These days it’s hard to think of Hammer Films without recalling visions of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee battling it out in luridly colored horror movies. The British studio earned an iconic place in the hearts of film lovers for their almost single-handed revival of the Gothic horror picture. More than anything else, this is what Hammer is and will be remembered for. However, things didn’t start out that way. Before their successful reinvention of Dracula, Frankenstein et al Hammer were churning out a series of low budget crime movies. A distribution deal struck with Lippert in the US meant that these cheap and cheerful pictures that flirted with the noir sensibility featured a succession of Hollywood performers, often those nearing the end of their star careers. The resulting movies were of varying quality, but a handful are of particular note. Heat Wave (1954) is among the very best of this bunch, featuring a better than average script, a well-chosen cast, and a mood and atmosphere that comes closer to classic US noir than many a British production.
The story is told in the form of one long flashback, narrated by a resigned and slightly drunk Mark Kendrick (Alex Nicol). Kendrick is a struggling hack writer, an American residing in Britain, who has rented a lakeside cottage to get away from it all and try to make good on his latest commission. In Kendrick’s own words, the whole affair began one sultry evening as he sipped his drink and gazed across the lake at the lights of the house opposite. There’s a party going on, and Kendrick is the kind of man who is easily distracted from responsibility and work. A phone call from the hostess, Carol Forrest (Hillary Brooke), informs him that there’s a problem with the launch meant to ferry the guests to their destination, and see if he would mind using his little motor boat to carry them. Kendrick doesn’t need much persuading to take a break from the book he doesn’t feel like writing, so he duly obliges. On arrival, he gets his first glimpse of Carol and the various dissipated revelers she has invited. Straight away Kendrick has Carol pegged as a lady with a wandering eye and pretty flexible morals. While it’s clear enough that Kendrick isn’t exactly the upstanding sort himself, he’s not really interested in what he sees on offer at this point. All noir needs something to draw the hapless anti-heroes deeper into a dangerous situation: Carol certainly represents the bait to pique Kendrick’s curiosity, but the hook comes in the form of her husband, Beverly Forrest (Sid James). Beverly is one of those salt of the earth types, a self-made tycoon with a likeable side. Kendrick spends the evening playing billiards and boozing with his host, and the result is that he’s made himself a new friend. Beverly may be a rich man with a desirable trophy wife, but he’s also lonely and dissatisfied. He’s a man surrounded by sharks, people whose only wish is to get as much as they can from him. In Kendrick he sees something different though; he senses that here’s a guy who isn’t on the make and is good company to boot. However, Carol’s allure is powerful, and her appetite is whetted by the apparent nonchalance of Kendrick. The truth is this broke writer is unquestionably drawn to Carol in spite of his fondness for and loyalty to her husband. Factor in Beverly’s heart condition, his determination to see Carol cut out of his will, her own thirst for money, and the all the ingredients are in place for a classic noir triangle.
Heat Wave was written and directed by Ken Hughes, adapted from his own novel High Wray. Hughes had already worked on a handful of shorts in the Scotland Yard series for Merton Park and brought the sense of urgency and economy that such experiences demand to bear on the movie in question. The running time of Heat Wave is just shy of 70 minutes, and the pace is necessarily brisk throughout. In short, Hughes never wastes a moment, and ensures that everything we need to know is imparted with the minimum of fuss. British attempts at film noir could be a hit and miss affair, often not quite striking the right tone to make them convincing. However, Hughes’ writing and direction probably get as close to the American template as any Hammer production. The flashback device and Alex Nicol’s weary narration of the unfolding events create a sense of fatalism and poor judgment. In addition, Hughes aims for the shadowy, ambiguous appearance of classic US noir – it doesn’t always come off, but when it does the results are fairly impressive.
I think the casting in these Hammer noir pictures wasn’t always ideal, with some of the imported stars not looking quite comfortable in their surroundings. However, the leading trio in Heat Wave work well together and suit their roles. Alex Nicol was good at portraying weak-willed villains and, although his part here is more anti-heroic than outright villainous, that quality is used very effectively. Kendrick is essentially a washed-up loser, and Nicol captures that aspect perfectly. I’m not one of those who believes that film noir has to have a femme fatale character to work, but such a figure does add something if it’s properly realized. As such, Hillary Brooke’s scheming and ruthless wife is a major plus point for the film. Her cold, naked self-interest contrasts nicely with the slightly befuddled and indecisive Nicol, and her sympathetic husband. Which brings me on to Sid James. Here is a man who seemed to turn up in every other British movie of the 1950s. The South African born actor is now best remembered for his many appearances in the long-running Carry On series of comedies, but he was more than just a comic figure with an infectious laugh. Those familiar, battered features graced movies of a whole variety of genres and he was more than capable in dramatic roles. One thing that’s beyond dispute about Sid James is the sheer likeability of the man on screen. He looked, moved and sounded like a man who had lived a great deal, and that rumpled face had all the humor, regret and understanding of long experience etched in every line. Maybe he isn’t the first guy you’d think of when the image of a tycoon comes to mind, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else capable of drawing the viewer completely to his side. There’s good support from Alan Wheatley as the dogged detective – it may just be my impression but I felt he was channeling Peter Cushing at times. The only weak link, as far as I was concerned, came in the shape of Susan Stephen, appearing far too earnest and middle-class to be convincing as Sid James’ daughter.
Heat Wave is readily available on DVD from VCI as part of the Hammer noir series. Hammer Film Noir Volumes 1-3, offering a total of six movies on three discs, represents good value for money. Generally, VCI releases tend to sport medium grade transfers, and that’s a fair assessment of how Heat Wave is presented. The image could be a little sharper and it’s interlaced as usual – in addition, this film really ought to be presented widescreen. Still, it’s hard to be overly critical when the price is so reasonable. Heat Wave isn’t a perfect film – it is after all a low budget programmer – but it is one of the best of Hammer’s early efforts. I’m fond of British thrillers from the 50s and 60s so I may be a little biased here, but I do feel this movie has points of interest for fans of film noir in general and British crime pictures in particular. Anyway, for those who think Hammer stands for horror and nothing else, Heat Wave is a good indicator of the versatility of that legendary studio.