British attempts at producing film noir have traditionally been regarded as a notch down from their Hollywood counterparts. There is, sometimes, that sense of the genteel that the harder-edged Hollywood movies don’t suffer from. However, when BritNoir is at its best it’s more than capable of competing with productions from across the pond. The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, It Always Rains on Sunday, Brighton Rock, for example, are all films that belong in the front rank of noir. The October Man (1947) may not be quite in the same league as those other titles but it’s not far off.
When you see a film boasting a script by Eric Ambler, you know you’re on fairly safe ground. Ambler was, first and foremost, a novelist and gave us some of the best espionage/mystery fiction of the last century. I would strongly urge anyone unfamiliar with his writing to seek it out, although I believe a good deal of it has shamefully fallen out of print. His script here contains those staples of any good noir, namely murder, guilt and psychological imbalance.
The story concerns Jim Ackalnd (John Mills) who we see in the opening scenes riding a bus and knotting his handkerchief into the shape of a rabbit for the amusement of the small girl seated next to him. The child – played by Mills’ own daughter Juliet – is the daughter of some friends, and Jim is accompanying her back home. As the bus makes its way along a country road in torrential rain, a brake failure causes a fatal accident at a level crossing. This results in the death of the child and Mills spends a year in hospital with a fractured skull and brain damage. As Jim is released from hospital we learn that he remains racked with guilt and has already attempted suicide. He moves into a rundown boarding house peopled by an assortment of fine British character actors including a poisonous Joyce Carey, Catherine Lacey as the put upon manageress, and Edward Chapman (who should be recognizable as Mr Grimsdale from numerous Norman Wisdom movies). He also makes the acquaintance of model Kay Walsh, of which more later.
Jim’s life seems to be getting back on track and a romance with Joan Greenwood helps give him some renewed hope for the future. However, things are about to go pear-shaped – this is the world of noir after all. The model turns up dead in a park and a cheque from Jim is found close to the body; worse still he was out walking alone when the crime took place. This, combined with some malicious gossip from the other residents, leads the police to suspect Jim – and Jim to query his own sanity. With the psychological pressure mounting and distrust surrounding him, it falls to Jim to try to find the real killer before the net closes around him.
Roy Ward Baker provides his usual solid, unfussy direction but the real star is the cinematography. Erwin Hillier lays the noir atmosphere on thick, with lots of smoke, fog, deep shadows and harsh white lighting to pin the focus on the hapless Jim. John Mills plays the role perfectly as the quiet and essentially decent man driven to the very limit. Mills was ideal casting for this kind of part and would reprise it a few years later in the similarily themed The Long Memory. In fact, the acting is uniformly strong throughout and the scenes in the boarding house are memorable.
So, where does the weakness lie? Perhaps surprisingly, the fault is with Amblers script. I always feel that this kind of movie benefits enormously from creating suspicions in the viewers mind about the hero. In this case, we are never really in any doubt that Mills is innocent, moreover, the identity of the real killer is fairly obvious right from the off. Personally, I also found the repeated use of the knotted handkerchief motif – used to point up the mental strain of Jim – a little tiresome towards the end.
Generally though, this is one of the better examples of BritNoir and I would certainly recommend it to any fan of suspense/noir. The film is currently unavailable on DVD anywhere, save grey market copies, as far as I know. I believe the rights may currently reside with Optimum/Network/ITV in R2, all of whom have released some little known gems in the past. I very much hope they get around to this one soon.