High Treason

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.

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27 thoughts on “High Treason

  1. The HUAC thing affected everyone in the U.S. My parents were scared 20 years later because they had flirted with socialism in the 1930s. Hollywood gave it a “face,” but it went deep, very very deep.

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    • Yes, the impact of those times in the USA are fairly well known I think, although the experiences of many – the fears you mention – sometimes get swept aside by the higher profile examples.
      I also think people tend to forget that the paranoia of the era did spread beyond the shores of the US, just not in such an intense manner.

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  2. Terrific review Colin – I love SEVEN DAYS TO NOON but have never seen the follow-up and am glad to hear it is now available on DVD – I’ll see about getting it. The Red Scare element is intriguing, not least because the Boultings had in fact been chastised for their depiction of a clearly left-wing protagonist in PASTOR HALL and would later make fun of the unions in I’M ALRIGHT JACK even though they were in fact fairly heavily involved in the movement – fascinating stuff.

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    • Thanks Sergio. I’d never seen the movie myself until the DVD was released, in fact I only became aware of it relatively recently.
      Your point about the Boultings is a perfect illustration of the confusion the whole Red Menace episode seemed to generate.

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          • On the one hand there are barking mad films like RED PLANET MARS and BIG JIM MACLEAN but slightly less hysterical treatments of the theme are fascinating – just been watching some of the Losey films of the era, including FINGER OF GUILT / INTIMATE STRANGER and when seen from the British perspective it really adds something. Annoyingly the film Losey shot with Paul Muni is not even available in Italy, where it was made …

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            • Oh there’s a fair amount of dreadful stuff to be seen. However, the more thoughtful, more artistic material, regardless of how one feels about the aims one way or the other, is worth seeing and assessing again.

              I’m glad you got to see Finger of Guilt / The Intimate Stranger – it’s a fine little movie that could use a proper release. Generally, it’s interesting to see the films that exiles like Losey were making when they came across the pond.

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  3. Welcome back Colin,you really seem to be back with a bang after your break;
    one of your best pieces yet IMHO.
    HIGH TREASON is the sort of film that could never get made in the UK today
    both in terms of quality and possibly subject matter.
    Any political agenda the makers may have had is offset by darkly comic touches and
    a genuine subversive feel.I love the fact that a somewhat genteel classical music society
    could be a cover for a terrorist network.
    Outstanding cast,Joan Hickson heartbreaking as the very concerned mother.
    I was very impressed by Patric Doonan too and was saddened to learn that he took
    his own life at a very young age.
    Overall a great feel for both the time and the place.
    It seems that people are just starting to discover that there are lots of “lost gems” of
    British cinema just ripe for revival.
    Network in the UK have an interesting one lined up EIGHT O CLOCK WALK one of several
    films where Richard Attenborough is facing the death penalty.Not in the same class as
    HIGH TREASON but well worth a look.

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    • Thank you John – although it’s still only a temporary return on my part – the film does tell its story very well. I also like the idea of the cover for the spies; it reminds me a little of Graham Greene and Fritz Lang (Ministry of Fear).

      There were indeed some terrific British movies made around this time that often get overlooked – I just watched Basil Dearden’s Pool of London last night for example – and it’s great to see the likes of Network, Odeon, Renown, Spirit et al putting some of them out there for reappraisal.

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  4. I don’t know this one ( though must admit I don’t watch many British films) ,but your review is enough for me to search it out.
    By chance I’ve just ordered another British film, The Ship That Died Of Shame, which also sounds as if it has a strong story ( with Richard Attenborough )
    Thanks for the referral to my short review of Finger of Guilt. And I do agree it deserves a release.

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    • Glad to hear I managed to whet your appetite for this one.
      The Ship That Died of Shame is a fine Basil Dearden / Michael Relph movie with a good role for Richard Attenborough – you should enjoy it I think.

      And as for the link, my pleasure entirely.

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  5. Colin,
    perhaps it was to be expected that there was a certain degree of concern in G.B. re “spies/traitors” at this point in history. This concern was based upon fact not fiction and proved to be totally justified.

    Soon after World War 2, both the British and American Governments were searching for a “mole” in the British Government who had been passing information on to the Soviet Union.

    This lead eventually to the exposure of the infamous “Cambridge Five”. In 1951 Burgess and Maclean fled G.B. for the Soviet Union and, although fictitious, “High Treason” would have been topical at the time of its release in 1952. Filmed in 1951 one has to wonder whether the producers of this film had some inkling as to the “approaching storm” re “Traitors in High Places”.

    Thanks for the interesting review.

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    • Hi Rod, thanks for taking the time to comment and that’s a fair and relevant point you make.
      As I said above, I have no issue whatsoever with the Cold War subject matter; there were indeed moles in high places and it would be foolish to take any film to task for reflecting the real anxieties of the time.
      My only problem, and I stress it’s not something I feel detracts from the overall quality of the film in question, was the way in which artists and intellectuals were painted as dupes and stooges for those with more sinister motives.

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      • But weren’t there in fact dupes? The Dana Andrews docudrama The Iron Curtain discusses how trying to dupe people was part of the Soviet strategy, if memory serves.

        And the idea of the dupe goes further back than the post-WWII Red Scare. Consider the “well-meaning amateurs” that Joel McCrea refers to in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. Herbert Marshall may not have been a dupe, but Laraine Day certainly was until the climax.

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        • Hello Ted. This is true, spies and infiltrators do rely on unwitting dupes and probably always have done. I suppose I may be nitpicking but I tend to notice it more when intellectuals and artistic types are portrayed as figures who are easily hoodwinked by agents of whatever variety who are up to no good.

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  6. Finally saw High Treason this week and enjoyed it. It really is a Who’s Who of British actors of the 50s. Surprising to see Geoffrey Keen as a docker! He was usually a politician, lawyer or businessman. Also odd to see Victor Maddern as a spy!
    So many familiar faces in tiny and uncredited parts – Jean Anderson, Bruce Seton,Alfie Bass,Harry Fowler,Glyn Houston,Peter Jones,Lockwood West, Moultrie Kelsall
    I was amazed when you said Liam Redmond was only 38. He looked to be in his 50’s to me.
    Wish Mary Morris had more to do.
    Joan Hickson was very good and of course Kenneth Griffith.
    Thanks for recommending it,very enjoyable and fast paced thriller.

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    • Delighted that you got to see the film and, more importantly, that you enjoyed it.

      There are way too many of these tight little thrillers made in Britain at around that time which are now virtually forgotten. Their casts, as you mentioned, are enough to recommend them in themselves.

      I certainly was amazed when I realized how young Redmond actually was in the film. You could of course say he was “playing old” due to the nature of the part, but he still looked very middle-aged.

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    • The first rule of unwatched piles is: Don’t talk about unwatched piles. 🙂
      This is an ongoing issue with me too, and I have a hunch we’re not alone on that score – still, there are worse problems one could have.

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