THE NARROWING CIRCLE. Eros Films, UK. 1956. Paul Carpenter, Hazel Court, Russell Napier, Trevor Reid, Ferdy Mayne Screenplay by Doreen Montgomery, based on the novel by Julian Symons. Directed by Charles Saunders.

   Sigh …

   What can you say.

   The Narrowing Circle was a major breakthrough novel for critic and mystery novelist Julian Symons. Barzun and Taylor reckoned it was his best novel and ranked it high among the subgenre of mysteries set in a publishing house background (which includes Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock).

   Basically the story is that when a journalist’s rival for a major editorial job is killed after beating him out for the job and cheating with his girlfriend, it looks bad and as he delves into the mystery to clear himself, he stumbles across more bodies, convincing Inspector Crambo (Trevor Reid in the film) he’s the guilty man. “Plausible and entertaining,” was how Barzun and Taylor summed it up in A Catalogue of Crime.

   Alas, almost none of that is preserved in the low-budget feature made from the book starring the ever annoying and impossibly crass Paul Carpenter (whether Canadian or American, I never knew, but his inability to act transcended nationality, even in a time when British films thought they had to have at least a pseudo American lead), cheap production values, leaden direction, and a lame script.

   Any suspense films depends to some extent on identification or sympathy with the protagonist, but Carpenter, a singularly bad actor, makes that almost impossible.

   The “narrowing circle” of the title is a pretty good metaphor from the novel, the detective in the case describing to the protagonist suspect how the police dangle the noose lightly over the suspect’s neck and let him slowly draw it tight with his own actions, the “narrowing circle” of circumstantial evidence building against the suspect, often by his own hand.

    We open with Carpenter in his office dictating a rough tough hard boiled private eye story. Whether intentional of not, that’s a sort of backhand tribute to Symons, who has much derogatory to say about that kind of thriller. It’s the kind of grace note you could expect in one of Symons’ sharply observed books.

   The highlight is a scene where Hazel Court and Carpenter both try to silence the other while dictating a rough and tumble hard-boiled melee at the same time. I would really have liked to have seen that scene between two actors with charisma and timing. Alas that isn’t what you get, though Court is by far the best thing in this.

   And it is the last grace note you get in this amateurish by rote suspense mystery.

   Pretty soon we learn our hero expects to be be promoted to crime editor at the publishing house where he dawdles away his time penning cheap thrillers, even bragging to his homey blonde girlfriend. But when his rival gets the job (Ferdy Mayne) our hero also discovers he got the girl, who is two timing him, so when his rival turns up dead there is only one natural suspect.

   Bits and pieces of the Symons novel are still here, but so ineptly written, directed, and acted as to make it unrecognizable. Even the romance between rival reporter Hazel Court and Carpenter is sabotaged by Carpenter’s usual annoying performance and the trite and frankly illiterate screenplay and ham-handed direction.

   Any of the interesting bits about the inside workings of a big publishing house are lost in scenes of Carpenter stumbling around finding bodies. The screenplay doesn’t even try to make his stupidity remotely believable. By the end of the film you may be rooting for him to be charged and hanged for sheer stupidity.

   You really may have to see this to understand how bad the actors are. They stumble over their lines, miss their marks, and practically fall over their own feet. It looks like the crudest type of live television and not a film.

   Symons might not be everyone’s cuppa, but he was a literate writer who knew his way around suspense and mystery, and certainly his best book deserved better than this tiresome mess.

   Don’t let the narrowing circle of this noose choke the enjoyment out of you. Even if you are a major Symons’ fan, just skip this one. You can imagine a better adaptation of his book than this, certainly with a better cast.

   Anyone could.