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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Wrong Number

More British cinema, and more low budget British filmmaking to be exact. The fact is I’ve been watching a lot of this material lately and enjoying it immensely. Sure the quality varies and I’m not making any particular arguments in favor of raising whatever reputation these films may have. It’s simply a matter of immersing myself in the kind of pared down affairs which I frequently find myself drawn to. Wrong Number (1959) is without question a pretty slight work, a movie with a running time of around an hour and shot on a handful of sets. However, those aspects need not be seen as negatives as there’s plenty of pleasure to be derived from such modest fare.

Wrong Number is a heist movie, and that genre variant presents opportunities for drama at different stages – the planning, the execution and the aftermath. More ambitious films may choose to exploit all of those stages, but Wrong Number is aware of its limitations and satisfies itself by working within them. The focus here is the aftermath of the robbery, the earlier elements being only briefly addressed. In brief, a mail robbery has been planned by the outwardly respectable Dr Pole (Peter Elliott) and carried out by career crooks Max and Angelo (Barry Keegan & Peter Reynolds), although far from cleanly when the latter ends up clubbing an overzealous guard to death. If a potential murder rap isn’t bad enough, Angelo and his boss are also interested in the same woman, Maria (Lisa Gastoni).

With the pressure and emotional temperature on the rise in the aftermath of the botched robbery, the titular wrong number begins to play its part. So, as the movie progresses, it alternates between a disloyalty among thieves drama and a slightly eccentric police procedural where a dippy Olive Sloane threatens the patience of investigating cop John Horsley. All of this probably sounds like an incident-packed plot and there is enough in there to keep everything chugging along. Director Vernon Sewell was something of a specialist in low budget pictures, generally making entertaining if sometimes lightweight pictures alongside some more affecting work like Strongroom.

Wrong Number was a Merton Park production and that company made some terrific features and short films throughout the 50s and 60s, not the least of which were the long running series of Edgar Wallace mysteries. There are a number of faces present who ought to be familiar to those who know British cinema even if the names may not be so readily recalled. I think it’s safe to say Irish-Italian actress Lisa Gastoni is the main attraction in this one, and she’s both comfortable on screen and easy on the eye. Actually, the women get the most interesting parts in Wrong Number, with Olive Sloane also making the most of her part as the comical busybody who holds the key to everything.

Once again I find myself looking at one of Network’s sparse yet impressive DVD releases. Wrong Number is a small picture, a true B movie, but professionally made and Network provide a suitably professional presentation – widescreen and a nice, clean print. The DVD offers just the movie but that’s fair enough given the fine transfer and the nature of the film.

Strongroom

Suspense is one of the most attractive aspects of any work of fiction, regardless of whether it’s literary or cinematic. There are all kinds of dramatic devices which can be employed to entertain and enthrall an audience but suspense must surely be the strongest. It doesn’t always come off, lots of movies have fallen flat on their faces while attempting it, but the slow escalation of tension, the encouragement of anxiety which feeds off itself and grows incrementally, is one of the more potent techniques available to the filmmaker. If suspense is to be effective as either a source of drama or as the by-product of it, then it needs to be based on characters whom the audience has gained empathy for or discovered some kind of connection with. Strongroom (1962) is a superb exercise in the art of rubbing the viewer’s nerves raw, of depending on such imposters as fate and coincidence to wring as much tension as possible out of a simple story.

A heist movie is nearly always engrossing and that’s particularly the case when the robbery in question starts to go wrong, when the seemingly meticulous plans go awry. In Strongroom nothing much goes right for anyone from the beginning. WE see the employees of a bank preparing to head off for a long weekend as the Easter holidays have arrived. Across the street, in a van, three men  – Griff (Derren Nesbitt) along with brothers Len (Keith Faulkner) and Alec (Morgan Sheppard) – watch and wait for the manager to be left alone inside. These guys have a little larceny in mind and think they’ve got all bases covered, all the angles figured out. But the manager, Spencer (Colin Gordon), staying a little later than usual and keeping one of the staff , Miss Taylor (Ann Lynn), to help him has a knock-on effect.  It throws the calculations of our would-be master criminals out of kilter and leads to an unexpected situation. In order to avoid detection or the alarm being raised prematurely, the robbers rashly decide to lock the manager and his helper in the vault and make good their escape. It’s only afterwards that they start to think of the consequences of their actions – the air supply in the strongroom is finite and unless they want a murder charge hanging over them, they’ll have to figure out some way to ensure the captives are released without betraying themselves. And this is where the aforementioned suspense kicks in; one piece of ill-fortune follows another as the plans slowly unravel and the chances of freeing the pair diminish as rapidly as the oxygen they so desperately crave.

Strongroom was brought to the screen via the writing of Max Marquis and the prolific Richard Harris. While there are definitely holes in the plot, some big enough to drive a large truck straight through, the peril of the central situation is such that they can be glossed over. It helps too that there’s so much happening at every point that there’s not a lot of time available to spend on analysis of some of the implausibilities. The robbery itself is well realized and neatly executed, but the real interest, the meat on the bones of this movie, only arises once the bank has been raided. Essentially, there are four interconnected strands which vie for the viewer’s attention throughout. The growing sense of panic is seen from two separate angles, that of the manager and his assistant trapped in the vault and slowly coming to terms with the very real possibility that they’re not going to be rescued, and also that of the thieves who find their ideas for freeing the captives foiled by one bad break after another. Therein we have the restricted, claustrophobic core of the movie, and out of that springs another of the plot threads. The relationship which develops between Spencer and Miss Taylor gives the whole thing its heart; by showing the endangered pair to be real, likeable people who only now appreciate what life has to offer, and how much they have taken it for granted, the suspense actually means something and the tension and drama take on a human face. Alongside all of this is the plodding procedure of the police which is methodically going about its business and inching ever closer to the guilt-stricken criminals. So, plenty going on, most of it absorbing, and all in the space of an hour and a quarter.

There’s been plenty of discussion on this site recently on the subject of directors and how they and their work are received. We’ve spoken of auteurs, of the overrated and the underrated, and for the most part we’ve concentrated on those filmmakers working in Hollywood. As such, it’s no bad thing to look at a British example here. Vernon Sewell had a long directing career, stretching back to the 30s, and Strongroom came in the latter stages of it. I’ve had the opportunity to see a fair bit of his work now and I have to say it’s generally entertaining – low budget but very solid and with some nice stylistic touches from time to time.

There are no big names in the cast of Strongroom although seasoned movie fans, especially those with any interest in the British B variety will recognize Derren Nesbitt and Colin Gordon. Nesbitt tended to be cast as a villain quite a lot, usually in fairly straightforward roles. This time he’s given more to do and I found him quite engaging as the de facto leader of the gang whose naturally cockiness is gradually chipped away at by his own conscience, his awareness of and need to put right what he realizes is a dreadful wrong placing him in jeopardy. His chief partner in crime is Keith Faulkner, all cold blood and callousness sitting dangerously alongside an explosive and volatile temperament. Colin Gordon was one of those faces you always see in British cinema and he is excellent as the buttoned up banker who finds himself reconnecting with his real self, his humanity even, when faced with death. It’s the scenes in the vault, when Gordon and Ann Lynn open up to each other and reveal a different side to themselves, that elevate the movie to something more memorable than the run of the mill thriller it was probably intended to be.

Strongroom was released on DVD in the UK some years ago by Odeon, although it looks like it might now have slipped out of print. That disc presents the movie in 4:3 Academy ratio, which seems an unlikely choice for a film released in 1962 and is probably open-matte. The image is nothing special, quite soft in places and the contrast is ramped up higher than is necessary. However, even if the picture quality is variable, it doesn’t matter all that much as the movie itself is riveting enough to make such concerns fade as you watch the story unfold. I found this to be a very effective crime/suspense picture, something of a low budget gem and I suggest anyone who hasn’t seen it should keep an eye out for it – there’s lots to take away from this one and very little that is likely to disappoint.