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July 2011

They Met In The Dark

cast: James Mason, Joyce Howard, Karel Steppanek, Tom Walls, and Phyllis Stanley

director: Carl Lamac

91 minutes (PG) 1943
Odeon DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Ian Sales

They Met In The Dark

Although this film has been released as part of 'the best of British collection', it's not one people will likely recall from lazy Sunday afternoons spent in front of the television. While a great many British films made during the Second World War have had repeated showings during the seven decades since, I suspect They Met In The Dark is not one of them. Despite that, it's a solid little wartime thriller, if somewhat over-familiar in parts.

Richard Heritage (James Mason, sporting one of the worst fake beards in the history of British cinema) is a RN lieutenant-commander court-martialed for failing to obey orders while escorting an Atlantic convoy. He maintains he followed exactly those orders he was given. But, by doing so, he was elsewhere when a wolf-pack of U-boats attacked the convoy. Determined to prove his innocence, Heritage heads north to Blackpool.

It has occurred to him that the orders he was given could have been substituted with fakes, and that could only have been done while he was out on the town in Blackpool with a young lady. Unfortunately, she fails to make an agreed rendezvous, so Heritage heads out her to her uncle's secluded cottage. But relative Laura Verity (Joyce Howard) is the only woman at the house, and she's only just stepped off the boat from Canada. After Heritage leaves, Verity finds a dead body in an upstairs bedroom, and assumes Heritage was the killer. The body is that of the woman Heritage had planned to meet.

A clue on the corpse leads both Heritage and Verity to Child's dance academy. Both set about investigating - Heritage because he is convinced the dance academy is a cover for some dastardly Nazi plot; and Verity because she wants to know who murdered the woman she found in the house. Their visits to the academy allow for wartime singer Phyllis Stanley to perform a song for a BBC radio announcer. The same song is performed later during They Met In The Dark's climactic sequence.

The Nazi plot itself is not especially cunning, and some simple precautions by the Royal Navy - such as, for example, not allowing the captains of convoy escorts to go out on the piss the night before they leave harbour - would have scuppered the German scheme. The final scene, which reveals how the information gained by the spies is broadcast to their Nazi masters in Berlin, is a little cleverer and, in broad aspect, is reminiscent of the many versions of The 39 Steps (Hitchcock's version, of course, predates this film by almost a decade).

Though Howard initially seems a bit insipid, she proves more than capable of fending for herself - though, as is typical for the period, she defers to Mason as the film approaches its climax. The banter between the two is entertaining, but the direction is straightforward and not especially noteworthy. One nice touch is having the film parade an obvious villain before the viewer - stage mind-reader Riccardo (Karel Steppanek) - only for his involvement to prove less pivotal.

The motivation of Child (Tom Wall) himself is never made especially clear - perhaps he's simply a British fascist. The story builds to a climax typical of the type of the film - i.e. the villain is publicly unmasked, and the cast-out hero is vindicated. Having said that, Heritage's ex-fellow officer Lippinscott (David Farrar) admits that Heritage's innocence was never in doubt, though why they allowed him to uncover the plot, rather than assigning it to trained spy-catchers is never revealed.

They Met In The Dark may never have been shown on telly on a Sunday afternoon, but it's perfect fare for the slot. It may be a 'quota quickie', but it's an entertaining and un-troubling little thriller which will happily fill an hour and a half of any lazy afternoon.



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