It takes a great deal of moxie to begin a film by referencing Hitchcock in both title sequence and score, but director/co-writer Christopher Presswell’s CANDLESTICK does just that, and then, with an impudent wink at the audience, does a more than credible job of making good on its promise. An intelligently crafted plot, driven by Jack (Andrew Fitch) a fiendishly clever villain, makes for a classic cat-and-mouse game that uses nothing more than half-truths, downright lies, and a gleeful attitude on the part of said villain to keep us on the edge of our collective seat as an evening’s entertainment turns deadly.
During the course of drinks, conversation, and a board game that involves solving a murder, Jack drops carefully calculated clues about Frank’s wife, Vera (Isla Ure), with seemingly innocent remarks that lead Frank to the inevitable conclusion about his wife. Tempers flare, to the consternation of Vera and the hapless fourth member of the group, the benignly pompous Major Burns (Tom Knight).
Jack is pure evil, but he is, as in Shakespeare’s telling of Richard III’s nefarious deeds, the smartest person in the room, with a magnetic charisma and an infectious delight in what he is doing. We know it’s wrong, but he is so fascinating that despite the damage he inflicts, even on the milquetoast Frank, we want to see not only what he will do next, but how he will do it, and how he will then get away with it. Even when he is delivering the rapier-sharp side of his tongue to Major Burns’ latest long-winded story, there is a frisson of guilty pleasure first in his saying what we are too polite to say, and then in the smug satisfaction that we, in recognizing the unkindness and disapproving while enjoying it, are still morally superior.
Chief among the pleasures of CANDLESTICK is Fitch as Jack, the orchestrator of the game, adulterer with his best friend’s wife, and manipulator of those in his orbit. Not just any manipulator, Jack’s particular genius is his innate understanding of human nature, the weak points that rankle, the weaker points that unhinge. Hence, from simple boredom or something more complicated, he has contrived to reveal all to best friend Frank (Nigel Thomas) regarding his wife’s indiscretions, but not implicate himself. Far from it, he will be leading Frank down a poisonous garden path while offering the succor that only a true friend would provide.
Fitch, with his piercing blue eyes that can turn instantly and effortlessly in turn from guileless to mocking to dangerous with a laser-like intensityi is a species of charming and sophisticated cad all too rarely seen anymore. A sociopath who is arch, merciless, and perfectly self-aware in the fine tradition of the James Mason school of villainy, and one who is almost too amusing to warrant a comeuppance. If the other characters seem to be revised versions of that ci-mentioned board game by way of classic whodunits, it’s because that’s how Jack has cast them in his mind, though the performances from the rest of the cast are flawless, particularly when Jack’s machinations don’t so much change them, as usher them into a fuller bloom of who they are already.
CANDLESTICK sets up that deliciously uncomfortable juxtaposition between wanting to identify with the smartest person in the room, and knowing it’s just plain wrong to do so. When Frank weepily bemoans his wife’s infidelity, and Jack tartly corrects the grammar, we have the conundrum in a nutshell, and yet another wickedly satisfying moment of black humor and the temptation of a moral compass not just tossed away, but stomped on with a sneering relish.