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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The Flying Scot

We hear a lot about budgets when filmmaking is discussed, and you end up with the feeling nowadays that movies are barely considered to be worth watching if the amount of money invested in the production isn’t of the eye-watering variety. This is a shame as it means the range of films made tends to be reduced and, crucially, fewer chances are taken for the simple reason no one wants to accept a risk when the stakes are so high. Now I’m not trying to make a case here for the inaccessible or the utterly impenetrable – movies which are not entertaining or watchable are going to be failures not merely in financial terms but also due to the fact they cannot succeed if they cannot engage with an audience. If I’m lamenting the current obsession with massive budgets, then that’s because it does away with (or at least significantly reduces the potential for seeing) sparse and direct pieces which depend  on tight storytelling techniques rather than whizz bang visuals. I’m referring to frugal little productions like The Flying Scot (1957), the kind of minimalist drama we can’t even count on television taking on these days.

The Flying Scot has three major points in its favor as far as I’m concerned: it takes place almost exclusively on a train, it’s concerns itself with a heist, and it’s pared so far down that practically no excess fat is evident. The opening pitches us straight into the heart of proceedings, tracking along a railway platform to follow the progress of a newly wed couple about to embark on a train to begin their honeymoon, and thereafter their life together.  We see them settle in, put up a reserved notice on the door, draw the curtains. And then they change into casual clothes and lie down on separate berths on opposite sides of the carriage! It’s now quite clear that these people (Lee Patterson & Kay Callard) are no newlyweds, they and their associate in another car (Alan Gifford) are biding their time till they’re due to act. And that action is the smooth and meticulous execution of a plan to steal a half a million pounds in banknotes. Everything moves like clockwork with each person fulfilling his or her assigned role with precision and cool professionalism – it’s at this point that we pause, step back in time, and see what really happens…

The director of The Flying Scot was Compton Bennett, a man with a comparatively small yet interesting set of credits. His big Hollywood success was King Solomon’s Mines but there were other noteworthy titles both in the US and the UK. That this was a very low budget affair is apparent from the small cast with no big names, the limiting of the action to a handful of train carriage sets and the running time of not much more than an hour. However, as I hope my introductory remarks suggested, a limited budget doesn’t have to mean a poor quality movie. With The Flying Scot Bennett turns these aspects to his and the film’s advantage by using the cramped and suffocating space as a device for ramping up the tension, emphasizing the sense of characters trapped by their own criminal plans. Similarly, the short running time positively demands the pace is maintained, the plot forging ahead relentlessly just as the train where it all takes place heads inexorably towards its destination. I’d also like to note the stylish opening section where the first ten minutes or so is played out with one word of dialogue being spoken, it could be described as gimmickry I suppose but it never actually feels like that.  Furthermore, that opening and how it then develops reminded me of the beginning of Gambit, a later film with a lighter overall feel. The presence of Peter Rogers as producer and Norman Hudis as screenwriter brings to mind the Carry On series of comedies that would shortly debut in British cinemas and seem like an odd pair to be attached to a tense little suspense picture such as this. In truth, there is a thread of humor running through the film, but it ‘s of a more carefully observed type than the bawdier variety the aforementioned series would become famous for – having said that, those early Hudis scripts had a gentler approach anyway.

As far as a general audience is concerned, Lee Patterson is probably not a name that will be especially well-recognized. On the other hand, anyone who is a fan of, or even just reasonably familiar with, British thrillers of the 50s and 60s will be very much aware of this guy. Patterson was a Canadian actor who seemed to get cast in every other mystery or noirish thriller, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to have watched more than a handful of these kinds of films without coming across him. I’ve always found him a reliable enough performer, not a big draw but the type who you know will get the job done whether he was cast as good guy or bad. Here, he’s playing a man who is tough to like, displaying a bit too much unnecessary arrogance and self-absorption. He does it pretty effectively and fellow Canadian Kay Callard helps to smooth down his rough edges a little. Alan Gifford, yet another transatlantic import, provides just the right degree of pathos as the ageing crook hoping for one last touch to set him up for retirement but plagued by a health problem and a plan that’s fraying uncontrollably.

The Flying Scot is out on DVD in the UK via Network as part of the ever attractive The British Film line. I imagine a 1957 title would be better suited to at least some form of widescreen aspect ratio but it still looks fine, to me at least, with the 1.33:1 framing used on this disc. The print is in pretty good shape too with no major damage to cause distraction. As for extra features, there’s the facility to watch the opening under the alternative title The Mailbag Robbery. All in all, I thought this a very neat thriller, well constructed and satisfyingly tense – it gets a recommendation from me.