Written by Alec Coppel
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
On a quiet London night British upper class housewife Storm Riodan (Sally Gray) and secret American ex-pat lover Bill Kronin (Phil Brown) return the former’s lavish flat for a night of passion. Unbeknownst to them Storm’s husband, the brilliant if extremely sensitive Dr. Clive Riodan (Robert Newton) lingers behind the curtains, listening to their every word. He eventually makes his presence known, catching both completely off guard in the process. So intense is the doctor’s jealousy that he threatens to murder dear Bill point blank with a firearm. When Storm retires to her quarters out of embarrassment, the doctor forces Bill to accompany him outside when the film cuts to…a scene few days later as Clive Riodan attends to a patient in his private office. His wife is convinced his bullish ways were no more than hot air to scare Bill off, yet no one has seen the American for some time. With a police search underway, Dr. Riodan operates under stealth to keep Bill alive in a secret room below street level for as long as the investigation boils over. Once in the clear, poor Bill will be knocked out and tossed into a tub of acidic liquids!
Bill Kronin, the condemned character in Edward Dmytryk’s The Hidden Room, is not the only American ex-pat involved in some capacity with the film. In real life Dmytryk himself was spending time overseas to produce his pictures following a controversial episode in 1947 back on American soil when the acclaimed director refused to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (one of many institutionalized bodies whose aim it was to protect, so it was argued, the United States from the increasing Communist threat). His act of defiance led him to being ‘blacklisted’, thus putting the breaks on his professional career in the Hollywood system. Although he would return in 1951 to cooperate with the Committee, his time spent in England bore fruit, at least judging by the quality thriller that is The Hidden Room (known in some circles under the title Obsession).
It really is quite interesting to watch the film with knowledge of the director’s awkward standing vis-à-vis his home country’s politics. The filmmaker’s real life plight in many ways mirrors that of the American figure in the film itself. For one, the character of Bill Kronin is not some abrasive, fish out of water American bloke whose uncivilized ‘colonial’ ways are frowned upon with Londoners. On the contrary, he comes across as very affable chap, and a fine catch for a Storm, the latter who must suffer the constant ire of her grumpy, stiff husband. When their hands are caught, Bill finds himself as Dr. Riodan’s captive, kept alive through some food and drinks, but with the threat of death, a grisly one at that, hanging over him like an untouchable specter waiting to strike with the victim least suspects it. As Bill helplessly awaits the worst, his acts of defiance doing little to dissuade Dr. Riodan of going through with his plan, so did director Dmytryk’s stance against his country’s undemocratic ways send him a precarious professional position, his career as a filmmaker in Hollywood dying a little bit more with every passing year.
Apart from all the meta themes that can be attributed to the picture, what matters above all else is its efficiency as a taught, gripping, slow-burn tale of crimes committed out of blind passion. That is, after all, what drives Dr. Riodan, who himself admits to not really disliking Bill specifically. Unfortunately for the victim, he proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, the drop that caused the vase to overflow, the final nudge that pushed Riodan over the edge. Storm, it seems, has not been the most fateful partner in marital bliss (few could blame her for her promiscuity, in fairness), a fact well known to the doctor. Having finally caught one of her lover’s red handed, he is going to make him pay, no matter how nice he is. Through it all Dr. Riodan proceeds with the inimitable English pomposity. His often quite verbose explanations as to his strategies begin to grow on the victim’s nerves, which leads to some exceptionally charged exchanges between an American who just wants to tell it and hear like it is and an Englishman who expresses himself with floral linguistics.
Robert Newton, it should be noted, is excellent in the role. His snobbish wit, coupled with the dedication with which he threatens to murder Bill when the time is appropriate, a continuously shifting schedule influenced by the happenings in the investigation, are more than enough to encourage the viewer detest the villain. Riodan’s dry demeanour belies the feverish emotions that drive his behaviour, making him all the more vexing. A perfect villain entails having an objective and reasons for their behaviour that the viewer can understand, and an actor that can earn the viewer’s admiration whilst driving him or her mad with anger. Dr. Clive Riodan, as played by Robert Newton, fits the bill perfectly. Even the set design of the pathetic, unkempt room where Bill is attached by chain to the wall is a strange apparition, what with its dingy, grimy look. In contrast to most of the other sets that befit upper middle class London, the prison room is arresting for how otherworldly it appears.
One of The Hidden Room’s hidden assets is its ability to slightly reinvent itself depending on the circumstances of the plot. It initially appears the film will venture into lovers on the run territory before briefly shifting into a mystery about what happened to the doctor’s victim, and finally finding its footing as a slow race against the clock thriller. In all three instances the film work its magic, setting characters with tremendous ease, allowing them breath and for the actors to give each role sufficient dimension for the viewer to care about them. The only nagging issue pertaining to the revolving door of subplots is that the same characters are not always utilized in equal measure. Storm, who is made up to be a rather important figure in the first half, is mostly left to the wayside by the final third, the significance of her role replaced by that of Superintendent Finsbury, played by Naunton Wayne, who makes the character his own via a delightfully deceptiveness sharp intelligence comically camouflaged by sheepishness.
Edward Dmytryk fashions a strong tale of love gone awry and obsession that should satisfy noir fans in general, all the while intelligently making what amounts to a specifically personal film given the strain the director must have been under during the time of production. The latter point makes for compelling discussion, something the film historians and hardcore cinephiles can chew on, but it is the former that matters most. The Hidden Room delivers the goods and keeps the viewer on edge until the final few frames.