Three Steps to the Gallows

Last summer I spent a long time trawling through a range of British crime movies, and had a most enjoyable time in the process. I can’t promise to devote the same time this year but I do want to look at a few more examples of these B pictures. Additionally, it’s an opportunity to fit in some  cast and crew who have earned passing mentions on this site, and who I do want to draw a little attention to. So with that in mind, I’d like to begin with Three Steps to the Gallows (1953), a pacy and hugely entertaining film noir.

Alfred Hitchcock famously spoke of the “MacGuffin” as a plot device, namely something which is of inordinate and perhaps life-threatening importance to the protagonists of a drama, which motivates them and drives the narrative yet is of little real concern to the viewers. In Three Steps to the Gallows this applies to the diamonds, and I’d be amazed if anyone who watches this movie has the part played by these gemstones in mind by the time the film has come to a close. Nevertheless, diamonds, or should we say the smuggling of diamonds, is vital to the characters on screen. Gregor Stevens (Scott Brady) is an American seaman on shore leave in London, first seen happily disembarking from his ship and off to pay a visit to his brother who is resident in the capital. He’s checked out of his accommodation and a stop at the travel agency where he was employed as a courier reveals he has moved on from there, although a customer (Mary Castle) appears to recognize the name before seeing something that makes her reconsider. To cut to the chase, a few more inquiries lead Stevens to the shocking realization that his brother has not only been arrested for murder but has subsequently been tired, convicted and has a date with the hangman in three days time. And that’s where the diamonds come in; the condemned man seems to have been involved with a smuggling outfit and been framed for a killing as a result. Where does this leave the brother? Well, he has 72 hours to blunder and bludgeon his way around the criminal underworld in an attempt to clear his sibling’s name and, hopefully, nail the true culprits.

As was so often the case, Three Steps to the Gallows imported Hollywood talent to add some more box-office appeal. Both Scott Brady and Mary Castle were the transatlantic stars used, and they do add a touch of noir authenticity, in my opinion. Brady was a reasonably big name at the time, although he has probably been overshadowed somewhat by his more notorious older brother Lawrence Tierney since then. Brady had a few brushes with the law himself and had a tough demeanor too. It’s this aspect, the physicality of the man, that is highlighted most in the movie. His character crashes around London like an impatient and short-tempered bouncer, finding himself framed for a killing even as he tries to clear his brother and frequently resorting to his fists before his brain has had a chance to catch up. On paper, this possibly sounds off-putting but Brady manages to make this bruising lead sympathetic. Rita Hayworth lookalike Mary Castle, whose life took a series of noir turns itself, is fine as the girl who offers him his first opening and moves from potential femme fatale to Girl Friday. The supporting cast is typical of these B features and includes such welcome and well-known faces as Ballard Berkeley, Colin Tapley, Ronan O’Casey, John Blythe and Ferdy Mayne.

Three Steps to the Gallows was a Tempean Films production, meaning that it came from producers Monty Berman and Robert S Baker, the former also taking on the cinematography duties here. These two played a significant role in British film and television in the post-war years. Tempean Films was responsible for a number of spare and entertaining crime movies and the Baker-Berman partnership was then instrumental bringing about many of the best ITC TV series, including The Saint with Rober Moore. The direction was handled by the ever reliable and generally stylish John Gilling, who started out as a prolific writer and director of B noir before moving on to bigger budgets, Hammer Films and television work. Here, Gilling moves everything along very snappily and the film perfectly captures the slightly seedy and decaying post-war milieu.

It’s easy to track down a copy of Three Steps to the Gallows, in the UK at least. The film has been released on DVD by Renown Films, that rich source of British B movies. The quality of the print is variable, looking crisp in some shots but dupey and with overdone contrast in others. There is also some print damage or dirt to be seen here and there, but the movie remains perfectly watchable at all times, and I doubt whether better versions are ever likely to surface. Anyone who enjoys British crime and noir movies of the era should find plenty to satisfy them in this one.

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22 thoughts on “Three Steps to the Gallows

  1. So many good movies from that era. Now largely forgotten and almost inaccessible. Rarely shown on TV too – so they get little exposure or appreciation. Thanks for what you do bringing these forward again.

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  2. Yes, I echo JC’s comments here. It’s always good to see you return to British ‘B’-movie territory again, Colin, and this film is a fine example. Baker and Berman’s films generally had a little extra gloss and quality over comparable fare and I tend to look out for their work.

    As so often, I enjoy the London locations, noting the travel agent’s shop for instance where Brady goes in search of his brother. The shop is in Regent Street and at one point the camera catches sight of the Liberty’s sign across the road and slightly off Regent Street. I have walked past where the shop is many times although it has an entirely different use now obviously. Same building though.

    Scott Brady is effective and enjoyable in the leading role and the supporting cast contains a number of familiar favourites, as you said, such as dear old Ballard Berkeley.

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    • I’m not so familiar with the locations, Jerry, but I like seeing them used as they serve as reminder of how cities have changed over the years.

      Many of these British crime movies had excellent supporting casts, real pros who are as much fun to watch as some of the headline stars. That said, I really liked Brady in this role that I feel was almost made to measure.

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    • I liked it, Sergio. Talking Pictures TV is a very useful resource for those in the UK as a means of catching up with all kinds of obscure and half-forgotten productions.
      Castle did bear a very striking resemblance to Rita Hayworth and it’s very noticeable throughout the film.

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  3. I too am pleased to see Colin make a welcome return to British B Thrillers and this film is a good choice. Apart from the London locations I delighted to see a passing London bus advertising the box office sensation of the time HOUSE OF WAX.
    Hammer and Tempean were churning out British B’s at the time and generally I found the Tempean product somewhat superior, apart from Francis Searle’s masterly CLOUDBURST, surely the Citizen Kane of all British B flicks.
    When Hammer struck box office gold with horror Berman & Baker quickly followed often poaching Hammer talent (BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE, FLESH & THE FIENDS, JACK THE RIPPER) Gilling of course later directed many later Hammer classics. Gilling had a reputation of being difficult to work for he even gave
    Christopher Lee a tough time on PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER, far and away the best of Hammer’s Swashbucklers. Michael Craig was recently interviewed on Talking Pictures TV saying Gilling was a nightmare to work for. Assistant director Doug Hermes also said Gilling was constantly shouting and barking, he even stormed off the set of THE SCARLET BLADE. Oliver Reed: “People loathed John because they said he was a bully; he could be brash, harsh, but I liked him”
    I often wonder how Gilling’s antics went down with “tough guy” stars like Scott Brady or, on his later Warwick work stars like Jack Palance, Ray Milland and Victor Mature. I understand that Berman & Baker were aware of Gilling’s reputation but they liked his efficient way of working. When all is said and done Gilling is a pretty stylish director, even his early B pictures have a certain flair.

    Another Tempean Gilling picture,no doubt in Colin’s “To Be Viewed Heap” is TIGER BY THE TAIL certainly a B+ effort by anyone’s standards. Femme Fatale Lisa Daniely enters into a relationship with Larry Parks, strictly on her terms, when Parks breaks this bond she has created his life goes into free fall, a very interesting picture. As an ironic twist of fate troubled Irish actress Constance Smith is the “good girl” in this one. Sadly, Constance’s life played out like a real film Noir. I’ve been wanting to catch up with the full length documentary made of Constance’s life made last year by Irish TV – I hope one of the UK mainland TV channels picks up on it or indeed Talking Pictures TV who have shown a 10 minute featurette on Constance. After Tempean’s TIGER BY THE TAIL and IMPULSE (with Arthur Kennedy) it was more or less game over for Constance, such a waste and another sad example talented person unable to conquer their demons which in Constance’s case were considerable, to say the least.

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    • Great response, John, and thanks for drawing attention to Constance Smith, and actress who made some very fine movies but was, as you say, deeply troubled.

      I generally like Gilling’s films, even if he was a bit of an ogre behind the scenes, and have been trying to catch up with as many as possible.

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  4. Colin, sorry the last para is such a mess, I posted in error before I was able to edit!
    I hope you get around to TIGER BY THE TAIL which could be called “Gilling does Hitch on a B budget”
    Among other pleasures there is an extended chase on the overground section of the District Line (London Underground). Somewhat poignant regarding Parks and Smith’s involvement though.
    Interesting that TIGER BY THE TAIL was written by Willis Goldbeck, whose career goes right back to the 1920’s including, for me, the
    unwatchable FREAKS. I initially thought perhaps Hollywood at the time would have had problems with the Daniely character which is surprisingly contemporary,
    but I must admit when TIGER BY THE TAIL was made Goldbeck was certainly in an extended fallow period. Towards the tail end of his career Goldbeck certainly bounced back with Ford’s SERGEANT RUTLEDGE and LIBERTY VALANCE.

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    • John, you’re not alone on Freaks. I’ve only seen the movie once, and I never want to repeat the experience!

      Tiger by the Tail is a title I mean to get round to at some point – you’re doing a pretty good job of selling its virtues here!

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      • FREAKS (1932) is so shockingly disturbing the first time one views it remains unforgettable to the senses. A wonder it was ever put on celluloid. The only other film that had a similar affect on me was Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi Germany propaganda film TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.

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          • The theme was what it was….disturbing to say the least, unless one was caught up in Nazi Germany Nationalism. For what it was, a brilliantly put together film in every form of movie making……the cinematography is eye-popping in a class all it’s own.

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            • Which could make for an interesting treatise, should someone wish to take it on – films which are visually and technically impressive but thematically off-putting.

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              • No I do not wish to take it on. There is plenty of analysis by others already. But, this is what I find so interesting…….in respect to movie making, this film alone like no other, provided a backdrop of how Americans were to view the beast within that was Nazi Germany.

                During the war years, American propaganda films were given a treasure trove of material from this single source alone. Americans and the rest of the free world were able to get a first hand look by viewing real time footage from the Nuremberg Rally and how it influenced the German people. Thus, giving the free world a reason to take them on. Ironically, this film contributed greatly toward an ally victory.

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  5. Regarding Scott and his brushes with the law. He was not his brother and was never convicted of anything, the other never in his life and career would be out of work. A good guy and his son Tim has a Facebook page devoted to his Dad.

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    • I wasn’t trying to equate Scott Brady with his brother in terms of legal troubles and the like, just pointing out he too had a few dealings with the law – it was only a minor reference in passing anyway and I’m much more interested in the good work he did on this and other pictures.

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  6. Hi, Colin – I watched this movie a couple of years ago and thought it good entertainment. It has flat out action and quite a lot of location shooting as a bonus. I remember being struck by Ms Castle’s likeness to Rita Hayworth and thought she was fine in her part.

    I found the plot complicated and needed an explanation by the pursuing policeman – nicely played by Ballard Berkeley – to pull several of the plot strands together for me late in the film.

    I must have been watching very closely because I picked up an amusing goof with two newspapers that are used to announce important plot developments and the passing of time. The editions are supposed to be on different days but, apart from the headline story, the other stories on the front page are the same.

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    • Now that passed me by completely, I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for it next time I watch it. It’s possible I was concentrating on keeping track of the plot. I think you’re right on that – it does get rather convoluted and seems to drift in various directions. That is a flaw I ought to have mentioned, but in my defense I’ll have to say the action and driving pace helped paper over some of the more ambiguous points. They do get cleared up in the end but it can all make the head spin a bit.

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  7. Firstly Colin, thanks, as always, for edits on my previous comments… you are the only Blog Owner to my knowledge that offers this kind of service.

    It’s always fun surfing cyberspace to see who else John Gilling has upset over the years. In the early Tempean picture THE QUIET WOMAN Diana Dors only lasted two days with Gilling who she found “abrasive” she was replaced by Dora Bryan. Berman and Baker were aware of Gilling’s explosive nature but found
    him “wholly efficient” especially as those things were made on very tight budgets.
    After leaving Tempean Gilling made seven pictures with Warwick Pictures starting with oddball Sci Fi THE GAMMA PEOPLE. Knowing the demand for these sort of things it’s surprising that THE GAMMA PEOPLE has not even had a DVD release. Gilling returned to Berman & Baker for FLESH & THE FIENDS which more or less opened the door to his several Hammer Films. With the enormous interest in vintage Horror in general and Cushing in particular I’m amazed that FLESH &THE FIENDS has not been fully restored for Blu Ray. Gilling’s SHADOW OF THE CAT is one of the very few vintage Hammer Horrors that has not had a Blu Ray release. Then there is Gilling’s personal pet project FURY AT SMUGGLER’S BAY also with Cushing. More of a rip roaring straightforward Swashbuckler (as say opposed to PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER and CAPTAIN CLEGG) FURY AT SMUGGLERS BAY needs a high def restoration, if for nothing else Cushing and the striking widescreen location work. I’m sure all these titles will get high def restorations over time, which will also only enhance Gilling’s reputation.

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    • To be honest John, given how much time he spent working on lower budget or B pictures, I find it refreshing that so much of Gilling’s material, both as writer and director, is available even in standard definition, particularly the early and more obscure stuff.

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