There’s a tendency to view the Red Scare of the 1950s, as represented in the movies, as a purely American phenomenon. The whole HUAC affair and the subsequent blacklist encourage us to view this as something unique to Hollywood, and there can be no doubt that the paranoia reached its zenith there. However, this offshoot of the Cold War spread elsewhere, albeit in a diluted form. High Treason (1951) provides an example of the British film industry tackling the matter of reds under the bed at the same time. The result is a well made espionage thriller that catches the mood of the period, but also one that contains overtones that can come across as a little unpleasant when you stop and think about them; I’ll address those aspects later.
It’s the early days of the Cold War and the lines between what in official wartime parlance would be referred to as fifth columnists and the kind of spies and double agents that would become a staple of the genre are not yet clearly defined. High Treason affords a glance into the lives and activities of a handful of subversive operatives who straddle those lines. The opening has an apparently meek civil servant, Ward (Charles Lloyd Pack), returning home to his flat, admonishing some boisterous kids along the way, feeding the cat, and then sitting down to transcribe a munitions manifest which will be handed on to a group of saboteurs. This is the stuff of the typical spy story, the outwardly harmless apparatchik beavering away unobtrusively in the service of his foreign paymasters. However, the film then moves to the men of action, the agents who actually put the information to use in spectacular and violent fashion. A wave of sabotage has been sweeping the country, taking lives and creating instability. There’s a dramatic depiction of the bombing of the ship carrying those munitions Ward had told his confederates about. In the aftermath of the carnage and destruction we’re introduced to the men charged with putting an end to this internal terrorism: Commander Brennan (Liam Redmond) and Supt. Folland (Andre Morell) of Special Branch and Major Elliott (Anthony Bushell) of MI5. The film follows their investigation, detailing the meticulous nature of the surveillance of known suspects, the lucky breaks that are needed to crack such cases, and the trail of corruption and ambition that leads to betrayal at the very heart of government. Police procedural stories, even those as intricate and involved as this, can be a dry affair at the best of times. There’s a tendency to pass over or lose touch with the human aspects that are the necessary ingredients of good drama. However, High Treason avoids falling into this trap by alternating between the men from the ministry and their investigation and the daily agonies suffered by a reluctant member of the spy ring, Jimmy Ellis (Kenneth Griffith), and his immediate family. As gripping as the investigation and the gradual closing of the net is, it’s the focus on Ellis’ doubts and fears that adds real punch to the tale.
The terrific Seven Days to Noon came out a year earlier and Roy Boulting followed up that suspenseful Cold War nightmare with this tale of spies, sabotage and spooks. Boulting carried over a similar sense of pace and atmosphere to High Treason. The two films benefited enormously from the use of authentic London locations, and both also featured the character of Supt. Folland. However, there are some important differences: while Seven Days to Noon achieved a timeless quality that still resonates today, High Treason is more dated by being firmly rooted in the politics and concerns of its time. Which leads me on to the criticism that I alluded to in the introduction. The foreign power for which the spy ring is working is never explicitly named yet, through the frequent use of ominous newspaper headlines and other pointers, it’s clear enough that it is the Soviet Union. Fair enough, Cold War thrillers naturally used the eastern bloc as the bogeyman villain and to expect anything else, or criticize that practice, would be naive in the extreme. Having said that, I did raise an eyebrow at the way the script seems determined to hammer home the point that artistic types and intellectuals were easy prey for communist propaganda – that those with even a vaguely liberal bent were at best foolish dupes and at worst dangerous fanatics obsessed with undermining their own country. Despite that criticism, there’s a whole lot to admire in the movie. It acts as a wonderful snapshot of a Britain that has long disappeared, where heavy industry was an integral part of the economy and the threat of blackouts shutting it down, even for a time, would have spelt chaos. Aside from the historical and sociological insights offered, High Treason is a tightly plotted thriller that grips you from the opening right through to the excitingly shot climactic battle within Battersea power station.
High Treason isn’t the kind of film that could be described as a star vehicle. Essentially, it’s an ensemble piece but, even so, there are a few noteworthy performances that stand out. Irish actor Liam Redmond was a character specialist, looking a good deal older than the 38 years old he was at the time. He brought a quiet, whimsical intelligence to the part of Brennan, and it’s his doggedness that draws together all the disparate strands of the complex investigation. Andre Morell reprises the role of Folland that he played in Seven Days to Noon with his customary charm and urbanity. It’s not a showy part by any means, deferring to Redmond’s authority, yet it’s a typically classy piece of work by Morell. Probably most memorable of all though is Kenneth Griffith as the tortured wireless man who sees his dreams of a better world twisted and subverted by his cynical and opportunistic companions. Griffith gave a very real, honest performance where the agonies of conscience he endures never appear the least bit affected. I was also quite impressed by the work of Mary Morris, in one of the few female roles in the film, as the dedicated and driven spy with few scruples. There’s also strong support on view from Geoffrey Keen, Joan Hickson and Anthony Nicholls.
High Treason was a film that was difficult to see for a long time but is now available on DVD in the UK from Spirit. The film is correctly presented in academy ratio and the transfer is quite good. There is the odd speckle here and there but the print used is generally in good condition with nice contrast levels to show off Gilbert Taylor’s moody cinematography. There are no extra features whatsoever on the disc. The movie represents a welcome companion piece / follow-up to Seven Days to Noon, and although it’s not as good as the earlier production it still has enough going on to recommend it. As a stand alone film it works perfectly well on its own terms, and really ought to be judged as such. I’ll admit I’m not crazy about certain aspects of the subtext, but that doesn’t mean I dislike the film or rate it any lower as a consequence. Whatever way you approach it, High Treason is an effective, satisfying and exciting espionage movie.