Shadow on the Wall (1950)
Directed by Pat Jackson with a screenplay by William Ludwig (Interrupted Melody (1955)) this above average thriller features 9 year old Gigi Perreau as the daughter of a man (Zachary Scott) falsely accused and convicted of killing his wife her stepmother. She witnessed part of the event causing her to go into shock until a psychiatrist (Nancy Davis) attempts to get her to recall what happened while the real killer (Ann Sothern) tries to stop it. Though not quite rising to the level of tension created by “the master of suspense” Alfred Hitchcock fellow Britisher Jackson does a pretty good job with this one despite its contrived ending.
Loving father David Starrling (Scott) has just returned home to his devoted daughter Susan (Perreau) who jumps into his open arms to greet him. After giving his overcoat to maid Olga (Barbara Billingsley!) and saying hello to Susan’s nurse “nanny” Miss Burke (Helen Brown) he gives his daughter a present from his business trip out West an Indian doll with a bow that she dubs “Cupid”. Starrling also brought home a gift for his “new” wife Celia (Kristine Miller) the name Susan calls her stepmother who apparently went to the movies with a friend. We learn however that she’s been having an afternoon interlude with Crane Weymouth (Tom Helmore) instead. Starrling learns as much himself after witnessing his wife getting out of his car and catching her in a lie about who’d dropped her off. He confirms his suspicions later that evening when Weymouth and his fiancée Dell Faring (Sothern) who’d come for dinner lies about his whereabouts that afternoon as well. Dell is so upset to learn of it that she feigns a splitting headache and says she has to leave. Starrling escorts her to the door apologizing saying he’d had to do it trap Weyworth. A cool Dell leaves with her fiancé Starrling goes back into the den while Celia retreats to their bedroom.
When Starrling returns to their bedroom himself he finds Weymouth’s monogrammed handkerchief in his terrycloth robe and gets angry. He also happens to have a souvenir (from his trip) gun in his hand which he had intended on putting away after Celia had expressed concerns about it. But now with Weymouth’s handkerchief in one hand and the souvenir gun in his other he approached his wife enraged. Frightened she strikes her husband with a mirror she’d been holding he drops the gun and falls to the bed unconscious. The doorbell rings and Celia rushes down the stairs to find her sister Dell saying she thinks she’s killed David. Dell follows Celia to her bedroom where she assesses that he’d only been knocked out. However the two begin an argument over the earlier proceedings – evidently Celia was always first in their mother’s eyes. Dell gets angrier and angrier as she recalls growing up being second best and Celia’s current affair with her fiancé. She too had picked up the souvenir gun intending on discarding it when she finds herself firing it at Celia in a rage killing her. Starrling stirs groggy stands and then falls off the bed and onto the floor unconscious again while Dell backs out of the doorway. The camera pans to a now screaming child Susan who is standing at the other end of the room with her hands to her face.
In the next scene Starrling is being convicted by a jury of his peers and sentenced to death by the judge for killing his wife. He assumed he must have pulled the trigger before his wife hit him with the mirror; his defense attorney is Pike Ludwell (John McIntire). A distraught Dell leaves the courtroom and returns to her apartment where she writes a letter of confession addressing it to the New York district attorney. She decides to leave town but must first get her hair done during which she imagines herself in Starrling’s place. As the hair dryer is lowered over her head she pictures herself sitting in the electric chair about to die for her crime when suddenly she is terrified. The next scene shows her tearing up the letter she’d yet to post and letting it wash down a raging sewer drain.
Meanwhile the shocked little girl Susan is seen in a children’s hospital where she’s become rather withdrawn. In her mind she sees a “shadow on the wall” which she can’t quite make out (not realizing that it was her raincoated “feather hatted” step Aunt Dell) but eventually seems to settle on something akin to her Indian doll “Cupid”. A psychiatrist Caroline Canford (Davis) has taken up her case realizing that getting Susan to tell what she saw will help her to heal. While Dell is settling her mother’s estate with Pike she learns that Dr. Canford has made some progress with Susan. Frightened Dell first destroys all the evidence she has the clothes she was wearing that night and later decides to eliminate the crime’s only witness her step-niece. She grows increasingly desperate and bold first trying to poison the child (a Johnnie Whitaker look-alike Jimmy Hunt plays a boy in that scene) and then to drown her (Don Haggerty appears uncredited in that scene)! Davis gives a solid performance as the psychiatrist who makes great progress getting Susan to eventually articulate seeing the image of “Cupid”. Unfortunately the director had to use the same technique to interrupt her probing more than once to extend the drama with more of Dell’s attempted treachery. Plus in the middle of the movie there’s a curious scene between Susan and her father which Dr. Canford arranged hoping it would help his daughter to better remember what happened that doesn’t ring true. Still except for the improbability of its ending the film contains enough suspense to hold one’s interest and delivers a more than satisfactory experience.