Val Guest’s 1962 film Jigsaw starts out quite Hitchcockian—a searching camera travels across a seaside caravan park to the second floor of a brick house, entering, Psycho-style, through the window. There is finds a table strewn with magazines like Photoplay and Screen Stories, an ashtray with cigarette butts, and articles of clothing draped over the backs of chairs. A “look at me!” mirror shot zeroes in on a partially complete jigsaw puzzle, and the title appears in large block letters over it, one of several visual rhymes you will see over the course of this film.
We see a woman smoking in bed, somewhat the worse after a night of drinking. She tries to rouse the lump next to her, named “Johnny” (so help me, I thought he was going to be dead, and she would be unable to remember the previous night’s events, but it’s not that kind of movie). She’s ridiculously solicitous to Johnny once he stirs, but the feeling is evidently not mutual, because he first offers her money, then, when she reveals she is pregnant, strangles her. In a further Hitchcockian flourish, her scream is spliced with the sound of a train whistle (The 39 Steps, anyone?).
Sad to say, the rest of the film is not as stylish, cinematographically speaking, but it’s a perfectly acceptable police procedural often classified as a Brit Noir. Notably, you never see Johnny’s face in this opening sequence, which puts the audience on equal footing with the police. The investigation is led by DI Fred Fellows (Jack Warner) and D.S. Jim Wilks (Ronald Lewis), who wear out a lot of shoe leather and make a lot of phone calls in the process of investigating this murder, which allows for the introduction of many minor characters, played by able actors you’ve likely never heard of, and gives you a nice little tour of Brighton and its surroundings as well of the kinds of businesses in operation in that part of the world in the early 1960s.
Their first clue comes when someone breaks into a real estate office in town, and the murder house is one for which the leases have been taken. Apparently British police didn’t have a lot of restrictions placed on them in the day, because they enter the property without a warrant (granted, the rental agent is with them), handle lots of things, and finally break open a trunk—at which point the house becomes a crime scene, because a woman’s body is found inside.
Great chunks of exposition are provided by the obligatory nosy neighbor and caravan park manaager Mrs. Banks (Joan Newell). She has a lot of opinions about what kind of a woman, whom she knew as “Mrs. Campbell” lived in the house: her sins included that she “wore lipstick even with curlers” and enjoyed regular night-time visits from the presumed Mr. Campbell, although “I noticed she didn’t wear a wedding ring” and he never seemed to stay the night. Unfortunately, she can’t describe “Mr. Campbell” except in general terms, because only once did she him in the daytime, and that was at a distance.
Fellows and Wilks are able to track down a few leads—including the man (Norman Chappell) who delivered groceries to the murder house, who claims he has a photographic memory and an eye for the details of automobiles—and an address recovered from a notepad, which leads them to Jean Simpson (Yolande Dolan, the director’s wife). She’s ayoung woman who keeps house for her widowed father and had gone on a date in the murder house—and remembers that one room was kept locked, belatedly realizing that she was probably intended to be the killer’s next victim. Much of her story is portrayed in flashback, and once again, you never see the face of the man in question. The detectives apply more shoe leather, and more creative hypothesizing, and the puzzle is ultimately solved, but if you can figure it out the twists and turns before the final credits roll, you’re a better plot sleuth than I am.
Guest wrote the screenplay for Jigsaw, basing it on Hillary Waugh’s Connecticut-set novel Sleep Long, My Love. Lovers of true crime will also see echoes of both the infamous Brighton Trunk Murders of 1934, and the foul deeds of the “Bungalow Murderer,” Patrick Herbert Mahon, who in 1924 murdered and dismembered his pregnant girlfriend in nearby Eastbourne a decade earlier. A screen card informs viewers that the film was made with the full cooperation of the Brighton Borough Police and East Sussex Constabulary, who seem to have intended to use the film the way the LAPD used the Dragnet franchise: to restore their reputation following an extensive scandal including policemen accepting bribes, intimidating witnesses, engaging in shakedowns, and participating in the fencing of stolen goods. | Sarah Boslaugh