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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8 thoughts on “The Dark Man

  1. You’re far kinder about this movie than I am! I’m afraid I found the whole thing pretty dull, and those “unanswered questions” really got to me. Maybe I should dig it out for another watch in light of your comments.

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    • John, I can see how that aspect may be irritating, and could even be criticized for laziness or carelessness. For me, the suspense seemed to be the main driver and I was therefore prepared to, let’s say, go with the flow in that regard. Anyway, if I have you thinking about another viewing, then I’m pleased – must be doing something right.

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  2. I’m going in the opposite direction to John (above) and say that this is a firm favourite of mine among British films of the era. Interesting that Jeffrey Dell was more a writer and got the job of directing his own story. The fact that Natasha Parry and Edward Underdown are good actors, with plenty of understatement,helps a great deal too.
    The location shooting at Camber Castle and, especially, the seafront and coastline around Hastings is very well-handled. I was minded vaguely of Hitch’s “North By Northwest” and the crop-dusting sequence – fear and suspense carried out in an otherwise peaceful and sunny setting.
    And I think Sergio will like it too……

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    • Yes, I got a bit of the Hitchcock vibe too in the suspenseful use of the isolated locations, that sense of menace in the mundane and everyday. And I liked the actors and their work here as well.

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      • It’s not one I’ve seen but would like to especially for the locations as I live on the Sussex coast. Other films that have used it to advantage include ‘JIGSAW’ (62), ‘SMOKESCREEN’ (64) and of course ‘BRIGHTON ROCK’ (47). I was an extra in the re-make about nine years ago in which Eastbourne pier was used instead of Brighton as it was now too modern.

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        • Then I’m sure you would get something out of the film, Ian – I certainly see it as one of the strengths of the movie.
          I saw the remake of Brighton Rock in the cinema when it came out and thought it was OK. Even if it didn’t measure up to the standards of the original, it was fine in itself.

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