American-born Hawley Harvey Crippen (nicknamed “Peter”) was a mild-mannered, middle-aged doctor who made his living in London selling quack remedies.
He was convicted and hanged in 1910 for poisoning his wife, Belle, dismembering her body and burying the remains in the coal cellar of their home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent in North London before fleeing England with his young attractive mistress (dressed as a boy), only to be arrested aboard the SS Montrose while en route to North America.
The movie version of his story opens with the trial of Crippen (Donald Pleasence) in the Old Bailey. Flashbacks provide a look at the misery of Crippen’s marriage to the overbearing Belle (Coral Browne) – a failed music-hall performer with a fondness for drink and an eye for younger men – and how Crippen finds true love with his pretty young typist, Ethel Le Neve (Samantha Eggar) – until events reach their dreadful climax.
Belle delights in insulting and humiliating her husband, often in front of friends and acquaintances, and cuckolds him with their lodgers and her music-hall colleagues. Despite her own infidelities, she is offended by her husband’s affair with Ethel and by the fact that he no longer wishes to sleep with her.
At the Old Bailey, prosecuting counsel R.D. Muir (Donald Wolfit) denounces Crippen as a monster, and the judge sends him off to the condemned cell at Pentonville Prison.
That Crippen caused his wife’s death, there is little doubt, but the movie wonders: Was it a deliberate act? At the end of the film, Crippen claims that he did not intend to kill Belle but accidentally gave her an overdose of a sedative he was using (without her knowledge or consent) to calm her aggressive nature.
Similar claims have been made on behalf of the real Dr Crippen by commentators on the case, but he never raised this claim at the trial.
Ethel Le Neve
James Robertson Justice
Lord Chief Justice