Spin a Dark Web

How essential is the femme fatale in film noir? Sure her presence is one of the characteristics you will hear mentioned time and again should  you ask people to check off a list of the necessary ingredients. But is this presence or absence actually integral, and does it define the style? I’m inclined to think no, I’ve seen plenty of undoubted films noir where this character didn’t appear and I don’t feel their dark credentials were diminished as a consequence. On the other hand, the question represents an itch I get the urge to scratch every so often, especially after watching a movie like Spin a Dark Web (1956), where there is an explicit femme fatale whose malign influence drives the plot.

Whatever else one might say about film noir it certainly requires what might be termed the fall guy, someone who manages to get himself involved in a complex and perilous situation. Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) fits that particular bill here, a Canadian living in post-war London, hanging around the fringes of the fight game and keen to pick up some easy money fast. He’s casually attached to a fight trainer’s daughter, Betty (Rona Anderson), but is restless and hungry for cash, restless enough to drop her if the rewards are appealing enough. Looking up an old friend leads to a encounter with gangster Rico Francesi (Martin Benson) and his predatory sister Bella (Faith Domergue). What follows won’t create too many surprises – Bankley is drawn by the glamor of the rackets and Bella is only to happy to lure him ever deeper into her web. As ever, while the profits of the racketeering and the attentions of the dangerously seductive Sicilian prove attractive, there will be a moment of truth, an occurrence which will bring home to our anti-hero the sourness at the back of it all. And that’s when the real danger kicks in…

I don’t suppose many people will be queuing up to sing the praises of director Vernon Sewell but the fact is I’ve become very fond of his work. He made a series of short and tightly paced movies throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s which are, based on the evidence of those I’ve seen so far, very entertaining and occasionally stylish too. Spin a Dark Web is, as I’ve acknowledged, a standard gangster yarn. Nevertheless, the extensive location shooting, much of which is done in a deliberately impersonal documentary style, adds a grittiness to the movie. Additionally, the planning and execution of the complicated racing sting that fleshes out the middle section of the film is well done and highly absorbing. Throw in a number of tough action set pieces and we’re looking at a solid little noir thriller.

Faith Domergue (Where Danger Lives) is the Hollywood star handed top billing in Spin a Dark Web, and the full-on femme fatale referred to at the top of this piece. She’s the kind of actress I can take or leave, largely dependent on the role she was asked to play. The role of Bella is one that works well in that it uses her cold passion to its best advantage. I think she possessed a detached chilliness and that’s ideal for the part of the self-absorbed and psychopathic woman. Those traits are ideal in the femme fatale, and it’s her conscience-free ruthlessness that makes this film succeed. So, can I answer the question I posed for myself? I’m going to hedge it by saying the femme fatale is essential here; without her deadly allure the fall guy or patsy is rendered meaningless and the film is stripped of much of its potency.

Balance is always important so a counterweight to the femme fatale in the shape of a Girl Friday figure is usually desirable, and it’s hard to think of the better choice for such a part in 1950s British cinema than Rona Anderson. She has the natural grace and charm to offset the driving aggression of Domergue, the selflessness to highlight the hollow appeal of the villainess. What would the British crime film be without Lee Patterson? I liked his work on The Flying Scot when I viewed it a few years ago and Spin a Dark Web again sees him turning in one of those typically dependable performances in a shady, semi-heroic part. I’m not sure I’ve seen much of Robert Arden beyond his central role in Orson Welles’ Mr Arkadin. He has the kind of hulking amiability about him that lends itself well to sidekick or best friend types, and just enough edginess to carry the notion of a man comfortable on the shadowy side of the street. Martin Benson is fine as the chief gangster, although he does stray close to caricature on a few occasions. Finally, there’s good support from familiar character actors Sam Kydd and Bernard Fox.

Spin a Dark Web has been released on DVD in the US by Sony as part of their MOD line. The disc only carries the movie and the trailer but it looks strong and is presented in an attractive 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. The film has also been put out in the just released Noir Archive Vol. 2 on Blu-ray, a set I may well pick up as it contains a number of other interesting sounding films I don’t already have. All in all, I found this an excellent British film noir, well acted and directed and coming in at a snappy hour and a quarter.

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18 thoughts on “Spin a Dark Web

  1. I just found it on ok.ru. I liked it a bit less than you did. I’d say it’s a routine little Noir, the best thing about it being the very nice location photography.
    I agree about Faith Domergue. I thought she was very good in Where Danger Lives but she doesn’t leave a really big impression here. Love the poster though.

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    • That’s good you got to see it. Yeah, I feel quite enthusiastic about it – I like the cast, the pace and the directors style here.

      I think that Faith Domergue really hit peak delirium in Where Danger Lives and it remains one of her most memorable and intense roles. She doesn’t go to quite the same places in this but I reckon she still made for a good femme fatale.

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      • WHERE DANGER LIVES is just another suspense film noir I had not seen, much less heard of. This one I really enjoyed. Colin…I’m kind of surprised that within your review and comments you did not LINK to your previous review of the film.

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  2. Hi, Colin – liked your acknowledgment of Rona Anderson in your fine review. I’ve seen her in several B movies and consider her a rare beauty who could act more than capably. Always wonder why she didn’t become an A star.

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    • Rona Anderson added a lot to countless British movies of the era and it’s good to see her turn up in the cast – hers is an important part and I thought she carried if off well alongside Domergue.

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  3. This kind of film is something we both tend to enjoy, Colin. I like their brevity and, especially, location-shooting plus all the familiar character faces that turn up.
    I share the liking for the beautiful Rona Anderson. I guess she cut her career short to raise her children with husband, Gordon Jackson.
    I already have the Noir Archive Vol 1 and it is highly recommended. I have just ordered Vol 2 so I will finally get to see “SPIN A DARK WEB” after all these years. Vol 3 looks equally mouth-watering!

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    • Yes, you and I generally have a meeting of minds on these kinds of film, Jerry, and mainly for the same reasons.

      On the Blu-ray sets, I haven’t gone for the first volume as I feel there are too many titles in there that I own already on disc and I just can’t justify it at the moment. The second set, on the other hand, is loaded with new (to me) material.

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  4. I may have to get that Blu-ray set! I think you are quite right here – the femme fatale isn’t nearly as crucial as the need, much more often, to depict the weaknesses of men and how they fail. On the one hand that can make the femme fatale seem purely as a function of bringing down men but to me part of the attraction is the way that is really explores those neuroses of men who returned from the war and were really terrified of the empowered women they found when they got home.

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    • That’s very well put, Sergio, very apt and trenchant.
      I like that early on in this film there is a conversation between Adler and Patterson where they acknowledge that the passage of time since the war has altered the nature of crime, that the old rackets (and by extension the old ways) have had their day and are being superseded. The prominence of the Domergue character in the crime organization is not explicitly mentioned in this regard but it is there to be seen.

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  5. Good to see you back in Brit B territory,Colin and I’m totally with you on this one and like you can take or leave Domergue. SPIN A DARK WEB (aka Soho Incident) is a fun movie providing you can accept Domergue and Martin Benson as Sicilian Siblings! Totally agree with you regarding Sewell and the nifty
    location work.
    Would like to see VIOLENT STRANGER (aka Man In The Shadow) with Domergue and Zachary Scott from another Brit B workhorse Montgomery Tully. It’s reputed to be superior of its type but now sadly appears to be a “lost” movie.
    Regarding the Femme Fatale aspect in Brit B flicks, a much more interesting one is Lisa Daniely in TIGER BY THE TAIL, which we discussed on a past thread.
    Although Lisa’s character does not appear throughout the movie there are fascinating aspects to her character, which seem to pre figure not only Erica Jong’s Fear Of Flying but also the Zipless ****
    I think you will really enjoy TIGER BY THE TAIL when you eventually get ’round to it, which like SPIN A DARK WEB is everything that you want a Brit B to be.

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  6. (way) off topic Colin but I was very taken by an expression you used to describe the A.C.Lyles Westerns over at Mike’s with his take on THE QUICK GUN.
    “melancholic futility of purpose” that’s a great line Colin!
    Colin,I saw these things back in the 60’s on huge single screen cinemas often at showcase West End venues too I might add! Believe it or not often the “Lyles” were better than the main feature! I’m saddened that the only Lyles picture currently available on Blu Ray is NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (think giant Rabbits)
    Melancholic Futility Of Purpose (which often I feel sums up my own life ) the Lyles may be but I’d still love to see a few of the best of them in high-def.

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  7. Thanks Colin. I enjoyed watching this a lot, indeed any movie that can pack so much into a very restricted running time is fine with me. Sure you lose some character development, but the broad tones are all there. I especially liked the shooting in and around 1950s London – as always very evocative, like a snapshot. Also I agree with your comments about Martin Benson’s character, but his withering and exacting comments with regard to his spaghetti were a pleasure.

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