A prize find from Amazon Prime Video. It’s an interesting and well-constructed crime, mystery yarn, well directed and photographed. The acting is passable, as well. It’s The Fake, which came out in 1953 from United Artists. It’s about dead sure I never saw this on the big screen as a kid. Details are from Wikipedia.
So, what’s it all about? What is the fake? We soon guess. The opening scene shows a ship unloading at a London dock. Various shadowy characters watch with interest. Several wooden crates are unloaded, marked “Tate Gallery.” The Tate is a famous London art gallery. We guess the crates hold paintings destined for the Tate.
One crate, in particular, draws special attention from the figures lurking in the shadows. One, marked number 11, gets the nod. An unruly character approaches the dockworker carting the crate to its destination. He deliberately starts a fight, which distracts everybody, well nearly everybody. During the distraction the number 11 crate is spirited off to a waiting lorry, and a substitute is put in its place. One of the shadowy figures, Paul Mitchell (Dennis O’Keefe), observes this and gives chase. He has been hired to look after the security of the paintings. His intervention is intervened by another shadowy character, a Mr. Smith (Guy Middleton), special investigator for the insurance company carrying the load for the priceless shipment of paintings.
Anyhow, matters get sorted out, and Mitchell shows up at the Tate with the real painting. It’s Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna and Child, and Mitchell has figured it was scheduled for theft, so he had the ship’s captain bring it across from America in his safe. The real painting is placed in its rightful place in the museum, and the fake from the substitute crate is removed.
There is a big reception at the museum, and all of the art swells of London show up. One guest, who arrives uninvited, is disgraced artist Henry Mason (John Laurie), let in the back way by his daughter Mary (Coleen Gray).
Mitchell takes an immediate shine to the lovely Ms. Mason, but he is especially interested in the father. He suspects Henry Mason has been producing fake masterpieces, and he seeks to obtain a copy of Mason’s work to check out his hunch. To do this he commissions Henry to paint a portrait of the daughter, and, upon viewing it at the Mason home, he takes with him, instead, a smaller painting by Mason.
In the meantime, a master thief crashes the gallery and makes off with the real Madonna.
The art expert at the museum confirms Mason’s work is identical to the fakes, and the finger points to Mary’s father. Mary is distraught, and the romance between Mary and Paul Mitchell begins to fall apart.
But, Mitchell digs deeper and gets too close to the truth. The man behind the fakes and the theft of the Madonna, plus two additional da Vinci thefts from other museums, finds it expedient to have Henry Mason killed off, in a suicide fashion.
Mitchell is sure it is not suicide, and it is not. Villainous art buff, Sir Richard Aldingham (Hugh Williams), is behind the whole thing. He has ordered Mason’s killing, and he needs for Mary to be killed, as well. He directs his henchman, Weston, (Seymour Green) to make it look like a suicide. Weston, refuses, and Sir Richard murders him by putting poison in his drink.
Meanwhile, Mitchell and Smith tour the late Henry Mason’s workshop, and Mitchell spots a painting. He has seen the setting before. It’s Sir Richard’s study, only the painting shows the study with the stolen da Vincis in place on the wall. The paint on Mason’s final work is still wet. It’s a message from beyond the grave, fingering Sir Richard.
Meanwhile, Sir Richard has taken Mary’s demise upon himself. On a pretext, he picks her up in his car and takes her back to his place. But Mitchell is already there. When the evil Sir Richard takes Mary back to his study for a final drink he turns on the lights and sees to his shock that the wooden panels covering the stolen paintings have been pulled back. Mitchell confronts Sir Richard with the hard evidence of his crime, and Sir Richard responds by pulling a pistol from a desk drawer.
Mitchell responds with a brilliant bluff. He holds up a vial of acid and threatens to destroy the Madonna. Besides, a missed shot will perforate the priceless work. Mary to the rescue. She knocks the gun away and foils Sir Richard’s evil intent.
Mitchell follows through with his threat and dashes acid on the painting. The paint dissolves and runs down the canvas. Mitchell has previously put the fake in place of the real Madonna.
It’s the end of the line for Sir Richard. Later we see the real painting on exhibit at the museum, and Paul Mitchell stops by to take Mary out the door, supposedly to matrimonial bliss. The strains of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition wind down, as they have been playing off and on throughout the drama.
A few plot absurdities blind-side this production.
- The theft of the fake painting at the dock is crude beyond what is required. The thieves think a longshoreman’s brawl is going to distract security enough to cover up the switching of the crates. No way. Any number of people present would have spotted the subterfuge. In fact, Mitchell does.
- The murder of Weston is also an unbelievably clumsy affair. Slipping your henchman a poisined drink right there among your collection of stolen art, and then expecting him to walk away and die, which he does? No. Just no.
- Mitchell figures out Sir Richard has the stolen works behind the panels in his study. He goes to the museum, gets the fake, takes it to Sir Richard’s house, replaces it for the real Madonna, and then waits for Sir Richard and Mary to arrive. Really? There was no indication Sir Richard would be coming home soon. Sir Richard has gone off to set in motion a sequence of events to end Mary’s life. He tells her he is taking her out of town. Apparently he takes her back to his study with the idea of slipping her a poisoned drink. Nobody else knew he would be taking this round about way. And Mitchell waits and waits for Sir Richard to arrive, and he never calls for backup. When Sir Richard becomes threatening, only sweet Mary is on hand to save his life. Unbelievable.