The Dark Man

After spending a bit of time with 60s crime pictures I’m taking a step back into the 50s again to look at another unheralded movie. I mentioned before that it’s possible to discern a slightly harder edge to 60s productions, but I did try to qualify that as nothing comes about all of a sudden, and The Dark Man (1951) which features some tough moments supports that view. Aside from some stylishly filmed setups, what the movie has in its favor is its direct and uncluttered plot line, a simple tale of suspense which doesn’t worry about leaving some (not especially important) questions only partially answered and strictly maintains its focus throughout.

The focus is one of the staples of the suspense sub-genre, the relentless stalking of an innocent by a shadowy villain. That villain (Maxwell Reed) is never named, or never formally identified anyway, but his sinister and ruthless nature is never let in doubt either. One of the most attractive aspects of films such as this is the way the economy of budget led to a necessary economy in the script, but in a positive way. The first few minutes see first the killing of a petty crook for the proceeds of a black market deal and then the subsequent, and much more cynical, slaying of a witness. It is immediately obvious therefore that we’re  looking at someone who is prepared to act decisively to protect himself. As such, it should come as no surprise that he will do all he can to track down and silence another person, actress Molly Lester (Natasha Parry), who accidentally stumbled on the aftermath of the crimes. That this girl is facing a serious albeit elusive threat is never in doubt and it’s up to the Yard’s Inspector Viner (Edward Underdown) to do his utmost to protect his witness whilst trying to get a line on the nameless killer.

The Dark Man is another Merton Park production which, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is very often an indication of an attractive visual style. There is a good blend of atmospheric studio work and some very effective location shooting along the Sussex coast. Director Jeffrey Dell only took charge of a handful of films altogether and appears to have concentrated more on writing. That said, he produces some remarkably evocative work here and two sequences in particular stand out. The first is a brief bit of business where Reed boards a bus to tail an unsuspecting Parry to a stretch of beach, a stretch which becomes ever more deserted thereby leaving her increasingly vulnerable. The careful cutting and deliberate shooting of Reed from afar ramps up the tension and the conveys the sense of panic felt by Parry pretty well. And of course there is the climactic chase and shootout along the coast where the use of landscape and lighting is notable.

Maxwell Reed may be best known these days as the first husband of Joan Collins but he had a goodish run as a lead in the 40s and 50s. He’s not bad in The Dark Man as the menacing titular character and sketchiness of his role actually serves him well. As the straight arrow cop, Edward Underdown is solid too. I always seem to think of him in relation to his role in John Huston’s satirical thriller Beat the Devil but I feel he was more at home in these kinds of dramas. Natasha Parry, as the witness in constant danger of death, is an attractive, independently spirited,  heroine. Ah yes, and William Hartnell makes an appearance; sometimes I think this was almost obligatory in British films of the era.

The UK DVD of The Dark Man is OK, but nothing special either. The print could use a bit of a clean up here and there and the kind of softness and general neglect that one associates with unrestored sources. It is perfectly watchable of course and the obscurity of the film combined with its frankly niche appeal means that it’s unlikely to look much better. The disc too is a simple affair with the film only and no supplements whatsoever. However, it is the kind of movie I’m just pleased to see available, and it’s not the most expensive to pick up. So, a brisk little movie that surprised me by being perhaps more stylish than I had anticipated.

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The Informers

I’m going to stick with 60s crime for a bit longer, following on from the last entry. It seems safe to say that a harder edge had crept into mysteries and thrillers by the early years of the decade – of course I’m speaking in general terms here and am not for a moment suggesting that this phenomenon hadn’t made an appearance before, nor that it sprang unprovoked from nowhere. No, as with any trend in cinema, it developed gradually but it was certainly more apparent by the time The Informers (1963) came out. It’s possible that the growing permissiveness and the opportunity for greater frankness in the depiction of not only violence but also sexuality and shifting social mores spurred the filmmakers on to throw too much into the mix here. A few years before or perhaps later might have allowed a more pared down script where the focus could have been a little tighter, but that’s a minor criticism.

The title tells us what the main thrust of the story is, and right from the beginning we’re in no doubt that it’s a tale of cops, gangsters and the people who form a bridge between their converging and diverging spheres. Chief Inspector Johnnoe (Nigel Patrick) is the protagonist, a Scotland Yard man of the old school who relies on the tried and trusted methods his superior Supt. Bestwick (Harry Andrews) is keen to move away from, namely the practice of using informers and acting on “information received.” This is a dangerous game for all concerned, relying on mutual trust and extreme caution on both sides, and the possibility of a breakdown in communication, poor timing, treachery and sometimes just bad luck can toss a large and potentially fatal spanner in the works. And that’s essentially what concerns us here. In his quest to produce results in the investigation into a spate of safe-cracking jobs, Johnnoe turns to his long-time pigeon, with serious consequences for all.

I’ll have to confess that I’ve only seen a small fraction of the work of director Ken Annakin. His was a fairly long career, covering a wide range of genres so I can’t say why I’m not more familiar with him. The Informers is a strong piece of work, suggesting I should take a closer look at some of his other films though. There is an attractive blend of action, suspense and character work, not to mention the various social issues which are either woven closely into the plot or touched on more lightly. Aside from the core police yarn, we are presented with aspects of Johnnoe’s home life, strife and competition at work, the abusive relationship of one of the villains and his girl, the difficulties of single-parenthood, hints at racial tensions, and more. As I said above, that’s a lot of material to pack in, even if a lot of it is largely incidental. It does add to the richness of the script but, perhaps because of my recent diet of briefer and more direct storytelling, I still found it rather dense.

Nigel Patrick is an interesting lead, suave and coolly self-assured to start and increasingly frayed as he stumbles deeper into the criminal morass than he’d intended to. He was over 50 when The Informers was made and there’s no attempt to gloss over or hide that, something we tend to see less now where leads generally have to pretend they are almost indestructible superhero types. As the  villains he’s up against both Derren Nesbitt and Frank Finlay are excellent value, brassily flash and quietly menacing respectively. It’s pleasing too to see Colin Blakely get a nice intense part with a fair amount of screen time as a vengeful anti-heroic type. His real-life wife Margaret Whiting has a large and significant role, helping to draw together the diverse plot strands at the climax. The other female character of Johnnoe’s wife, played by Katherine Woodville, is underdeveloped though. Nevertheless, there’s an incredible supporting cast with Roy Kinnear, Allan Cuthbertson, George Sewell, Harry Andrews and John Cowley among others.

The UK DVD of The Informers looks reasonably crisp for the most part but I can’t imagine the Academy ratio presentation is correct. It’s a very enjoyable and well made crime picture, with an incident-filled plot and good performances, so it would be nice  to see it revisited in Hi-Def at some point in the future. Well, we can hope.

Tomorrow at Ten

Finding myself writing about a lot of crime movies of late, I consequently find myself ruminating over what goes into making these genre pieces successful. Well of course it is a combination of writing, acting and direction, with a some additional assistance from sets, photography and music from time to time. Still those are broad terms which encompass a lot, but I think one critical element that grows out of their synergy is what we term suspense.  The best examples of the crime movie trade heavily on this, using it to hook and then captivate the audience. Tomorrow at Ten (1963) is a first-rate British crime picture that does this in superb style.

Sometimes I think that the worst crimes can inspire  the best films. Kidnapping is an especially nasty and traumatic piece of work, putting a life at risk and simultaneously exerting sadistic psychological pressure on those faced with the ransom demands. That’s in real life. However, in the fictional world of the movies the dramatic potential of such situations is practically boundless and, depending on the perspective from which the story is seen, multi-faceted too. Here we are introduced to man calling himself Marlow (Robert Shaw) who is in the process of adding the finishing touches to a meticulously planned scheme; in the secluded house he has rented, we see him happily gutting a child’s stuffed toy and snugly fitting what is clearly a device with a timer. This golly will be used superficially as a comforter for the little boy Marlow will abduct and also as a form of dreadful insurance to secure the cooperation of the victim’s father.

It’s barefaced stuff, snatching the boy and then presenting himself to the shocked parent to calmly demand money and immunity. Marlow is counting on his threats either keeping the police out of the affair or inducing the wealthy father to use his influence to neuter their efforts. But he reckons without the grim determination of DI Parnell (John Gregson), a man with a clear and uncompromising sense of justice. In the finest dramatic tradition though, even the best plans hit snags, and in this case it’s a huge one. In fact, the powerful emotions released by his actions has wholly unforeseen results for Marlow, dragging the story in a different more intense direction and raising the suspense to a completely new level.

Briefly scanning back through pieces I’ve written here in the past and I don’t believe I’ve included any films directed by Lance Comfort yet. Bearing in mind how many of his movies I have to hand, this seems like an odd omission and certainly not an intentional one. Comfort worked in a range of genres but he had a real talent for crime movies and thrillers, and he also managed to wring the very best out of some particularly spare projects. Tomorrow at Ten makes use of a small central cast, around a half dozen people and keeping the focus on Gregson and Shaw in particular. When one thinks of these British quickies there’s a tendency to expect simple and direct visual setups, but Comfort had the experience and the resultant confidence to move his camera around more imaginatively and there are a number of extraordinarily stylish shots on view. And he was a highly professional filmmaker, never losing sight of the thread of the narrative and the necessity to keep everything moving relentlessly towards the resolution.

Robert Shaw was one of the big stars of British cinema, although he had yet to make his major breakthrough – that was to come shortly with his portrayal of the cold and dangerous Red Grant in From Russia With Love.  As an exercise in frighteningly psychopathic behavior, Tomorrow at Ten provided a pretty good warm-up, allowing him to create a genuinely memorable villain – there’s something chilling about his gleeful appreciation of his own cunning. Opposing hm is the stolid and reassuring presence of John Gregson as the dogged and principled policeman. As the plot develops, it’s Gregson who gets the greater share of screen time and he brings the audience along on the emotional journey as he hunts against the clock for the clue that may vindicate his methods and, more importantly, save an innocent life.

Tomorrow at Ten was released on DVD by what was Odeon well over ten years ago. That edition appears to have gone out of print now but, as far as I can see, there should be used copies available to buy for reasonable prices online. The transfer on that DVD was in Academy ration, which is unlikely to have been correct for an early 60s film. There are also some instances of print damage to be seen but overall the presentation is perfectly watchable. The movie itself is wonderful little hidden gem, one where the suspense is increased artfully and built around a mightily absorbing tale. Highly recommended.

The Upturned Glass

The last few entries here have focused firmly on smaller scale, low budget British movies, those with a certain modesty in terms of both production values and artistic aim. Now that’s not meant as a criticism as I feel the films are quite successful judged on the terms which their makers defined for them. Today though, I want to look at The Upturned Glass (1947), which I see as occupying a kind of middle ground – the ambitions of the main movers appear to have been slightly different, although the director is one we have mentioned here in relation to some of the more spare productions he would subsequently be involved in .

The film begins with a lecture, and for most of its 80 minute running time it essentially follows the form of a lecture. That lecture of narration is the work of a doctor, a man who tells his audience he will be recounting the story of one Michael Joyce (James Mason), although we viewers can see clearly from the outset that our narrator and his subject are one and the same. Initially, it appears to be primarily  tale of love which grows out of loneliness and a chance professional encounter. While this early section is vital in setting the scene and establishing motivations, it’s also the stuff of almost impossibly chaste romantic melodrama, painfully strained in its earnestness. However, the tone of the movie shifts all the time as the plot coils and unwinds ceaselessly, and we soon find ourselves firmly entrenched in noir territory, the shadowy world of moral uncertainty and fatalism. Joyce has been lifted out of his well-worn rut and given a glimpse of something unattainable, and now sees even that dream snatched away. The effects will be devastating for him and for those other figures playing their part in the slowly developing tragedy.

Style, theme and structure mark The Upturned Glass out as a genuine film noir – unfulfilled passion, crime in unexpected places, obsessive behavior, and a long flashback with accompanying narration are all active ingredients of this dark drama. The story came from John Monaghan and adapted for the screen by the writer in collaboration with Pamela Kellino, then the wife and ( in this picture) co-star of top-billed James Mason.  The name of director Lawrence Huntington came up in the course of some discussion here the other day and I’ll have to admit I’ve not seen a great deal of his work. That of course is one of the great benefits of the whole blogging business: getting some pointers and encouragement to explore further. I do have a few other movies by this director in my collection and both the recommendations of others and the pretty stylish work on display in The Upturned Glass makes me keen to delve a bit deeper into his catalog.

I believe The Upturned Glass was the last British film James Mason made before heading off to Hollywood and greater fame. I’ve always been a fan of his work, that unique combination of smooth polish and a hint of dangerous unpredictability led to many an interesting performance and it is ideal for the driven and obsessive character he was portraying here. Although Rosamund John played the main love interest, and did so perfectly adequately, Pamela Kellino had the meatier, much more interesting and emotionally involving role. It’s a superb bit of work; arch, shallow and self-serving, yet real enough to avoid caricature and, crucially, capable of eliciting some sympathy from the viewer and therefore adding another layer of complexity.In a small supporting role (and his last of significance before his death) Brefni O’Rorke is terrific as a cynical old GP with a caustic view of humanity in general and doctors in particular, and he gets to deliver some of the film’s sourest and most memorable lines.

The Upturned Glass was released on DVD some 10 years ago by MPI in the US as part of a package of three British thrillers (two early Michael Powell titles were also included) and it looks OK but it could probably be better served. All three films are on the same disc, which is never an ideal state of affairs. As far as I know, this movie hasn’t come out anywhere else since and I feel it is deserving of more critical appraisal and a stronger presentation. Well worth tracking down.

The Night Won’t Talk

Continuing with my trawl through British movies that have been largely neglected, I now come to The Night Won’t Talk (1952), an atmospheric little whodunit with a tempting title and another of those ever attractive one hour running times.

A good opening goes a long way with me, and The Night Won’t Talk hits the ground running with a hooded figure slipping through deserted nighttime streets, headed towards a basement flat and a victim. Right away we’re pitched into the middle of a murder case, an artist’s model having been killed in that initial sequence. Certain settings tend to work well in mysteries and an artistic milieu often provides at least an interesting set of suspects, and the kind of undisguised personal and professional competition that doesn’t need to be restrained in the way it might in more conservative circles. The murder victim is soon established as a source of jealousy for other women and also, more suggestively, a siren who sparked romantic rivalry among those men she came into contact with. The complicated web of relationships first needs to be unraveled and that task falls to the cool and detached Inspector West (Ballard Berkeley) and his equally laconic assistant (Duncan Lamont). As with many (most?) investigations, the shadow of suspicion has a habit of resting more comfortably on one particular person. In this case, it’s the victim’s fiance, unstable artist Clay Hawkes (John Bailey) but nothing is certain and there’s no shortage of alternatives for us to keep in mind.

Actress Hy Hazell got top billing, and to be fair she does deserve it as she is a strong and attractive screen presence. Her film career was somewhat limited although I’m keen to see more of her work. I have another two  of her movies in my collection but I see I’m missing Stolen Assignment, which sounds like it might be worth a look and I’m keen to get my hands on it at some point now. There’s marvelously relaxed support from Ballard Berkeley as the policeman on the case and the film is more fun whenever he’s on view. I’ll have to admit I was less impressed with John Bailey as the main suspect; he’s good enough I guess but his nervy brand of angst didn’t fully convince me and I think it hurts the film somewhat when such a central role isn’t entirely successful.

The Night Won’t Talk was directed by Daniel Birt, but I’m not all that familiar with his other work. I have a couple of his titles to hand though – The Deadly Game and Three Steps in the Dark – and should make an effort to check those out at some stage. Birt’s direction is brisk and efficient enough but it’s also noticeable that at times the film has a look that belies what must have been a restricted budget. A quick glance at the credits shows that the art director was one Bernard Robinson (the man responsible for the distinctive and deceptively luxurious appearance of many a Hammer production) so it shouldn’t really come as any surprise.

Network give The Night Won’t Talk quite a nice transfer to DVD in its correct Academy ratio and even include a brief gallery of press clippings as a supplement. Again, it’s a solid presentation of a lesser-known British crime picture. The movie is a reasonably neat whodunit which is plotted satisfactorily and moves along at a good clip.

Wrong Number

More British cinema, and more low budget British filmmaking to be exact. The fact is I’ve been watching a lot of this material lately and enjoying it immensely. Sure the quality varies and I’m not making any particular arguments in favor of raising whatever reputation these films may have. It’s simply a matter of immersing myself in the kind of pared down affairs which I frequently find myself drawn to. Wrong Number (1959) is without question a pretty slight work, a movie with a running time of around an hour and shot on a handful of sets. However, those aspects need not be seen as negatives as there’s plenty of pleasure to be derived from such modest fare.

Wrong Number is a heist movie, and that genre variant presents opportunities for drama at different stages – the planning, the execution and the aftermath. More ambitious films may choose to exploit all of those stages, but Wrong Number is aware of its limitations and satisfies itself by working within them. The focus here is the aftermath of the robbery, the earlier elements being only briefly addressed. In brief, a mail robbery has been planned by the outwardly respectable Dr Pole (Peter Elliott) and carried out by career crooks Max and Angelo (Barry Keegan & Peter Reynolds), although far from cleanly when the latter ends up clubbing an overzealous guard to death. If a potential murder rap isn’t bad enough, Angelo and his boss are also interested in the same woman, Maria (Lisa Gastoni).

With the pressure and emotional temperature on the rise in the aftermath of the botched robbery, the titular wrong number begins to play its part. So, as the movie progresses, it alternates between a disloyalty among thieves drama and a slightly eccentric police procedural where a dippy Olive Sloane threatens the patience of investigating cop John Horsley. All of this probably sounds like an incident-packed plot and there is enough in there to keep everything chugging along. Director Vernon Sewell was something of a specialist in low budget pictures, generally making entertaining if sometimes lightweight pictures alongside some more affecting work like Strongroom.

Wrong Number was a Merton Park production and that company made some terrific features and short films throughout the 50s and 60s, not the least of which were the long running series of Edgar Wallace mysteries. There are a number of faces present who ought to be familiar to those who know British cinema even if the names may not be so readily recalled. I think it’s safe to say Irish-Italian actress Lisa Gastoni is the main attraction in this one, and she’s both comfortable on screen and easy on the eye. Actually, the women get the most interesting parts in Wrong Number, with Olive Sloane also making the most of her part as the comical busybody who holds the key to everything.

Once again I find myself looking at one of Network’s sparse yet impressive DVD releases. Wrong Number is a small picture, a true B movie, but professionally made and Network provide a suitably professional presentation – widescreen and a nice, clean print. The DVD offers just the movie but that’s fair enough given the fine transfer and the nature of the film.

Catacombs

I’m in the mood for small-scale British thrillers just at the moment and am currently enjoying some new watches alongside some revisits. Last time I looked at a late 40s noir effort and have now leapt ahead almost two decades to highlight Catacombs AKA The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (1965), a macabre, twisty thriller which evokes some of the vibe director Gordon Hessler picked up from his work on Alfred Hitchcock’s TV series.

The story is a highly seasoned mix of temptation, infidelity and murder which also flirts with the supernatural. Everything revolves around Raymond and Ellen Garth (Gary Merrill & Georgina Cookson) and Ellen’s niece Alice (Jane Merrow). Ellen represents the money, a hard-driving (both literally and figuratively) businesswoman who strives to have total control over everything and everyone in her life, including her husband and her health problems. As far as the former is concerned, Raymond is essentially a kept man, a weak-willed specimen who has spent his life trading on his sexuality. As for the latter, Ellen’s attacks of physical pain have led her to explore meditation techniques and as a result the ability to put herself into a trance in an effort to manage her suffering. Into this slightly unusual household comes the figure of Alice, a girl who had gone abroad to study art and has now returned as a grown woman and caught the roving eye of Raymond. What we have is a potentially explosive situation in development, one which only needs a chance spark to set it all off. Then an apparently casual suggestion by one of Ellen’s disgruntled employees (Neil McCallum) strikes just such a spark…

Catacombs is a fairly entertaining little film, not all that surprising in terms of the direction it takes but still delivering a neat and satisfying twist right at the end. Gary Merrill was the big name Hollywood name whose star was on the wane, a common enough casting technique employed by British movies of the 50s and 60s. Merrill’s role as the ageing gigolo isn’t an especially appealing one although it’s not really meant to be  attractive and the actor picks up on the venal and craven aspects of his character very well, making him quite human but not in any pleasant way. Georgina Cookson is cool and poised, maybe too cool though to be wholly credible. Jane Merrow is better as the returning ingenue, the catalyst for the turmoil which ensues. And finally, Neil McCallum has a small but pivotal part as the shifty type who brings matters to a head.

Aside from his on screen work, McCallum also had a co-producing credit alongside Jack Parsons – and incidentally Parsons also produced Walk a Tightrope, which McCallum both wrote and had a minor role in. However, the bigger influence behind the cameras appears to have been provided by the director.  Gordon Hessler spent many years working as associate producer and ultimately producer for Hitchcock for his television show. Anyone familiar with those Hitchcock episodes will recognize the mood here and the connection isn’t all that difficult to see. I’ll be honest and admit I’ve not been all that enamored with the other Hessler films I’ve seen – those horror features he made with Vincent Price – but then again I’m not a huge fan of that genre anyway. IN short, I’d say I like Catacombs quite a bit more than the director’s other work, or at least what I’ve had the opportunity to view.

Catacombs has been released on DVD in the UK in a very nice edition by Network. The widescreen transfer looks crisp and attractive but the package is, as usual, light on supplements. Still, the movie is a fun way to pass an hour and a half or so and one that fans of the Hitchcock TV shows ought to check out.