 Paces to Baker Street" is similar to Hitchcock's "Rear Window" where we have a central character who has a disability which limits them and they believe they know of a crime. In this case we have blind playwright Phillip Hannon who over hears a conversation between two people and believes that there is a crime about to happen. The similarities continue as not only do the police not fully believe what Hannon is suggesting but he also has to rely on close friends, former girlfriend Jean and loyal assistant Bob to be his foot soldiers in trying to investigate what he thinks may happen.
Now with Hannon being blind much of the story focuses on how his heightened sense both hearing and smell allow him to piece the mystery together, the scent he smelt on one of the people he heard talking, their wheezy way of speaking and so on. And of course with him having this disability when he starts to get to the bottom of things he becomes easy prey for the bad guys as he can't see what they are up to.
It does make for a very entertaining thriller which is both clever and dramatic as we watch the mystery be solved. In fact "23 Paces to Baker Street" is one of those movies where the actual solving of the mystery is actually more interesting than the crime to be committed. Although we do get an appropriately dramatic conclusion as Hannon becomes a nuisance and is in danger, not once but twice with both moments of drama being genuinely exciting.
But "23 Paces to Baker Street" has one big issue and whilst Van Johnson creates an interesting character in Phillip Hannon, a man who is bitter about the loss of sight and hates being treated differently because of it, the way Hannon manages to move around seems too easy. Scenes as he moves around his apartment without the need for a stick seem too smooth as even when he is panicking he doesn't bump into things and seems to know exactly where everything is, not feeling for it but just grabbing it. Maybe a blind person would be that sure of everything in their own space but when panicking I would have thought it would be harder.
And that for me is the only thing which lets "23 Paces to Baker Street" down as the rest of the performances be it Vera Miles as Jean, Hannon's former girlfriend who still loves him to Cecil parker as Bob his loyal assistant are very good. In fact Parker gives the movie a nice touch of comedy as the almost put upon Bob especially when he returns home from trailing a woman in the rain and giving his report to Hannon where every sentence mentions the rain.
What this all boils down to is that "23 Paces to Baker Street" is a very good movie and not only does it look and feel like something Hitchcock would have made it is almost as good as some of Hitchcock's movies. It's by no means perfect; issues over how easy a blind man can move around when panicking spoils things slightly but it will grab you from the opening scenes and keep you entertained right up until the credits roll.