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 Dark Man

After spending a bit of time with 60s crime pictures I’m taking a step back into the 50s again to look at another unheralded movie. I mentioned before that it’s possible to discern a slightly harder edge to 60s productions, but I did try to qualify that as nothing comes about all of a sudden, and The Dark Man (1951) which features some tough moments supports that view. Aside from some stylishly filmed setups, what the movie has in its favor is its direct and uncluttered plot line, a simple tale of suspense which doesn’t worry about leaving some (not especially important) questions only partially answered and strictly maintains its focus throughout.

The focus is one of the staples of the suspense sub-genre, the relentless stalking of an innocent by a shadowy villain. That villain (Maxwell Reed) is never named, or never formally identified anyway, but his sinister and ruthless nature is never let in doubt either. One of the most attractive aspects of films such as this is the way the economy of budget led to a necessary economy in the script, but in a positive way. The first few minutes see first the killing of a petty crook for the proceeds of a black market deal and then the subsequent, and much more cynical, slaying of a witness. It is immediately obvious therefore that we’re  looking at someone who is prepared to act decisively to protect himself. As such, it should come as no surprise that he will do all he can to track down and silence another person, actress Molly Lester (Natasha Parry), who accidentally stumbled on the aftermath of the crimes. That this girl is facing a serious albeit elusive threat is never in doubt and it’s up to the Yard’s Inspector Viner (Edward Underdown) to do his utmost to protect his witness whilst trying to get a line on the nameless killer.

The Dark Man is another Merton Park production which, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is very often an indication of an attractive visual style. There is a good blend of atmospheric studio work and some very effective location shooting along the Sussex coast. Director Jeffrey Dell only took charge of a handful of films altogether and appears to have concentrated more on writing. That said, he produces some remarkably evocative work here and two sequences in particular stand out. The first is a brief bit of business where Reed boards a bus to tail an unsuspecting Parry to a stretch of beach, a stretch which becomes ever more deserted thereby leaving her increasingly vulnerable. The careful cutting and deliberate shooting of Reed from afar ramps up the tension and the conveys the sense of panic felt by Parry pretty well. And of course there is the climactic chase and shootout along the coast where the use of landscape and lighting is notable.

Maxwell Reed may be best known these days as the first husband of Joan Collins but he had a goodish run as a lead in the 40s and 50s. He’s not bad in The Dark Man as the menacing titular character and sketchiness of his role actually serves him well. As the straight arrow cop, Edward Underdown is solid too. I always seem to think of him in relation to his role in John Huston’s satirical thriller Beat the Devil but I feel he was more at home in these kinds of dramas. Natasha Parry, as the witness in constant danger of death, is an attractive, independently spirited,  heroine. Ah yes, and William Hartnell makes an appearance; sometimes I think this was almost obligatory in British films of the era.

The UK DVD of The Dark Man is OK, but nothing special either. The print could use a bit of a clean up here and there and the kind of softness and general neglect that one associates with unrestored sources. It is perfectly watchable of course and the obscurity of the film combined with its frankly niche appeal means that it’s unlikely to look much better. The disc too is a simple affair with the film only and no supplements whatsoever. However, it is the kind of movie I’m just pleased to see available, and it’s not the most expensive to pick up. So, a brisk little movie that surprised me by being perhaps more stylish than I had anticipated.

The Informers

I’m going to stick with 60s crime for a bit longer, following on from the last entry. It seems safe to say that a harder edge had crept into mysteries and thrillers by the early years of the decade – of course I’m speaking in general terms here and am not for a moment suggesting that this phenomenon hadn’t made an appearance before, nor that it sprang unprovoked from nowhere. No, as with any trend in cinema, it developed gradually but it was certainly more apparent by the time The Informers (1963) came out. It’s possible that the growing permissiveness and the opportunity for greater frankness in the depiction of not only violence but also sexuality and shifting social mores spurred the filmmakers on to throw too much into the mix here. A few years before or perhaps later might have allowed a more pared down script where the focus could have been a little tighter, but that’s a minor criticism.

The title tells us what the main thrust of the story is, and right from the beginning we’re in no doubt that it’s a tale of cops, gangsters and the people who form a bridge between their converging and diverging spheres. Chief Inspector Johnnoe (Nigel Patrick) is the protagonist, a Scotland Yard man of the old school who relies on the tried and trusted methods his superior Supt. Bestwick (Harry Andrews) is keen to move away from, namely the practice of using informers and acting on “information received.” This is a dangerous game for all concerned, relying on mutual trust and extreme caution on both sides, and the possibility of a breakdown in communication, poor timing, treachery and sometimes just bad luck can toss a large and potentially fatal spanner in the works. And that’s essentially what concerns us here. In his quest to produce results in the investigation into a spate of safe-cracking jobs, Johnnoe turns to his long-time pigeon, with serious consequences for all.

I’ll have to confess that I’ve only seen a small fraction of the work of director Ken Annakin. His was a fairly long career, covering a wide range of genres so I can’t say why I’m not more familiar with him. The Informers is a strong piece of work, suggesting I should take a closer look at some of his other films though. There is an attractive blend of action, suspense and character work, not to mention the various social issues which are either woven closely into the plot or touched on more lightly. Aside from the core police yarn, we are presented with aspects of Johnnoe’s home life, strife and competition at work, the abusive relationship of one of the villains and his girl, the difficulties of single-parenthood, hints at racial tensions, and more. As I said above, that’s a lot of material to pack in, even if a lot of it is largely incidental. It does add to the richness of the script but, perhaps because of my recent diet of briefer and more direct storytelling, I still found it rather dense.

Nigel Patrick is an interesting lead, suave and coolly self-assured to start and increasingly frayed as he stumbles deeper into the criminal morass than he’d intended to. He was over 50 when The Informers was made and there’s no attempt to gloss over or hide that, something we tend to see less now where leads generally have to pretend they are almost indestructible superhero types. As the  villains he’s up against both Derren Nesbitt and Frank Finlay are excellent value, brassily flash and quietly menacing respectively. It’s pleasing too to see Colin Blakely get a nice intense part with a fair amount of screen time as a vengeful anti-heroic type. His real-life wife Margaret Whiting has a large and significant role, helping to draw together the diverse plot strands at the climax. The other female character of Johnnoe’s wife, played by Katherine Woodville, is underdeveloped though. Nevertheless, there’s an incredible supporting cast with Roy Kinnear, Allan Cuthbertson, George Sewell, Harry Andrews and John Cowley among others.

The UK DVD of The Informers looks reasonably crisp for the most part but I can’t imagine the Academy ratio presentation is correct. It’s a very enjoyable and well made crime picture, with an incident-filled plot and good performances, so it would be nice  to see it revisited in Hi-Def at some point in the future. Well, we can hope.

Tomorrow at Ten

Finding myself writing about a lot of crime movies of late, I consequently find myself ruminating over what goes into making these genre pieces successful. Well of course it is a combination of writing, acting and direction, with a some additional assistance from sets, photography and music from time to time. Still those are broad terms which encompass a lot, but I think one critical element that grows out of their synergy is what we term suspense.  The best examples of the crime movie trade heavily on this, using it to hook and then captivate the audience. Tomorrow at Ten (1963) is a first-rate British crime picture that does this in superb style.

Sometimes I think that the worst crimes can inspire  the best films. Kidnapping is an especially nasty and traumatic piece of work, putting a life at risk and simultaneously exerting sadistic psychological pressure on those faced with the ransom demands. That’s in real life. However, in the fictional world of the movies the dramatic potential of such situations is practically boundless and, depending on the perspective from which the story is seen, multi-faceted too. Here we are introduced to man calling himself Marlow (Robert Shaw) who is in the process of adding the finishing touches to a meticulously planned scheme; in the secluded house he has rented, we see him happily gutting a child’s stuffed toy and snugly fitting what is clearly a device with a timer. This golly will be used superficially as a comforter for the little boy Marlow will abduct and also as a form of dreadful insurance to secure the cooperation of the victim’s father.

It’s barefaced stuff, snatching the boy and then presenting himself to the shocked parent to calmly demand money and immunity. Marlow is counting on his threats either keeping the police out of the affair or inducing the wealthy father to use his influence to neuter their efforts. But he reckons without the grim determination of DI Parnell (John Gregson), a man with a clear and uncompromising sense of justice. In the finest dramatic tradition though, even the best plans hit snags, and in this case it’s a huge one. In fact, the powerful emotions released by his actions has wholly unforeseen results for Marlow, dragging the story in a different more intense direction and raising the suspense to a completely new level.

Briefly scanning back through pieces I’ve written here in the past and I don’t believe I’ve included any films directed by Lance Comfort yet. Bearing in mind how many of his movies I have to hand, this seems like an odd omission and certainly not an intentional one. Comfort worked in a range of genres but he had a real talent for crime movies and thrillers, and he also managed to wring the very best out of some particularly spare projects. Tomorrow at Ten makes use of a small central cast, around a half dozen people and keeping the focus on Gregson and Shaw in particular. When one thinks of these British quickies there’s a tendency to expect simple and direct visual setups, but Comfort had the experience and the resultant confidence to move his camera around more imaginatively and there are a number of extraordinarily stylish shots on view. And he was a highly professional filmmaker, never losing sight of the thread of the narrative and the necessity to keep everything moving relentlessly towards the resolution.

Robert Shaw was one of the big stars of British cinema, although he had yet to make his major breakthrough – that was to come shortly with his portrayal of the cold and dangerous Red Grant in From Russia With Love.  As an exercise in frighteningly psychopathic behavior, Tomorrow at Ten provided a pretty good warm-up, allowing him to create a genuinely memorable villain – there’s something chilling about his gleeful appreciation of his own cunning. Opposing hm is the stolid and reassuring presence of John Gregson as the dogged and principled policeman. As the plot develops, it’s Gregson who gets the greater share of screen time and he brings the audience along on the emotional journey as he hunts against the clock for the clue that may vindicate his methods and, more importantly, save an innocent life.

Tomorrow at Ten was released on DVD by what was Odeon well over ten years ago. That edition appears to have gone out of print now but, as far as I can see, there should be used copies available to buy for reasonable prices online. The transfer on that DVD was in Academy ration, which is unlikely to have been correct for an early 60s film. There are also some instances of print damage to be seen but overall the presentation is perfectly watchable. The movie itself is wonderful little hidden gem, one where the suspense is increased artfully and built around a mightily absorbing tale. Highly recommended.

The Night Won’t Talk

Continuing with my trawl through British movies that have been largely neglected, I now come to The Night Won’t Talk (1952), an atmospheric little whodunit with a tempting title and another of those ever attractive one hour running times.

A good opening goes a long way with me, and The Night Won’t Talk hits the ground running with a hooded figure slipping through deserted nighttime streets, headed towards a basement flat and a victim. Right away we’re pitched into the middle of a murder case, an artist’s model having been killed in that initial sequence. Certain settings tend to work well in mysteries and an artistic milieu often provides at least an interesting set of suspects, and the kind of undisguised personal and professional competition that doesn’t need to be restrained in the way it might in more conservative circles. The murder victim is soon established as a source of jealousy for other women and also, more suggestively, a siren who sparked romantic rivalry among those men she came into contact with. The complicated web of relationships first needs to be unraveled and that task falls to the cool and detached Inspector West (Ballard Berkeley) and his equally laconic assistant (Duncan Lamont). As with many (most?) investigations, the shadow of suspicion has a habit of resting more comfortably on one particular person. In this case, it’s the victim’s fiance, unstable artist Clay Hawkes (John Bailey) but nothing is certain and there’s no shortage of alternatives for us to keep in mind.

Actress Hy Hazell got top billing, and to be fair she does deserve it as she is a strong and attractive screen presence. Her film career was somewhat limited although I’m keen to see more of her work. I have another two  of her movies in my collection but I see I’m missing Stolen Assignment, which sounds like it might be worth a look and I’m keen to get my hands on it at some point now. There’s marvelously relaxed support from Ballard Berkeley as the policeman on the case and the film is more fun whenever he’s on view. I’ll have to admit I was less impressed with John Bailey as the main suspect; he’s good enough I guess but his nervy brand of angst didn’t fully convince me and I think it hurts the film somewhat when such a central role isn’t entirely successful.

The Night Won’t Talk was directed by Daniel Birt, but I’m not all that familiar with his other work. I have a couple of his titles to hand though – The Deadly Game and Three Steps in the Dark – and should make an effort to check those out at some stage. Birt’s direction is brisk and efficient enough but it’s also noticeable that at times the film has a look that belies what must have been a restricted budget. A quick glance at the credits shows that the art director was one Bernard Robinson (the man responsible for the distinctive and deceptively luxurious appearance of many a Hammer production) so it shouldn’t really come as any surprise.

Network give The Night Won’t Talk quite a nice transfer to DVD in its correct Academy ratio and even include a brief gallery of press clippings as a supplement. Again, it’s a solid presentation of a lesser-known British crime picture. The movie is a reasonably neat whodunit which is plotted satisfactorily and moves along at a good clip.

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.

Catacombs

I’m in the mood for small-scale British thrillers just at the moment and am currently enjoying some new watches alongside some revisits. Last time I looked at a late 40s noir effort and have now leapt ahead almost two decades to highlight Catacombs AKA The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (1965), a macabre, twisty thriller which evokes some of the vibe director Gordon Hessler picked up from his work on Alfred Hitchcock’s TV series.

The story is a highly seasoned mix of temptation, infidelity and murder which also flirts with the supernatural. Everything revolves around Raymond and Ellen Garth (Gary Merrill & Georgina Cookson) and Ellen’s niece Alice (Jane Merrow). Ellen represents the money, a hard-driving (both literally and figuratively) businesswoman who strives to have total control over everything and everyone in her life, including her husband and her health problems. As far as the former is concerned, Raymond is essentially a kept man, a weak-willed specimen who has spent his life trading on his sexuality. As for the latter, Ellen’s attacks of physical pain have led her to explore meditation techniques and as a result the ability to put herself into a trance in an effort to manage her suffering. Into this slightly unusual household comes the figure of Alice, a girl who had gone abroad to study art and has now returned as a grown woman and caught the roving eye of Raymond. What we have is a potentially explosive situation in development, one which only needs a chance spark to set it all off. Then an apparently casual suggestion by one of Ellen’s disgruntled employees (Neil McCallum) strikes just such a spark…

Catacombs is a fairly entertaining little film, not all that surprising in terms of the direction it takes but still delivering a neat and satisfying twist right at the end. Gary Merrill was the big name Hollywood name whose star was on the wane, a common enough casting technique employed by British movies of the 50s and 60s. Merrill’s role as the ageing gigolo isn’t an especially appealing one although it’s not really meant to be  attractive and the actor picks up on the venal and craven aspects of his character very well, making him quite human but not in any pleasant way. Georgina Cookson is cool and poised, maybe too cool though to be wholly credible. Jane Merrow is better as the returning ingenue, the catalyst for the turmoil which ensues. And finally, Neil McCallum has a small but pivotal part as the shifty type who brings matters to a head.

Aside from his on screen work, McCallum also had a co-producing credit alongside Jack Parsons – and incidentally Parsons also produced Walk a Tightrope, which McCallum both wrote and had a minor role in. However, the bigger influence behind the cameras appears to have been provided by the director.  Gordon Hessler spent many years working as associate producer and ultimately producer for Hitchcock for his television show. Anyone familiar with those Hitchcock episodes will recognize the mood here and the connection isn’t all that difficult to see. I’ll be honest and admit I’ve not been all that enamored with the other Hessler films I’ve seen – those horror features he made with Vincent Price – but then again I’m not a huge fan of that genre anyway. IN short, I’d say I like Catacombs quite a bit more than the director’s other work, or at least what I’ve had the opportunity to view.

Catacombs has been released on DVD in the UK in a very nice edition by Network. The widescreen transfer looks crisp and attractive but the package is, as usual, light on supplements. Still, the movie is a fun way to pass an hour and a half or so and one that fans of the Hitchcock TV shows ought to check out.

Manhandled

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself looking a movie that seems to have been marketed as a film noir, or at least as a hard-boiled crime yarn in the days before filmmakers and critics had acquainted themselves with French terminology. I’ve also made the point before that I think of myself as inclusive in my own attitude to what precisely constitutes an entry in this somewhat nebulous category. At a glance, Manhandled (1949) looks like it’s earned its place in the lineup, but the truth is it’s more of a decoy than the genuine article. However, that’s not necessarily any bad thing, just so long as one knows what the score is going in.

Everything begins furtively, the camera hugging the ground and slinking  cat-like around the shadows, revealing only the legs of characters whose voices indicate a jealous, insecure man waiting up for the woman he fears may be cheating on him. They meet, there’s a confrontation, and then a killing. It’s looks stylish and gripping, and the sudden knowledge that it was all a dream recounted by an anxious writer (Alan Napier) to his analyst (Harold Vermilyea) only adds to the noir trappings. When it then looks as if the dream were in fact an omen of the tragedy to come, well one would be forgiven for believing we’re firmly entrenched in cinema’s darker corner. Yet, it’s at this point that the tone alters, despite the presence of noir regulars Dan Duryea and Sterling Hayden, to head off (for the most part) down a lighter path more in keeping with a whodunit murder mystery with a hint of a 30 s or early 40s series picture about it.

I have a hunch there are those who will dismiss this movie for not being a true noir, or perhaps for strongly hinting that it is and then delivering something rather different. I can understand that; the film does appear unsure of exactly what it wants to be and the tone can veer radically from scene to scene, and even within a scene. Frankly, I’m happy to regard it as a mystery which flirts with the trappings of noir without ever fully committing. On that level, it works fine and the jokey, vaguely bumbling cops (Art Smith & Irving Bacon) don’t feel out of place in such a world. I’m being deliberately cagey about the plot in this case as I think any discussion of a film which is essentially a whodunit should steer as far away from spoiler territory as possible, out of respect for any reader who is unfamiliar with the material. Suffice to say, Dan Duryea has a field day trading on his characteristic fake bonhomie, acting as a role model for aspiring chiselers everywhere. Dorothy Lamour does distress well and only Sterling Hayden is a tad disappointing, his typical gruff abruptness not really suiting his role here.

That opening sequence where cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and director Lewis R Foster pull out all the stops is a wonderful hook but, at the same time, it’s perhaps setting up a different picture to what they were planning to present. Ultimately, I have no issue with a film not being as dark as it promises – I like noir a lot but wouldn’t want to see every crime or mystery movie forced to conform to its requirements. As a mystery, Manhandled works well enough, sprinkling suspects and red herrings around to maintain interest. Still, it misses the mark to some extent due to the shifting and uncertain tone.

As with a lot of Pine – Thomas movies, availability can be tricky. I watched this online recently but there has been a DVD released in Italy – I haven’t seen it so can’t make any comment on its quality. So to get down to brass tacks, would I recommend it? Well, I’d have to answer with a qualified yes. The quality of the cast should speak for itself and the mystery at the heart of the story is solid enough to hold one’s interest. Yet that variability in the script has to be noted – if you can accept that and take the film on its own occasionally muddled terms, then there’s fun to be had with it.

State Secret

Political thrillers can be a bore; long-winded affairs that can be equally long on sanctimony have a tendency to turn me off. For me, anything which is given this designation works best when the political aspects are sidelined as far as possible and the thriller elements are brought unashamedly to the fore. Even better is the film were the politics are of the entirely make-believe variety, serving only as a light frame upon which to drape a tale of intrigue. In 1938 Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat turned out such a screenplay and in the process played a significant role in shaping the success of The Lady Vanishes, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best British movies. A dozen years later would see Gilliat both contributing to the script of and directing another British “political” thriller called State Secret (1950) – a neglected piece of hokum which remains highly entertaining.

Middle Europe and non-existent countries (and in this particular case featuring what appears to be a specially created language that is used throughout the film) are the kind of ingredients which effortlessly draw me in. In this case it’s Vosnia, the undisputed realm of one General Niva (Walter Rilla). Frankly, I find it hugely refreshing that there is a deliberate vagueness about the leanings of this dictatorship; whether Niva is a leftist or rightist demagogue is never addressed, and the simple fact is it’s of no relevance whatsoever. When eminent surgeon John Marlowe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is persuaded to travel to Vosnia to demonstrate his pioneering new technique, it’s not important to know the color of intolerance and repression that holds sway within its borders – both the hero and the viewers are off on a pacy adventure, where the only thing that matters is the threat and not the philosophy supposedly driving it.

So, Marlowe finds himself enjoying the kind of luxurious hospitality only the best totalitarian regimes can offer while he shows off his new procedure and collects what he’s been told is a prestigious award. Naturally, in a movie of this type, the whole scenario  is merely a blind, an elaborate charade designed to conceal the fact Marlowe is actually operating on the seriously ill head of state. Perhaps a wiser man might have considered this possibility, and certainly would have made sure  any suspicions he may have had were kept strictly to himself. But Marlowe isn’t such a man, and of course if he were, we wouldn’t have a film to enjoy. As it is, he makes a point of finding out who his patient is, and then finds that countries like Vosnia have a host of other feature to offer when patients whose identity it really would be better not to know don’t survive the procedure. What follows is a relentless pursuit across an alien landscape as Marlowe, with the initially reluctant assistance of showgirl Lisa (Glynis Johns), tries to elude the urbane but deadly Colonel Galcon (Jack Hawkins) and all the forces at his command.

With location shooting in Italy, State Secret is an attractive looking British thriller, a fast-moving and exciting thriller which owes a debt to the writer/director’s previous collaboration with Hitchcock. The concept of the regular guy on the run, pursued across the country by shady types in the employ of a ruthless foe, is a familiar trope. And, in addition, there are scenes, such as the attempt to seek sanctuary in a theater and hide oneself among a crowd as the enemy closes in, all of which recall the likes of The 39 Steps and Saboteur, and also look ahead to North by Northwest and Torn Curtain. Gilliat’s script here is adapted from a novel by Roy Huggins (of The Fugitive fame), which I have yet to track down and read so I can’t say how much derives from that source.

Fairbanks makes for a personable and sympathetic hero in State Secret, making me wish he’d done more of this kind of stuff. His was a rich and varied life and it seems sometimes that acting was only a small part of it all – he’ll probably remain best known, and probably deservedly so, for his roles as the amoral Rupert of Hentzau in the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda and also as a soldier in Gunga Din two years later. Personally, I’d love to be able to see another of his movies, Green Hell, made available at some point as I remember it as being quite a lot of fun. Glynis Johns, daughter of Mervyn Johns, was in the middle of a productive run of work at this point and is an appealing and credible partner for Fairbanks. Jack Hawkins was one of the greats of British cinema; equally at home as either hero or villain, or any variation floating between, he lent class to any film he appeared in and here (bearing in mind the caliber of his co-stars) he consolidates an already distinguished cast. If I had a complaint to make, it would be that we don’t get to see more of Hawkins, and the same could be said for the always accomplished Herbert Lom.

In the same year, Richard Brooks would make the similarly themed Crisis – with Cary Grant finding himself pressured into operating on a dictator and running the attendant risks – but that’s a slower, duller picture that tries harder to make a philosophical point but ends up losing its way as a piece of cinema. State Secret, on the other hand, is upfront about its aims as a piece of entertainment first and foremost and winds up being a better film as a result. Sadly, there don’t appear to be any strong versions of the movie available to buy. I have a Spanish DVD which is just about acceptable in terms of quality, but I couldn’t really endorse it. There’s also an Italian disc on the market and I suspect it’s probably from a comparable source. As such, all I can say is I hope the film gets a release somewhere that does it justice. Anyway, it’s a fine British thriller that is worth keeping one’s eyes open for – and perhaps it will come in for the treatment and attention it deserves.