Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
see also: Hammer Film Noir boxset 1
This is the second, bumper survey of a group of British films which have until now, remained largely unknown. Taking advantage of arrangements
favoured by the UK's Eady levy (a state film subsidy established after the war) in 1950, American producer Robert Lippert formed a business
alliance with Hammer studios. Under the agreement, Lippert would provide American acting talent - frequently shop-worn stars or just supporting
actors who fancied a profitable trip out of the country - while Hammer would supply the rest of the cast and the production facilities. Together
they would split the profits. Famous for his concern with the bottom line, Lippert produced over 140 films between 1946 and 1955, characteristically
genre pieces such as I Shot Jesse James or Rocketship XM. For the British deal, most of the films were noir-ish thrillers. None were
entirely of the first rank, but of the selection so far released under the collection title Hammer Film Noir, they remain never less than
Hammer's principal reputation today rests upon its series of colour horrors. In The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), and Dracula (1958), part of the interest lay in how the British studio reworked and re-imagined familiar fictional characters and their respective mythologies. With the earlier noirs there's similar interest and Terence Fisher, one of the directorial mainstays of the gothic cycle, also helmed some of the thrillers. But the transformation was not so distinctive here, and the clipped accents of some of the supporting actors and occasional drawing-room setting sit oddly with notions of fatalism, persecution and moral corruption. But there's still fascination at seeing an American genre transported to British locations and watching well known British acting talent alongside the Hollywood imports.
Box two of Hammer Film Noir begins with Terror Street (aka: 36 Hours, 1953), directed by Montgomery Tully and starring noir icon, Dan Duryea. In fact, the American is the best thing in this film, at its strongest in the first half. He plays Major Rogers, a flyer smuggled into the country to discover what his wife has been up to during his absence away on duty. Shortly after he catches up with her, she is dead, leaving the stunned Rogers waking up next to her body with just a few hours to prove his innocence. Duryea's opening scenes, mostly played solo as he explores his wife's apartment piecing together her new relationships, are the essence of noir - an alienated man, lost in an environment where moral certitudes are missing. Unfortunately the script by Steve Miller (responsible for earlier classics such as Dead Reckoning, and Lady In The Lake) grows less interesting as it proceeds, and the final complexities are forced and unconvincing. Along the way, Duryea brings life to his relationship with Jenny (Ann Gudrin), equally as good as the unfussy woman who believes his story. Kenneth Griffith also makes impact as the weasely Slosson - a character which, on a different continent, would no doubt been of attraction to Elisha Cook Jr.
On the same disc is Wings Of Danger (1952), Terence Fisher's first contribution to this box. Zachary Scott does a professional enough job as a pilot who faces disaster through suffering unpredictable blackouts. To add to his woes, when his girlfriend's brother appears lost in a cargo plane accident, he falls into a police investigation over blackmail, counterfeiting and smuggling. Robert Beatty and Kay Kendall support in a solid tale never less than watchable, even if not ultimately memorable. Light tramlines from the source print are evident at some points - unusual for a set with generally good picture quality. Kendall seems out of place as a minor femme fatale, too nice to communicate the double-crossing her character demands. Scott's most important noir roles previously were probably Ulmer's Ruthless and Mildred Pierce; here the actor is not helped by fairly anonymous art direction and by a story never really bringing out his internal conflicts.
Dane Clark appeared twice in the first box, but makes his most successful entry here with Paid To Kill (aka: Five Days, 1954) as a man in a jam, with a plan, and a dame. Possessing a characteristic persecuted look, Clark is eminently suited to the role of businessman James Nevill who - fearing that a big deal has gone sour - pays a friend to kill him, to secure insurance money for his unsuspecting wife. Nevill abruptly needs to change his murderous instructions when matters change for the better, but cannot find his unreliable friend. He finds the repeated attempts on his life - whoever it is making them - too close for comfort. Says a business acquaintance of Nevill's business style that: "it's okay for cutthroat and adventure - but not for the City of London." Such a contrast exists elsewhere in a film containing one or two jarring, humorous scenes, featuring Charles Hawtrey (a non-speaking part) partnering Nevill's troublesome, truculent investor. Away from these distractions the film is much stronger, notably in the understated love for Nevill shown by his secretary Joan (Cecile Chavreau), which is played subtly. Although for many the film's final twist is telegraphed someway in advance, Paid To Kill is reasonably suspenseful and largely successful on its own terms, efficiently directed once again by Tully.
Tully was also in charge of The Glass Tomb (aka The Glass Cage, 1955), one of the Hammer Noir series' must-sees. Noir narratives set in and around carnivals have a small but proud heritage, stretching back to Nightmare Alley and beyond. They frequently juxtapose deformed outcasts of the sideshow with the twisted psychology on show elsewhere. The Glass Tomb concerns Pal Pelham (John Ireland), and his forthcoming attraction Sapolio 'The Starving Man', whose act is to go foodless for 70 days whilst locked, David Blaine-like, in a glass booth. "I like being my own boss. I like freaks," says Pal at one point, clearly preferring the company of his performers to some others around him. When big-hearted bookie Tony Lewis (Sidney James, in a characteristic performance) asks Pal to speak to a woman who has been blackmailing him, she shortly ends up dead, and the killer thinks Sapolio can identify him. Pal, who previously knew the victim, needs to solve the case. Geoffrey Keen, much more familiar to British cinemagoers from numerous stolid establishment roles, gets to play an unsympathetic role as Stanton the murderer.
What's interesting about The Glass Tomb is that it is built almost entirely around recurring displays of appetite and denial. Whether it's Sapolio, greedy at home, finally poisoned by strychnine-covered ham, the fridge raid of Pelham's young son, the ticket-booth man secretly coveting his bottle of booze, or those who eat so unconcernedly in front of the incarcerated Starving Man, it's a world clearly defined. At a necessarily less explicit level there's also the carnal desire of Stanton and Lewis for the girl - Stanton's two hours alone with her corpse, for instance, is never explained. Tully manages some striking scenes on a budget, notably the freaks' party, held while the body of the freshly killed girl lays undiscovered upstairs in her squalid room. The Glass Tomb has its weaknesses - it could have done with a few more freaks - but is baroque and perverse enough to be better known. It's also one of the few films in the set to have its own audio commentary. Ireland gives an adequate performance, and Honor Blackman, in a demure role, plays his wife. Some will also notice Arthur Howard, the brother of Leslie, later to appear in the minor British nudie cult item Paradisio (1961) in a small part. There is some damage to the print, but not enough to be a problem.
The presence of Alex Nichol and the trumpet playing of Kenny Ball somewhat compensate for weaknesses elsewhere in The Black Glove (aka: Face The Music, 1953) another Terence Fisher contribution, a thriller set in a London world of basement jazz clubs, recording studios and dingy flats. The genial Nichol, perhaps best remembered today for his role as the rancher's crazed son in The Man From Laramie (1955), plays hero James Bradley, a musician who picks up a singer after a London concert, only for her to be murdered shortly after. Following the familiar pattern, Bradley has to discover the real killer and clear himself of suspicion. Nichol gives a likeable performance as the trumpet player in a film that includes an archetypal noir voiceover as well as Kenny Ball's frequently soulful contribution on brass, which both add a good deal to the atmosphere. The opening, mutual attraction between Bradley and victim Maxine, played out over music, is especially fine. The intensity between kindred spirits recalls the first meeting in Gun Crazy (1950) while their later scenes just after, expressing their growing romance in cynical rhyming couplets ("Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, show me a woman a man can trust," etc), is also memorable. Bradley's continuous, professed lack of sleep adds to the dream-like mood of the piece. Maxine's sister Barbara works in Soho's Underground Club - "the sort of place you live horizontally or not at all" and most of the clues are found in and around the music produced there. The end of the film is more disappointing, a curious throwback to traditional whodunits, with principal suspects and interested police gathered together in a single room, so that the killer can be progressively unmasked. It's a clumsy and unconvincing narrative device.
Lloyd Bridges is the imported star of The Deadly Game (aka: Third Party Risk, 1954), a forgettable thriller featuring him as Phil Graham, song-writing American vacationing in Spain. When at short notice an ex-air force friend, now society photographer, asks him to drive a car to London and deliver a mysterious envelope, he reluctantly agrees. Soon his friend is dead, shot on the floor of his own darkroom, and Graham is drawn into a web of blackmail and industrial espionage. Sometimes playing out like a weak episode of TV's The Saint, The Deadly Game runs for little over an hour and remains uninvolving for much of its length, with little noir resonance. Bridges' unconvincing romancing of the signoretta he meets, all the shenanigans around a stolen formula for antibiotics, as well as a substandard fistfight in a burning theatrical warehouse, fail to generate much tension in a sluggish plot. The best thing here is Maureen Swanson's allure as the temptress Marina. Her presence back in England only serves to emphasise how artificial and insipid is the studio and stock footage-created Spain to which Graham returns when resolving the mystery. Finlay Currie, affecting a curious accent, appears as a menacing sub-Sydney Greenstreet character, Darius.
The Unholy Four (aka: A Stranger Came Home, 1954) co-stars Paulette Goddard as Angie, the wife of Vickers (William Sylvester) who returns home unexpectedly after four years. Vickers had previously disappeared in Portugal on a fishing cruise and has been presumed dead, his face scarred with an attack by an unknown assailant, leaving Vickers with temporary amnesia. As with several of these Hammer co-productions, the best part of The Unholy Four occurs at the beginning, as a stony faced Vickers appears unannounced at midnight. He ominously confronts his acquaintances in the middle of their party - including series' regular Bill (Paul Carpenter), who admits "I don't like people - even the people I like." Vickers, Bill, and the others, are naturally all suspects in the first killing shortly afterwards. After this, even with director Fisher's efforts, the tension slumps with too much talk, despite a couple of murders and a short-lived sub plot involving blackmail. The film might just as well have been called 'The Country House Murders' for, apart from a flashback sequence and Vickers' mental confusion about his past, the noir enthusiast will find little to detain him in a mystery set mainly in a large house and grounds, well away from the urban jungle. Russell Napier (familiar from his very similar roles in TV's contemporaneous Scotland Yard) plays the cop on the case, at one point gathering his suspects in the drawing room to state his suspicions. Goddard adds a touch of class to proceedings but, surprisingly, plays second fiddle to Sylvester, and displays little of the sexual allure the poster promises. The source novel for the film, incidentally, was penned by one George Sanders.
The final film in this set is yet another Terence Fisher-directed effort: Race For Life (aka: Mask Of Dust, 1954), a straightforward racing drama more than anything else. Richard Conte stars as Wells, the driver who - predictably enough - feels he might have lost his nerve whilst being saddled with blonde wife Patricia (Mari Aldon), who wants him to retire. When a fellow driver suffers a bad accident Wells feels he owes it to him, and to himself, to prove he still has it, one last time. Wells was formerly in the air force where, apparently, "he used to fly his plane the way he'd drive" so his courage is never in doubt - even if, as we see him nudge his smoking, oil-filled car round the track at the last, we feel his judgment may need inspection. The chief attraction in a film built around two big racing sequences is the location footage and the appearance of some real racing names, such as Stirling Moss, as supporting colour. Off the track the plot is less eventful, as even the potential rivalry between Wells as another driver is resolved without so much as a fist fight by the end. Tough guy Conte's story lacks enough conflict, leaving the actor little to do. This is the only film in this set presented in a 1.66:1 ratio, which to these eyes looked masked and there is an accompanying interview with Richard Gordon.
Films in this set are accompanied by occasional audio commentaries, career profiles, some picture galleries and trailers. It's an interesting set, although purchasers can be more readily directed to the stronger titles rather than perhaps buying the whole lot.