Home to Danger

Somehow, without consciously having planned to do so, I’ve seen myself on a British thriller kick this summer and therefore embarked on this series of short pieces to log my thoughts and impressions as I’ve been going along. There hasn’t been any particular pattern followed but I have permitted certain films to lead me on to others, linking them up in a vague and loose form that probably makes little sense to anyone apart from myself. I appreciated Guy Rolfe in You Can’t Escape, had a fine time with Lance Comfort’s Tomorrow at Ten, and just recently enjoyed Terence Fisher’s direction of The Last Man to Hang. Those titles and the others I’ve been highlighting are all either films noir or crime/mystery pictures of one kind or another. All of this leads me to Home to Danger (1951), a film noir/whodunit hybrid starring Guy Rolfe, produced by Lance Comfort and directed by Terence Fisher.

Barbara Cummings (Rona Anderson) is the one coming home and the danger referred to lies in the stately pile she has just inherited from her late father. She’d been in Singapore and had left England under something of a cloud and so she feels a certain reticence about her arrival back in the family residence, particularly when she learns the inquest into her father’s death recorded a verdict of suicide. There’s a touch of guilt there but not too much – she knows she wasn’t responsible and no=one seems keen to attach any blame in that direction. However, it’s also clear that late changes to the old man’s will meant Barbara comes into everything of value, while some others who might have had what could be termed expectations have been either cut out at the last minute or not had the chance to be included. Although Barbara has an ally and someone to look out for her in the shape of debonair author Robert Irving (Guy Rolfe), there is a very real sense of menace following a botched attempt on her life. The question is who is behind it all, and what’s their motive?

Home to Danger is one of those slightly unusual amalgams of the country house whodunit and an urban film noir. The former characteristics are to the fore in the earlier stages following the new heiress’ return home. Terence Fisher gets good mileage from the manor house surroundings, and moves his camera around atmospherically, also creating some memorable and noteworthy visuals during the shooting of the exteriors. The action then switches back to town for a time in the course of the investigation into extremely dubious shooting. Again, Fisher is to be commended for altering the style appropriately and presenting different, but equally effective, imagery. The plot is entertaining and engaging enough and the director ensures, with the aid of those shifts back and forth in location, that the hour or so running time is full of incident.

Rona Anderson and Guy Rolf make for an attractive leading couple. Anderson has vigor and guts, and a quality which makes one want to root for her. Alongside her is the suave and assured Rolfe, winning viewer sympathy every bit as effortlessly. The likes of Francis Lister and Alan Wheatley drift in and out of the shadows and keep us guessing as to their real aims. A little further down the cast list is a young Stanley Baker, making the most of his smallish but vital role as a faithful and simple servant, hinting at the great things still to come later in his career.

Home to Danger should be easy enough to locate. It is available on DVD as part of a double bill with Montgomery Tully’s Master Spy in the UK via Renown. As far as I know, it’s also been released in the US as part of a set of British thrillers from a few years back. The transfer is mostly OK; although there is some weird shimmering effect that I noticed early on, it seems to settle down as the film progresses. The movie itself is a modest enough affair which, nevertheless, manages to pull off all it sets out to do. It tells a good crime story efficiently in a little over an hour, with an attractive cast and professional and stylish direction by Terence Fisher.

 

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The Last Man to Hang

The whole notion of justice is a marvelously complex area. The entire history of civilization could be seen as an attempt to define exactly what that word means, what it is and how it is applied in practical terms. It underpins our understanding of the law and its purpose, and of course the law in all its forms is integral to many a piece of drama. Within this is the sub-genre of the legal or courtroom thriller, which brings me to The Last Man to Hang (1956). The title alludes to contemporary shifts in attitude in relation to the death penalty but that aspect, while mentioned and acknowledged, is very much subordinated to the central question of whether the man referenced is to be found guilty or not.

The plot revolves around Sir Roderick Strood (Tom Conway), a music critic who is arrested and charged with the murder of his wife Daphne (Elizabeth Sellars). A good deal of the story is recounted via flashback as Strood  briefs his QC (David Horne) on the events leading up to the fateful evening. Essentially, the film is constructed of three parts – the preparation for the trial, the trial itself, and then the deliberations and verdict reached by the jury. The first section sees the accumulation of a significant amount of circumstantial evidence not helped by the damaging fact that Strood was conducting an extramarital affair with a singer (Eunice Gayson) and building up a lot of ill-will from his wife’s vindictive maid (Freda Jackson).

Then comes the trial at the Old Bailey, where counsel for the defense and the prosecution elegantly present the facts, and interpretations, they hope will swing the case their way. And finally, it’s passed on to the jury, the dozen men and women handed the responsibility for sifting these facts and ultimately deciding whether the man before them is to live or die.

The Last Man to Hang was adapted from The Jury, a novel by Gerald Bullett. I recently picked up a copy of that book, heavily influenced by the great looking cover art of Pan books of that era, and although I have yet to read it I was keen to see how the movie version was. Actually, I wonder now whether the book tells its story in exactly the same way – the film presents the viewer with a vital fact early on (which I’m not revealing here) and I’m not quite sure if that was the best approach or whether it serves to increase or reduce the tension. In my mind, the jury is still out (apologies for that dreadful pun) on that score but it may concern others less. The director for this film was Terence Fisher, and while The Last Man to Hang wasn’t a Hammer production  it’s difficult not to think of him as the studio’s principal shot caller now and therefore unconsciously make comparisons. With that in mind, I think it’s fair to say Fisher’s direct and economical shooting style is apparent all the way through.

Top-billed Tom Conway was an actor whose career was on the downward curve by this stage. In the 1940s, even if he never reached quite as high as his bother George Sanders, he had done good things in three of the best Val Lewton films, a handful of nifty films noir (including one for Anthony Mann),  and had also taken the lead in the long running The Falcon series of B mysteries. He was making a number of movies in the UK at around this time – the other two or three I’ve seen being reasonably entertaining – and about to move towards more television work. His role as the adulterous and conscience-stricken defendant is a large one, giving him plenty of screen time and he is his usual suave self. There’s a restraint there (some might say too much) but I think it works and suits the self-critical reserve of his character.

Aside from Conway, the cast of The Last Man to Hang is deep and impressive. The three major female roles are all well handled. Elizabeth Sellars gets the moody obsessiveness of her character spot on and you can clearly see the frustration she inspires both in her husband and in herself. Freda Jackson, a familiar face in British cinema, is wonderfully malicious and spiteful as the maid whose twisted devotion plays such a pivotal part in the plot. And future Bond girl Eunice Gayson, who just recently passed away, is quietly effective and indeed affecting in her small but vital role. In the courtroom scenes, David Horne and Raymond Huntley battle with distinction while judge Walter Hudd looks on. Of the jury members, Victor Maddern stands out as the stubborn type who could have given Henry Fonda a run for his money in 12 Angry Men.

Sadly, The Last Man to Hang has yet to be released on DVD anywhere. However, it does turn up on TV, in what is probably a cropped 4:3 version, and has done so recently, which is how I managed to catch up with it. The movie was distributed theatrically by Columbia so the rights may still reside with the studio. This is an absorbing courtroom tale, examining the concept of justice in both  criminal and personal terms and is well enough made with a memorable cast to attract an audience still. I’d hope some company might find a way to get this on the market at some stage.

The Earth Dies Screaming

Continuing with the theme of lower budget British movies that I’ve been exploring of late, let’s move away from the crime and noir genres featured so far and look at an area where it could be argued that a more frugal approach is likely to be more harmful. Conventional wisdom will tell you that Sci-Fi is hurt when the cash is in short supply, that the effects suffer and the cheese factor rises proportionately. Well once again, this conventional wisdom may be no more than prejudice wearing the mask of critical conformity. The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) is a film which was clearly made on the cheap, using a very small cast and with a running times which comes in at just over an hour.

A short running time means we need to cut to the chase at the earliest possible opportunity, and that’s precisely how this movie begins. Vehicles go catastrophically out of control and derail,crash or drop out of the sky, people die abruptly and dramatically. As the title suggest, the Earth is dying, just not with a scream. Although we don’t know why this is happening it’s enough to know that it is, that we’re witnessing an apparently inexplicable cataclysm. Yet there is a natural curiosity, a need to understand and try to make some kind of sense. And there’s a feeling that this knowledge will come our way when we see Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker), grim-faced but comfortingly calm and driving along with an air of purpose. As he searches around the desolate village for a means of communication, anything which might raise a living voice anywhere, we get a taste of the enormity of his situation. For a time it looks like he might actually be the last man alive but there’s only a limited amount of dramatic potential in such a setup. No, we need other people to interact with and provide the conflict without which no dramatic situation can truly exist. Enter Quinn Taggart (Dennis Price) and his traveling companion, Peggy (Virginia Field), representing treachery and romance respectively. Others also come on the scene – Thorley Walters and Vanda Godsell to bring some pathos, while David Spenser and Anna Palk are a simultaneously surly and hopeful vision of the future. So, as this small, disparate group gathers in the village inn to plan their next move, we get a hint of what may have happened and who (or perhaps what) was behind it.

The name of Terence Fisher must surely be familiar to even a casual fan of British cult cinema. It’s hard not to think of Fisher without Hammer coming to mind, such was his intimate association with the studio. From the early crime and noir pictures of the early to mid 1950s right through to 1970s Fisher’s name regularly popped up in the credits as director, frequently taking charge of some of their most famous and influential movies. The fact The Earth Dies Screaming was also produced by Lippert Films (one of the company’s last titles), another recognizable collaborator with Hammer ties in with this feeling. However, that’s all it is – a feeling – as the famous old British studio didn’t have a hand in this one and had by this time gradually moved away from Sci-Fi, tending to favor (with the odd notable exception) their trademark Gothic horrors and psychological thrillers. Fisher’s flair for and experience of handling pulpy, genre material such as this is evident throughout. There’s a smoothness and confidence to the storytelling and it moves at a very comfortable pace. It’s difficult not to make a comparison with Target Earth, which had been made in the US a decade earlier. That film had used a very similar premise but, in my opinion at least, nowhere near as successfully. The Earth Dies Screaming uses its limited locations to maximum effect and avoids looking any cheaper than absolutely necessary. More importantly though, there is no attempt to move beyond the small, tight-knit cast. This means the focus remains where it should, cuts out any superfluous distractions, and allows the viewer to become better acquainted with these people – all crucial factors in an hour-long feature.

In a film like this, where you have a frankly fantastic storyline, it’s advisable to cast the kind of people who are capable of grounding it all, of keeping the histrionics to a minimum and ensuring that the notionally unbelievable attains a degree of credibility. Willard Parker had that careworn solidity about him, an aura of competence and cool dependability. The Earth Dies Screaming came near the end (he retired from the business after making only two more movies) of what had been a long and varied career for Parker. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that he was the most exciting screen presence but, as I noted, that’s not the quality this production called for. His wife Virginia Field was making her only cinema appearance opposite him – although a bit of research indicates the couple had appeared together in a number of television shows  in the 50s – and also provides a collected and reassuring face. When our attention is on a beleaguered and bewildered group as is the case here, the dynamic works best when there is at lest one disreputable or dangerous member to stoke additional conflict. And it’s difficult to think of anyone who fit the bill better than Dennis Price, a man who practically had a full-time job playing louche wastrels. The rest  of the pared down cast perform admirably – Thorley Walters never disappoints anyway and only David Spenser comes across as mildly irritating, although I suspect that was part of his remit.

The Earth Dies Screaming has been available on a very nice-looking DVD from MGM in the US for a good many years and has recently made an appearance on Blu-ray too. While I’ve no doubt the BD will look excellent I can’t say I’m dissatisfied with the old DVD and therefore haven’t bothered to think about an upgrade. That disc has a clean and sharp print presented in the 1.66:1 ratio, and I have no complaints about it. I feel it’s a marvelous little movie, of a type which challenges the idea of Sci-Fi requiring large amounts of money and jaw-dropping effects to be successful. If you haven’t seen it, look out for it and give it a go.

So Long at the Fair

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We spend a lot of time these days bemoaning the lack of originality in cinema, citing the number of remakes and the fondness for rehashing plots and concepts. However, the truth is that this isn’t an especially new phenomenon; it’s been going on for almost as long as people have been going to the movies. So Long at the Fair (1950) is an example of a film that’s based on a hoary old tale, an urban myth if you like, which has been used in a number of productions – The Lady Vanishes (1938), Dangerous Crossing (1953), and an early episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to name a few, have all borrowed to a greater or lesser extent from the same basic idea. The point I’m trying to make here is that a perceived lack of innovation in the central plot theme is not necessarily always a bad thing – the real test is in the execution of the script. Even the most familiar of stories can still grip the viewer as long as they are presented in an interesting way.

Events in the film revolve around the Paris Exhibition of 1889, and a young brother and sister, Johnny and Vicky Barton (David Tomlinson and Jean Simmons), who happen to be visiting the capital. Thinking themselves lucky to have secured accommodation when all the city is awash with tourists, they proceed to enjoy their first night out on the town. The bustling, thronged atmosphere is nicely conveyed through scenes of cafe life on the pavements of Montmartre, and later at the Moulin Rouge. These two young people, having sampled the cosmopolitan night life, return exhausted to their hotel to get some rest and prepare for further excitement the next day. However, that’s not to be. When Vicky awakes she finds herself confronted with a situation that at first arouses puzzlement, but soon descends into despair and fear. What has happened is that Johnny has disappeared, but that’s only the half of it. As soon as Vicky starts to ask questions she’s presented with the even more perplexing problem that not only does nobody seem to remember seeing her brother but they insist, to a man, that he was never there in the first place. As if that’s not bad enough, there’s the downright chilling discovery that the room Vicky remembers her brother occupying doesn’t even exist, despite her having visited him in it. The unfolding of this nightmare scenario is nicely handled, with each new shock being added incrementally and the girl’s panic growing accordingly. Finding no solace at the hotel, Vicky turns to the authorities, the consulate and the police, who both display sympathy but also a healthy, and understandable, dose of scepticism. While the distraught girl witnesses one possible avenue of inquiry after another relentlessly closed to her, and her belief in her own sanity being stretched to the limit, the viewer is made subtly aware that something dark and inexplicable is taking place behind the scenes. Enter George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde), an artist struggling to make a go of his new-fangled impressionist works and an unlikely but welcome ally for the increasingly desperate Vicky. With the backing of someone who’s willing to take her story at face value our heroine now has the opportunity to get to the heart of the mystery. The solution, when it comes, may seem a little contrived but it is logical and ties up all the loose ends in a very satisfactory manner. Added to that, and perhaps most importantly, the whole thing is achieved both stylishly and without any relaxation of the tension.

Jean Simmons becoming part of the masquerade that is So Long at the Fair. 

Terence Fisher shared the directing credits with Antony Darnborough, and the sumptuous and stylised sets bring to mind the look of the Hammer films that the former would go on to make his name in. Despite a number of outdoor scenes, there’s a real sense of claustrophobia to the whole production that emphasises the shortage of options open to Vicky. When the action returns to the ornate, overdecorated interior of the hotel this stifling feeling is heightened even further – the intricacy of the decor being highly suggestive of unpalatable secrets that need to be disguised by an opulent exterior. There are also two fine set pieces that grab the attention, the first being a horrific accident that befalls a hot air balloon carrying the one person who may be capable of corroborating Vicky’s unlikely story. The other is an extended sequence that sees Hathaway stealing through the hotel by night in an effort to secure evidence that will convince the authorities to act. Fisher really piles on the suspense as the young artist slips in and out of shadow along corridors and staircases, narrowly avoiding the staff as they go about their regular nightly rituals, to get his hands on the tell-tale receipt books. Jean Simmons was asked to carry the picture for long stretches, and she brought it off very well. She had that doe-eyed innocence that almost guarantees sympathy and used it to maximum effect. However, there’s more to her performance than mere pouting for the camera; her mounting feeling of hopelessness as one door after another slams shut in her face is always believable. Dirk Bogarde’s role was a good deal more straightforward, but he too played it to perfection. There’s a nice mix of the gauche and the determined in his portrayal of an unexpected knight in shining armour. As for the supporting cast, there are welcome turns from familiar faces such as Felix Aylmer, Andre Morell and a young Honor Blackman. The strongest work though is done by Cathleen Nesbitt as the forbidding hotel manageress, whose sour features are perfect for conveying a very subtle menace.

So Long at the Fair has just recently been released on DVD in the UK by new label Spirit, although they are an affiliate of ITV/Granada. The transfer is a reasonable one without being especially remarkable. The film doesn’t appear to have undergone any restoration and there are the usual age related artifacts to be seen, but they’re never particularly distracting. If anything, the image is a little too soft but I wouldn’t call it a fatal flaw either. The disc itself is completely barebones, no trailer, no subtitles, just the movie. Despite that, I think the film is very entertaining; even if the plot is one that you’re largely familiar with it still holds the attention throughout. For those who have no acquaintance whatsoever with the story it ought to prove even more gripping. In brief, there’s a genuine puzzle plot, fine performances, and tight, smooth direction. I give it my recommendation.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

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The Hound of the Baskervilles must surely be the most familiar and famous Sherlock Holmes story of all. With its mixture of mystery and horror elements, and consequent crossover appeal, it’s easy to see why Doyle’s story has attracted so many filmmakers down through the years. My own favourite adaptation of the story remains the Rathbone and Bruce effort from 1939, but Hammer’s 1959 production does come very close to being its equal. There are a number of liberties taken transferring this classic story from the page to film, but I think I’ve said before that this never especially bothered me since I often feel that, for all their classic status, there are aspects of Doyle’s original writings that can be a little tedious. Hammer certainly tweaked the material here and there but the essence of the story remains and, when all’s said and done, that’s as much as anyone should reasonably expect from a literary adaptation.

The story, for those unfamiliar with it, concerns the legend of a curse on the aristocratic Baskerville family, wherein the male heirs are doomed to meet a grisly fate visited upon them by the mythical hound from hell. When the penultimate holder of the title dies alone under mysterious circumstances on the bleak moors, the last of the Baskervilles, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee), returns to his ancestral home. Fearing for the safety of the new occupant of Baskerville Hall, a local physician, Dr Mortimer (Francis De Wolff), calls on the world’s greatest consulting detective (Peter Cushing) for advice. Mortimer’s account of the origin of the curse is told in flashback and forms the prologue of the film, setting things off at a storming pace that rarely lets up. The only slackness that occurs, and it’s very slight at that, is when Holmes sends Watson (Andre Morell) off alone to play nursemaid to Sir Henry. At this point Holmes is absent from the screen and the film suffers a little for it. However, this is a feature of the source material that can’t be avoided – anyway it offers the opportunity to see Watson acting on his own initiative for a change, and that alone means that it doesn’t deserve to be criticised too harshly. The scenes on the moors at night have an eerie, supernatural quality (lashings of mist and a soft green glow emanating from ruined buildings) that were the stock in trade of Hammer films and house director Terence Fisher. When Holmes eventually returns to the screen the film immediately gets a new lease of life, with Cushing lending a sense of urgency and energy. The final denouement takes place among the same spooky ruins that provided the backdrop for the opening, and this is the point where the movie disappoints a little. Until then the hound itself had never been as much as glimpsed, the characters only referring to it in hushed and fearful tones and it’s unearthly howls being heard echoing across the moors. Given the anticipation that such a build-up encourages, it’s hardly surprising that the beast struggles to live up to it in the flesh.

A two pipe problem - Watson (Andre Morell) & Holmes (Peter Cushing) mulling over a shaggy dog story.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is credited as being the first Holmes film in colour, and Hammer certainly did it proud. The opening is a riot of rich, vivid hues that look as pretty as anything the studio ever produced. James Bernard’s typically powerful score adds to the melodramatic atmosphere and Fisher’s direction is suspenseful and pacy (something which he’s occasionally been accused of neglecting in favour of atmosphere). Cushing and Morell were inspired casting, with the former providing one of the finest portrayals of the great detective on screen. He comes as close as anyone ever has to capturing the essence of the character, combining athleticism with erudition, waspish arrogance, and a sly humour. Morell moves Watson away from the bumbling foolishness of Nigel Bruce to offer a more serious sounding board for the wits of Holmes. Lee gives his usual professional performance as the last of the Baskervilles who falls for the sexy and feral Marla Landi, although he does succumb to a bout of the Elmer Fudds at one point (Come on now. Why did you wun away?). The support cast is as good as one would expect from a Hammer picture, with Miles Malleson doing a nice comic turn as a spider-loving clergyman while John Le Mesurier, Ewen Solon and Francis De Wolff lurk menacingly.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of MGM’s catalogue DVDs, and that means it’s just about adequate. The studio rarely seemed to consider it necessary to give their 1.66:1 titles an anamorphic transfer, and this release follows that pattern. There are also a variety of damage marks but none of them are seriously distracting. The R2 carries no extras save the theatrical trailer. Generally, this is an excellent Holmes film and, since it’s also one of Hammer’s best, it’s a pity the studio never followed it up and turned it into one of their series. Cushing and Morell had the makings of a fine team and it’s tempting to wonder what they could have done with the characters had they been given an extended run, but I understand the film just didn’t turn a big enough profit for Hammer to keep it going. However, they did leave us with a strong movie that holds up well to repeated viewings.