Walk a Tightrope

The B movie tends to get a bad press, attention is often drawn to the cheapness, caliber of stars or sometimes just out and out trashiness. Such criticisms can certainly be justified on many occasions but blanket dismissals are unwise generally and cinema has a habit of throwing out plenty of exceptions to muddy things. The thing is a B movie can work very well so long as certain elements are in place. The lack of funds can encourage economy not only in the nuts and bolts of production but also in the storytelling and pacing. And of course the presence of one or two good actors is able to overcome shortcomings elsewhere. Walk a Tightrope (1965) is very much a B picture, but its two stars and a reasonably intriguing plot help to elevate it considerably.

Carl Lutcher (Dan Duryea) is obviously a man down on his luck, living in a decrepit bedsit with a naive woman (Shirley Cameron) and slightly bemused as to why she should profess to love him. Later we learn that Lutcher is a dockworker by trade but when he heads off to complete a job it’s work of an entirely different nature he has in mind. Lurking opposite a movie theater, he watches Ellen Sheppard (Patricia Owens) bidding farewell to a couple of girlfriends and then follows her as she walks off towards a nearby pub. Ellen’s behaviour seems a little odd – she’s aware of someone tailing her, and then there’s the panic attack she succumbs to upon accidentally running into her new husband (Terence Cooper) and his business partner (Richard Leech). All of this leads to the two men insisting on escorting her home, although she clearly dislikes the idea. Shortly afterwards the doorbell rings and Lutcher forces his way in. To Ellen’s horror, he pulls a silenced pistol and calmly fires three rounds at her husband at point-blank range. Lutcher behaves as though it had all been arranged while Ellen is verging on hysteria due to the shock. So why would a man like Lutcher assassinate a man he’s never met and then ask the victim’s wife to pay him? Everything points to a contract killing but Ellen’s reaction doesn’t fit. Lutcher will have to be tracked down and a trial will need to take place before any indication of what’s really going on becomes apparent, and even then we’re still talking suspicion and surmise until a final twist reveals all..

Frank Nesbitt has few credits as a director, and only a few more as assistant director but he made two thrillers with Dan Duryea, Walk a Tightrope and Do You Know This Voice?, both written by actor Neil McCallum. I haven’t seen the latter but, despite Nesbitt’s rather anonymous direction, I’m quite keen to do so now. McCallum, who also pops up as the prosecutor in the trial sequence, produces a tricky little thriller here which ensures the story develops steadily and at a satisfying pace. Of the other crew members, cinematographer Basil Emmott should be familiar to anyone with a fondness for post-war British thrillers.

I said at the beginning of this piece that a couple of good actors can make a significant contribution to the success of even a modest production, and that’s precisely what happens with Walk a Tightrope. Both Dan Duryea and Patricia Owens were experienced Hollywood performers and it’s their work that adds interest to this thriller. Frankly, I like seeing Duryea taking a leading role in any movie, regardless of whether it’s heroic, villainous or something in between. I think what made him such a fascinating actor was his ability to put a genuinely human face to whatever part he played. His role in this film isn’t an attractive one, he’s a killer after all and nothing we learn about him suggest he has too many redeeming features. However, we do care about him, especially during the trial which dominates the last half, and his turn in the witness-box as he makes no attempt to deny his guilt but becomes increasingly frustrated and desperate to convince the court of the fact he wasn’t acting alone. Patricia Owens appeared in a number of films which I admire, The Law and Jake Wade and The Gun Runners among them, and I think she did excellent work here as well. Her part called for a good deal of subtlety and some fairly complex emotional shifts as the plot weaves its way towards the conclusion, the kind of performance which demands skillful playing in order to remain credible. I feel she nailed the enigmatic aspect of her character and her acting at the climax carries extra punch as a result. Absorbing as the story is, I don’t believe it would be anywhere near as effective were it not for Duryea and Owens.

UK company Network’s releases in their The British Film line continue to impress me, both the selection of titles and the quality of their transfers. Walk a Tightrope is presented in the 1.66:1 ratio and looks very nice. The image is crisp and clean and doesn’t display any particularly distracting damage. The sole extra feature is a gallery but it should be remembered these films are all very competitively priced and represent excellent value for money. This may well be a B movie but it’s also a solid example of a pared down and well paced crime thriller. OK, perhaps it’s not a classic of the genre but it never aspires to that anyway. I enjoyed the basic plot and the two lead performances give it a bit of class – definitely worth checking out.

Underrated ’55

I’ve contributed a few times to Brian’s “Underrated” series over at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, compiling lists of westerns and thrillers before now. This time I submitted a few suggestions for  Underrated ’55, highlighting movies from the the year 1955 which deserve a bit of attention. You can view my selections here.

Guns of Darkness

I’ve been making an effort lately to see more new films, or perhaps I should say new to me rather than newly produced movies. Through a combination of blind buys and recommendations from others I’ve been trying to expand my horizons somewhat instead of simply returning to comfortable old favorites. Inevitably, some have worked better for me than others, but I have to say I’ve had no total disappointments yet. The latest is Guns of Darkness (1962), a polished British political thriller by Anthony Asquith. Actually, it’s more of a human drama set against the backdrop of a volatile political situation in a fictional South American state.

New Year’s Eve, out with the old and in with the new. As the minutes tick down towards the end of the old year time is also running short for certain individuals, but in a slightly more dramatic fashion. Some are thinking only of parties, of song and dance and celebration, others are planning to set off fireworks of an altogether more lethal kind. Tom Jordan (David Niven) is attending a company do with his French wife, Claire (Leslie Caron), and he’s not having a good time. Frankly, Jordan isn’t having much of a time in life in general; he’s a deeply dissatisfied man, contemptuous of his job, ambitious for something he can’t quite define, and on the down slope of a marriage. At the stroke of midnight the revelers, even the reluctant ones like Jordan, link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne, the image of their full-blooded rendition intercut with the very different scenes taking place simultaneously outside of their insulated little world. All across the city the streets ring with the sound of army boots on stone, and gunshots and screams. A coup is underway, a swift and bloody change of regime, and will be more or less complete by the time the sun rises on the new year. The aftermath is to be seen next morning, uncertainty and the meting out of retribution mean normal life and the routine of business are put on hold. Returning home early, his mind still reeling from his having witnessed a summary execution, Jordan is about to face a wife who’s both pregnant and on the point of leaving him. However, before Claire has the chance to tell her husband anything, he discovers an unexpected interloper – soon to be ex-President Rivera (David Opatoshu) has crawled wounded into the car of the doctor visiting Claire. Sometimes those who drift rudderless through life find direction or purpose quite unexpectedly, and such seems to be the fate of Jordan. Whatever other failings he may have, he’s a humanitarian at heart, and a man like that really has no option but to follow his instincts under the circumstances. And so the race, and consequent pursuit, is on – Jordan and an initially unwitting Claire find themselves running for the border with the ailing Rivera in tow, their lives and his in grave danger.

Guns of Darkness is packaged as a combination of political thriller and chase drama yet the politics play only a minor role – if anything, it’s the dehumanizing aspect of politics which is critiqued. Little is made of the differences between Rivera and his usurpers, in fact the point is made that they have much in common in terms of the degree of ruthlessness they are prepared to exercise. This is the stuff of broad brush strokes though, window dressing in a sense, and essentially an adjunct to the main theme of the movie. The long trek and accompanying adventures are really just stops along the journey Jordan embarks upon towards emotional maturity and redemption. If anything, Guns of Darkness represents the process of self-discovery of a previously jaded and unfocused man. We’re presented with a guy who has spent his life running away from responsibilities and sneering at everything or everybody he felt was beneath him, and we watch as he comes to realize he’s been running from himself and that the contempt was a mask for indecisiveness. By the end, all that fog has been banished to be replaced by a feeling of purpose and the emergence of a man of true character, a soul reclaimed and renewed.

There was a good deal of talent behind the camera for this film: director Anthony Asquith, who made some fine British films in his time including the underrated The Woman in Question, writer John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame, and cameraman Robert Krasker with both The Third Man and Odd Man Out on his extensive résumé. The opening sequence blending the New Year celebrations and the violence of the coup is wonderfully shot with Asquith and Krasker coming up with an excellent selection of angles and lighting setups. There’s plenty of moody noir style photography on view throughout the movie and good use of the Spanish locations, which stood in for South America. A film like Guns of Darkness necessarily involves a fair number of talky scenes but these rarely bog the action down too much and anyway there’s typically enough tension woven into the story to ensure things keep moving along – the station wagon becoming trapped in quicksand and the ensuing struggle to get free being a notable example.

I think the nature of the story, insofar as one can define it through the leading character, is clearly British or European. What I mean is that US films tend to present a more clear-cut lead, typically a man of action or at least one who is more certain of his place in the world. The character of Jordan doesn’t fall into this category, and David Niven was an excellent choice to play him. One usually has an image of Niven as a debonair type, smooth with others and comfortable with himself. While those were qualities he could effortlessly bring to the screen he was capable of a far broader range too when the occasion demanded it. Guns of Darkness sees Niven wholly uncomfortable, at war with himself and those around him, and not really sure why. As soon as Rivera crashes into his life he finds himself taking increasingly bigger risks, and with only the vaguest idea of what his ultimate purpose is. There’s a good deal of subtlety in Niven’s performance, his growing self-awareness coming on gradually and naturally. When he eventually finds he has to resort to the violence he so despises, Niven’s reaction is beautifully judged and there’s suitable attention paid to the consequences of his actions too. And that’s another point in the movie’s favor in my opinion, the violence that takes place is handled with the kind of gravity it deserves.

The picture is basically a three-hander with Niven, Leslie Caron and David Opatoshu receiving the lion’s share of screen time. Caron’s part called for a display of stoicism – there are plenty of physical challenges to be faced as events unfold – and also honest expression of the kind of conflicting emotions experienced by a woman still in love with the man she hopes her husband can be, even as she’s coming to terms with the knowledge that he’ll never be perfect. Opatoshu had one of those roles here it must have been tempting to portray him as a saintly humanitarian, but that was fortunately resisted in favor of making him a more three-dimensional figure. The moment when we realize he’s capable of great cruelty in the name of survival is shocking and at the same time curiously liberating; the result is that we understand we’re looking at a real human being, not simply some idealized caricature. In support, there’s worthwhile work done by James Robertson Justice, Sandor Eles, Ian Hunter and Eleanor Summerfield among others.

Network in the UK have been steadily releasing significant numbers of movies over the last couple of years under their The British Film banner.  Guns of Darkness is one of those titles and it’s the kind of film which would otherwise still be languishing in relative obscurity, although I see it’s also been made available in the US via the Warner Archive. The Network DVD presents the movie in the 1.66:1 ratio and the print looks strong for the most part although there are a few minor blemishes here an there. This is the kind of film I really appreciate having the opportunity to see and it’s gratifying to have it in good condition. I found the tale a solid and quite engrossing one, peopled with characters who felt credible and authentic, and put together by talented professionals both behind and in front of the camera. Anyone who enjoys a well crafted thriller with some depth should get value from this film.