Topicality is often seen as a desirable quality in films. Movies are and were, above all else, made to earn money, and what better way to do so than to present your audience with a story that has its finger on the pulse of current affairs. I’m happy to acknowledge this fact but, as someone who spends a lot of time watching, discussing and dissecting older films, I’m in the habit of looking beyond those immediate concerns. All of that was a roundabout way of putting forward the theory that topicality and longevity, and by extension artistic value, may be less than mere casual acquaintances, but might in fact be perfect strangers. These were thoughts that were running through my head the other day as I was watching Little Red Monkey (1955), a film which is firmly rooted in the concerns and mindset prevalent in the Cold War.
Intrigue is surely one of the essential ingredients of a thriller, and Little Red Monkey kicks off with a series of intriguing episodes. To be more precise, we start off witnessing a succession of killings, the assassinations of top scientists. Aside from the acts of murder themselves, all are linked by the curious phenomenon of taking place when a small monkey is present. Now that’s the kind of hook that’s bound to snag the interest of the press and thus we move smoothly to a press conference where a harried government representative is fielding questions that the reporters are lobbing relentlessly in his direction. They want to know who is behind the violence, what it’s all about, and what’s with the monkey. While the face of officialdom calmly bats away query after awkward query, he has beside him a silent but attentive figure. This is Superintendent Harrington (Russell Napier), the man charged with investigating these events. Before heading off to meet a special arrival at the airport Harrington first spars coolly with Harry Martin (Colin Gordon), one of the more persistent newspaperman in attendance. The nature of the relationship between press and police was one aspect of the film which jumped out at me, and in truth didn’t sit all that comfortably, but I’ll return to that later. Harrington is off to meet a defector whose plane has just touched down and also the man who will be shortly assuming full responsibility for his safety. The defector is simply in the UK to make a transfer before proceeding on to the US, and Bill Locklin (Richard Conte) is the State Department man there to see it all goes as planned. And so we have all the key elements of our scenario falling into place: a supposedly routine babysitting operation that is in danger of being derailed by a bizarre assassination plot and a dogged press.
I like spy stories, I like the trappings of them and the situations typically arising out of them, and I generally like the Cold War milieu that frequently inspires these tales. I also enjoy a good crime yarn, even better if it happens to involve impossible or fantastic elements. In short, Little Red Monkey ought to be right up my street, and yet it didn’t work for me. Why? I think it comes down to a combination of not really caring about the main characters and the movie’s focus on what were probably the contemporary hot topics of defectors and fifth columnists. Frankly, I found the characters of Harrington and Locklin brash, dismissive and perilously close to authoritarian. And these are the good guys. In addition to that, we have the overt suggestion, made more than once, that an unfettered and investigative media is at best a nuisance and maybe even a threat. Then we have the matter of the more unusual aspects of the story – how scientists seem to be getting bumped off by a monkey – getting sidelined in favor of mundane fifth column shenanigans and an insipid romance. Ken Hughes made some fine shorts and features – Heat Wave is an enjoyable noir, for example – but I feel he squandered the opportunities to do something interesting with this one, allowing the duller moments to predominate.
Richard Conte was a dependable actor, capable of strong, diverse work in the likes of The Big Combo, The Blue Gardenia and Cry of the City but in this film he’s often brusque and snappish, alienating the viewers when he really ought to be connecting with them. Russell Napier is another chilly presence, appearing distant and remote when he’s not railing against reporters. The fact of the matter is the most sympathetic character in the movie is Colin Gordon’s irreverent hack. He’s no saint and has no particularly elevated opinion of himself or his profession but he is more real as a consequence. I found him very effective in Strongroom and this markedly different role is proof that he had some range as an actor. Rona Anderson does her best and is quite personable but her part as Conte’s romantic interest is unremarkable and doesn’t ask an awful lot of her.
Little Red Monkey is the kind of film that popped up in TV schedules with regularity in the past but not so nowadays. It’s been released on DVD in the UK by Network as part of their British Film line, and it looks reasonably good. I would have thought some kind of widescreen ratio would have been appropriate given the year of production but the framing at 4:3 is acceptable. Among the extra features included on the disc is an alternative opening sequence, a neat little touch. I guess it’s clear enough that I wasn’t exactly blown away by this film but all I can do is call it as I see it. To be clear, I don’t say Little Red Monkey is a bad movie, just a disappointing one. There are points of interest in there and it’s a professional piece of filmmaking but I don’t believe it has worn well and, alongside a vaguely unsavory subtext, is too tied to the era in which it was made. So, watchable but hardly essential in my view.