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 before fleeing England with his younger and more attractive mistress, Ethel Le Neve, only to be arrested aboard ship while en route to North America.
The movie opens with the start of Crippen’s trial in the Old Bailey.
Flashbacks provide a look at the misery of Crippen’s marriage to the overbearing Belle (a failed music-hall performer with an eye for younger men) and how Crippen finds true love with his young secretary, 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 with 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.
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 his behalf by commentators on the case, but he never raised this claim at the trial.
Ethel Le Neve
James Robertson Justice
Lord Chief Justice