I guess it’s inevitable that cinema, like most any form of artistic expression, will be influenced by the body of work that already exists. Remakes, reimaginings and homages seem to have been with us forever, and one figure who’s arguably been imitated more than any other is Alfred Hitchcock. Both the stories he was drawn to and the filming techniques that he frequently employed have been referenced so many times that there’s a subgenre of “Hitchcock style” thrillers. The Naked Edge (1961) may not be all that well-known but it certainly belongs in that category. Of course, as with most (all?) imitations, it fails to live up to the standards of the movies it alludes to – once a filmmaker sets out on this path he necessarily sacrifices a lot of his own individuality. Still, that doesn’t mean that the movie in question can’t be entertaining in its own right; after all, half the fun for the viewer comes from recognizing the source of inspiration.
The pre-credits sequence opens proceedings in lurid fashion with a murder – a businessman taking a knife to the guts – and hurls the viewer right into the action. There follows a trial where the evidence of George Radcliffe (Gary Cooper), an American resident in London, appears instrumental in securing the conviction of Donald Heath (Ray McAnally) for the murder of their boss and the accompanying theft of the firm’s money. Heath, naturally perhaps, protests his innocence and Radcliffe hastily exits the emotive atmosphere of Old Bailey with his former colleague’s accusations of treachery ringing in his ears. Even at this early stage, the clouds of suspicion are gathering around Radcliffe; the unrecovered loot, his talk of suddenly acquired wealth and an edgy encounter with a disbarred solicitor (Eric Portman) initially stir doubts. Jump forward six years and we find Radcliffe now heading a successful partnership and clearly wealthy. However, it’s only when a long-lost blackmail letter is delivered to his wife that we get to the nub of the matter. Radcliffe’s wife, Martha (Deborah Kerr), may have harboured a few mild suspicions before, but the letter that explicitly accuses her husband of murdering his employer and using the stolen money to finance his own business plants a particularly stubborn seed. A combination of apparent evasiveness by Radcliffe when asked any questions about the murder and subsequent trial and some downright suspicious behaviour on his part cause Martha’s doubts to grow. The deeper she delves into the past, the more convinced she becomes that the full truth may not have come out in court. With her marriage starting to crumble in this sea of distrust, it gradually dawns on Martha that her own life may be in jeopardy too.
A few years earlier, Michael Anderson had directed another “woman in peril” picture – Chase a Crooked Shadow – and in my review of that I commented on his tendency to indulge in some self-conscious effects. The Naked Edge was clearly trying to tap into a Hitchcock vibe (the poster prominently highlights the involvement of Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano), and Anderson’s direction makes use of countless low angle shots and zooms. Of course, this isn’t an especially bad thing as we’re treated to some nicely composed shots that accentuate the tension. The climax, where preparations are meticulously laid for an attempt on Martha’s life, consists of a whole series of well-judged shots cut together expertly. Where the film does become overly derivative, and indeed contrived, is in the poor handling of the dialogue. It reaches the point where I found myself imagining the writers sitting around and scratching their heads over how they could mangle the words a bit more to ensure the ambiguity of Radcliffe’s character was rammed home. I feel a lighter touch would have sufficed; Cooper’s performance in the lead contains enough of the man’s own natural diffidence and reserve to get the job done satisfactorily. This was Coop’s last screen role and, even if he doesn’t look exactly ill, he does exude an air of age and weariness. In all honesty, I generally find it difficult to watch performances from actors when I know they hadn’t long to live afterwards – it’s even harder when the person is someone whose work I’ve grown to admire. Whenever Cooper talks about safeguarding his future I can’t help but get that hollow, sinking sensation. In the role of Martha, Deborah Kerr was handed what was really the pivotal role; she’s the one from whose perspective the unfolding events are seen. In order for the viewer to retain doubts it was necessary for Kerr to convincingly portray a woman who could never be quite sure of anything herself. I think she managed that, never allowing histrionics to overwhelm her character and thus alienate the audience. For the most part, the supporting roles are fairly small yet highly memorable. No-one possessing even a passing familiarity with British cinema of the period could fail to be impressed by a cast list that features: the aforementioned Eric Portman and Ray McAnally, Peter Cushing, Michael Wilding, Wilfrid Lawson, Diane Cilento, Hermione Gingold and Joyce Carey to name but a few.
The Naked Edge is out on DVD in the UK from Cornerstone/Palladium. The film is letterboxed (not anamorphic) at about 1.66:1, which would fit a film of this vintage. The transfer is generally good and fairly clean, although I did notice at least one cue blip. There is a certain softness to the image at times and the black levels are decidedly on the grey side. While I wouldn’t term it a displeasing transfer, it could stand some improvement too – even so, it’s never less than watchable. There are no subtitles offered and no extras. So, how do I rate it as a movie? As I’ve already said, the whole “woman coming to distrust a suspicious husband” storyline invites obvious comparisons with Hitchcock; Anderson’s direction throughout only compounds that, and there’s a short sequence that replicates one of Hitch’s more heavily criticised ploys. On the whole though, I think the film is generally successful in keeping the atmosphere tense and the viewer guessing. Let’s call this a cautious recommendation.