Little Red Monkey

Topicality is often seen as a desirable quality in films. Movies are and were, above all else, made to earn money, and what better way to do so than to present your audience with a story that has its finger on the pulse of current affairs. I’m happy to acknowledge this fact but, as someone who spends a lot of time watching, discussing and dissecting older films, I’m in the habit of looking beyond those immediate concerns. All of that was a roundabout way of putting forward the theory that topicality and longevity, and by extension artistic value, may be less than mere casual acquaintances, but might in fact be perfect strangers. These were thoughts that were running through my head the other day as I was watching Little Red Monkey (1955), a film which is firmly rooted in the concerns and mindset prevalent in the Cold War.

Intrigue is surely one of the essential ingredients of a thriller, and Little Red Monkey kicks off with a series of intriguing episodes. To be more precise, we start off witnessing a succession of killings, the assassinations of top scientists. Aside from the acts of murder themselves, all are linked by the curious phenomenon of taking place when a small monkey is present. Now that’s the kind of hook that’s bound to snag the interest of the press and thus we move smoothly to a press conference where a harried government representative is fielding  questions that the reporters are lobbing relentlessly in his direction. They want to know who is behind the violence, what it’s all about, and what’s with the monkey. While the face of officialdom calmly bats away query after awkward query, he has beside him a silent but attentive figure. This is Superintendent Harrington (Russell Napier), the man charged with investigating these events. Before heading off to meet a special arrival at the airport Harrington first spars coolly with Harry Martin (Colin Gordon), one of the more persistent newspaperman in attendance. The nature of the relationship between press and police was one aspect of the film which jumped out at me, and in truth didn’t sit all that comfortably, but I’ll return to that later. Harrington is off to meet a defector whose plane has just touched down and also the man who will be shortly assuming full responsibility for his safety. The defector is simply in the UK to make a transfer before proceeding on to the US, and Bill Locklin (Richard Conte) is the State Department man there to see it all goes as planned. And so we have all the key elements of our scenario falling into place: a supposedly routine babysitting operation that is in danger of being derailed by a bizarre assassination plot and a dogged press.

I like spy stories, I like the trappings of them and the situations typically arising out of them, and I generally like the Cold War milieu that frequently inspires these tales. I also enjoy a good crime yarn, even better if it happens to involve impossible or fantastic elements. In short, Little Red Monkey ought to be right up my street, and yet it didn’t work for me. Why? I think it comes down to a combination of not really caring about the main characters and the movie’s focus on what were probably the contemporary hot topics of defectors and fifth columnists. Frankly, I found the characters of Harrington and Locklin brash, dismissive and perilously close to authoritarian. And these are the good guys. In addition to that, we have the overt suggestion, made more than once, that an unfettered and investigative media is at best a nuisance and maybe even a threat. Then we have the matter of the more unusual aspects of the story – how scientists seem to be getting bumped off by a monkey – getting sidelined in favor of mundane fifth column shenanigans and an insipid romance.  Ken Hughes made some fine shorts and features – Heat Wave is an enjoyable noir, for example – but I feel he squandered the opportunities to do something interesting with this one, allowing the duller moments to predominate.

Richard Conte was a dependable actor, capable of strong, diverse work in the likes of The Big Combo, The Blue Gardenia and Cry of the City but in this film he’s often brusque and snappish, alienating the viewers when he really ought to be connecting with them. Russell Napier is another chilly presence, appearing distant and remote when he’s not railing against reporters. The fact of the matter is the most sympathetic character in the movie is Colin Gordon’s irreverent hack. He’s no saint and has no particularly elevated opinion of himself or his profession but he is more real as a consequence. I found him very effective in Strongroom and this markedly different role is proof that he had some range as an actor. Rona Anderson does her best and is quite personable but her part as Conte’s romantic interest is unremarkable and doesn’t ask an awful lot of her.

Little Red Monkey is the kind of film that popped up in TV schedules with regularity in the past but not so nowadays. It’s been released on DVD in the UK by Network as part of their British Film line, and it looks reasonably good. I would have thought some kind of widescreen ratio would have been appropriate given the year of production but the framing at 4:3 is acceptable. Among the extra features included on the disc is an alternative opening sequence, a neat little touch. I guess it’s clear enough that I wasn’t exactly blown away by this film but all I can do is call it as I see it. To be clear, I don’t say Little Red Monkey is a bad movie, just a disappointing one. There are points of interest in there and it’s a professional piece of filmmaking but I don’t believe it has worn well and, alongside a vaguely unsavory subtext, is too tied to the era in which it was made. So, watchable but hardly essential in my view.

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16 thoughts on “Little Red Monkey

  1. Colin
    I must admit to a fondness for these Red Scare films. I caught this one in 2015 and gave it a thumbs up on my IMDB review. Not a world shaker as you point out, but it worked for me as a low rent timewaster that gets to the point in 71 minutes. Nice write-up as usual.

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    • I think these Cold War movies can be enjoyable if done the right way and there was potential here for something more fun. For me, it’s mostly a matter of focus I suppose, and I feel the less interesting parts were highlighted.

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  2. Hi, Colin – another fine, thoughtful review but I think you’re too hard on this movie. I found it rather enjoyable when I watched it last year and gave it four stars in a review I did on Amazon UK. It certainly has flaws and is not great cinema but it has several charms. It has some snappy dialogue and moves along at a good pace with the intrigue of how the murders were happening keeping me hooked for most of the journey. I did find the ending pretty silly and disappointing. I suppose I differ with you most about the acting where I found Conte, Russell Napier as well as Colin Gordon good in their roles and Rona Anderson – while I agree the role was underwritten – very charismatic. Next time I watch it, will keep your point about its attitude to the media in mind.

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    • I think I would have preferred to see more attention given to the investigation of the murders, and their apparently fantastic execution, and less time spent on the hunt the defector/hide the defector business.
      I did like Colin Gordon’s work on this film, pleasantly irreverent. But the the others didn’t have much chance to shine in my opinion, Rona Anderson’s underwritten part being an example of this
      I didn’t feel it was a total bust but it disappointed me somewhat – I’m pleased to hear you got more out of it though, which shows how we all see things differently.

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  3. as someone who spends a lot of time watching, discussing and dissecting older films, I’m in the habit of looking beyond those immediate concerns

    I have the same experience with books — most of what I read is from the 1930s and 40s, when people were more concerned about things that don’t really permeate now (besides the War and taxes, of course…). I am, however, like you a huge fan of these Red Menace films — especially most of the SF that was produced around this time and displays a borderline-brainwashing hysteria with regards “the other not from here”. As historical documents, they’re amazing.

    I’m intrigued by the impossible nature of this, a fact that will surprise no-one who’s spent four minutes on my blog, so I’m curious: does the murder method make sense? It’s not another of those “Argh! The evil Commies have a Death Ray and they’re going to point it at WASHINGTON!!!” MacGuffins is it? I’ve quite enjoyed RIchard Conte’s work in the past, so I might attempt to track it down if the mystery has even the vaguest chance of standing up…

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    • There are a handful of killings right at the beginning and then another later o, all of which appear to have been carried out in impossible circumstances – one in particular due to its location. The little red monkey aspect is in truth revealed to be, erm… a red herring, and I don’t think it constitutes much of a spoiler to say that. Fortunately, the solution, when it comes, doesn’t involve death rays, although one could argue there is actually a very tenuous link indeed to just such an idea. But I’ll say no more about that.
      I know you like your impossible crimes, JJ, and that part catching your attention doesn’t surprise me at all, but the film kind of sidelines it, sadly. Worth a look and not too hard or expensive to find the film, but adjust your expectations beforehand.

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  4. I agree that Hughes started off with some really solid early films that showed real energy and promise and on the whole had a decent career though a bit of a journeyman I suppose? It sounds to me like nobody’s heart was really in this one – but then, politics rarely results in good art!

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    • All true, Sergio. As I said to others, Cold War paranoia can be a good basis for drama but it can be a bit humdrum too. I don’t know, maybe this tried to play everything too straight and ended up listless. Of course, that was just my reaction, your mileage may vary.

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  5. I totally agree with your very fair minded review Colin-I too was unimpressed with Ken Hughes film. As you mention he has done better Brit B’s the impressive HEAT WAVE that you mention and the rather engaging TIMESLIP, a spy thriller with Sci-Fi elements.
    Conte made a couple of other Brit B’s MASK OF DUST for Hammer which I’ve never seen and THE EYES OF ANNIE JONES. I think you will enjoy THE EYES OF ANNIE JONES which is quiet good,I thought Network had released this one but apparently not.

    Off topic-but over at Mikes we talked about YOUNG BILLY YOUNG. I’m not saying this is a great Western but it’s better than I recall at the time. I picked up the German Black Hill Blu Ray for a few Euros and liked Mitchum’s performance and the neat use of lovely Old Tucson locations. The whole thing sadly has the look of a made for TV movie however but the film generally. I thought it better than its reputation,.

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    • John, I watched Timeslip about a month ago and thought it pretty good, although the occasional attempts to inject a bit of humor fell totally flat with me.

      On Young Billy Young I do remember that TV movie vibe, but that’s to be found in a fair few late 60s westerns in my opinion, and kind of lackluster feel overall. However, I really need to check it out again.

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  6. “Christ, I miss the Cold War.” – M, Casino Royale

    A new one! Your lukewarm feelings toward this movie notwithstanding, I’m going to have to give it a look. I can’t get anyone else in the family on board, but there are times when all I want is a night holed up stories about when men were men and commies were commies.

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    • I’m pleased that I’ve piqued your interest and I’d always encourage anyone to try out a movie for themselves and see how they feel about it rather than just go along with my assessment. I’m by no means averse to Cold War films and take them as they come – some I obviously like better than others.
      Top quote there, by the way. 🙂

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  7. Like “QUATERMASS”, “LITTLE RED MONKEY” was a popular BBC TV serial in 1954 that was then filmed with an American star brought in to hopefully enable overseas viewings.

    No classic certainly but I found this film quite enjoyable when I saw it last year. Plus those Network prints are very nice too.

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    • Thanks, Jerry. I did hear that the film was adapted from a TV show but somehow forgot all about it and thus neglected to mention it.
      And I agree it does look fine – Network have done terrific things with the range and quality of products they’ve made available in recent times.

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