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Hammer Film Noir: collector's set

directors: Terence Fisher, Reginal Le Borg, Ken Hughes, Patrick Jenkins, and Sam Newfield

464 minutes (n/r) 1952/4
VCI DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
In 1950, before Hammer made a name for itself with a memorable horror output, it set up a deal with American producer Robert L. Lippert to make a dozen or so low budget crime dramas, all of which were to be shot in the UK. In all the arrangement lasted for some five years, and utilised the fading star qualities of such past-their-sell-date American talent such as Dane Clark, Paul Henreid, Lizabeth Scott and George Brent, as well as leading British character actors.

Largely forgotten by now by film historians, this newly restored American release, the first three volumes of which are handily gathered in this well presented collector's boxset, is well worth investigating. It has to be said immediately that it is an uneven set, and none of the films are of the front rank, being issued originally on the bottom half of double bills. But it is never less than entertaining, and overall a good peg up from the dispiriting British 'quota quickies' that usually surface as examples of the British B-thriller genre on late night TV, at least in the UK. Hammer may not have established itself as a memorable producer of noir on the basis of this transatlantic deal but the results have been unfairly neglected (being the basis of only a passing reference in the official history of the studio for instance).

Criticism of the films, apart from focusing on their small budgets and hand-me-down leads, has generally dwelt on the success or otherwise of transplanting an American hardboiled genre into a different soil. Certainly the first of those made under the new arrangement The Last Page (aka: Man Bait, 1952) is example. Far too genteel to be successful as more than a mildly suspenseful thriller, its impact is further affected by the unassuming performance of lead George Brent - an actor whom Betty Davies apparently liked as a partner on screen as it was so easy to steal the picture from him! Brent plays the manager of a bookshop, hardly the first choice for a thriller/ noir setting (although one makes a memorable appearance in The Big Sleep) who is blackmailed by the bad blonde of the title - no less than Diana Dors, in an early screen role. It was an early credit too for one of Hammer's best directors Terence Fisher, though again this critic, at least, thinks he remains a minor talent. Like practically all the Hammer films in this series, the title was changed for the American market and The Last Page certainly sounds more the job for the pulp world that the films inhabit. It also places Dors firmly at the centre of this film which has a fine sense of atmosphere - having worked in the book trade for some years I found the dated interiors and procedures especially fascinating - while some other, equally effective location shooting amidst a now lost London adds to the charm.

Two films starring Dane Clark appear in this first box set. Clarke, who in a British context occasionally reminds one of a haunted Norman Wisdom in looks, appeared in a memorable noir a few years earlier, Borzage's romantic Moonrise (1948) which, if nothing else, made him a noir icon of sorts. Nothing here rises to those heights and in fact Murder By Proxy (aka: Blackout, 1954) is perhaps the biggest disappointment here, being both confused and confusing in its efforts to recreate the nightmarish dislocations of noir. Again directed by the ever-game Fisher, Murder By Proxy is the story of a drunk (Clark) who wakes up after a bender with money in his pocket, blood on his coat and memories of an opportunistic blonde. Blonde femme fatales appear regularly in this set and here Belinda Lee plays one. Fisher does his best and so does Clark, but the awkward script - which includes a notably dull and awkward exposition scene as Clark figures out the plot mechanics - is the sinker.

Clark has a better vehicle to shine with in the slightly earlier The Gambler And The Lady (1952), this time co-directed by Fisher, in which he plays the doomed gambler in question, a self made man, running a profitable London set up into which rudely intrudes his aspirational love life and the aggressive ambitions of some Italian gangster interlopers. His social climbing ultimately proves the straw that breaks the camel's back. Many of the British noirs interestingly import class considerations into the dramatic mix, concerns that are usually absent in the American model, and they are seen most strongly in this title. The gambler's end is ultimately determined by the suckering in of social mobility as much as the machinations of fate - but not before there is some effective sniping at the rudeness and untrustworthiness of the British ruling classes. Clark cuts a suitably doomed and somewhat pathetic figure as he struggle to gain acceptance.

Another Fisher title, Stolen Face (1952) offers the characteristic noir idea of loss, or confusion, of identity often through surgery, as seen in the plots of such titles as Dark Passage (1947), or Hollow Triumph (1958). In the present film, which has echoes of both Pygmalion and Vertigo, a plastic surgeon falls in love with a concert pianist during a vacation, thinks he has lost her to another man, and sets to copy her features when restoring the looks of another woman - incidentally a habitual criminal - whom he thereupon marries... If this sounds far fetched, then it is, but is carried of well enough by the two leads Paul Henreid and Lizabeth Scott, who between them produce sympathetic moments enough during early scenes that almost makes one forget limitations elsewhere. Another standout element of this film is the musical score by the late Malcom Arnold.

The two remaining films included in the collection are The Flanagan Boy (aka: Bad Blonde, 1953) and House Across The Lake (aka: Heatwave, 1954). Directed by American B-meister Reginald La Borg, The Flanagan Boy is a hugely enjoyable tale of a young boxer whose career is destroyed by the blonde of the US title, the aptly cast Barbara Peyton. Peyton, whose short career was marred by disastrous excesses and liaisons in her private life, is marvellous as the scheming fatale Lorna Vechi, whose marriage to a doting boxing manager is a sham, and whose sexual predations draw in most men around her. Surprisingly explicit in showing female desire (at one point Lorna licks her lips in close up as she eyes the torso of the well formed fighter, standing all self conscious and sweaty after a bout), as others have noticed this is a film that recalls the similar shenanigans of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Sid James makes his first appearance in this set here, as the original manager of the doomed boxer, and it's a film that still bears up well.

James appears too in House Across The Lake, successfully playing against type for once, as a millionaire this time, also in possession of a straying wife. Directed by Ken Hughes from his own novel, and who a year later also directed another highlight of James' career in Joe Macbeth (1955), as well as later Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) this taut, entirely successful noir thriller is the other highlight of the set. A down-and-out writer (Alex Nichol) is invited across the lake to a rich household where he is naturally soon ensnared by a cunning fatale, leading to a waterborne death and inevitable double cross. Although the lure of sex is not quite as explicit as in The Flanagan Boy, House Across The Lake still manages to suggest perfectly satisfactorily the moral quagmire into which the urges of men lead them as well as an effective noir universe, which includes an extended flashback and, that archetypal device, a regretful voiceover.

Accompanying these six films is a brief set of commentaries by the Hammer authority Richard M. Roberts, which, apart from accompanying some great poster shots and stills, does not really amount to much (and was apparently finalised too hastily, judging by a editing error on one of them). All of the films have been taken from original prints and, at a reasonable price, the DVD boxset can be heartily recommended. The appearance of two more volumes suggests that another boxset will follow shortly.

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