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August 18, 2015

British Noir

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They Met in the Dark
Karel Lamac - 1943

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The October Man
Roy Baker - 1947

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David MacDonald - 1948

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The Golden Salamander
Ronald Neame - 1950

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The Assassin
Ralph Thomas - 1952
Kino Classics Region 1 Five DVD set

The five films in this package may not all fit but the loosest definition of film noir, but they all are entertaining. Made between 1943 and 1952, each film comes on its own disc. The filmmakers represented here range from the obscure, to a future Oscar nominee. Some of the supporting crew plus one of the directors will be familiar names to fans of Hammer Studios. World War II, and its affects on life, both during and after the war years, informs much of the action in most of these films. What also links these films is that they were either produced or distributed by the British J. Arthur Rank, the company with the giant gong for a logo, or an affiliated company.

They Met in the Dark has a couple of brief moments that take place in the dark, but it's more truly an espionage thriller with some comic elements. James Mason, first seen sporting a beard, plays a naval commander formally dismissed from service, due to unproven sabotage. Attempting to retrace his steps, Mason goes to Blackpool, and makes an arrangement to meet with a woman he recalls from his last days before his ship sailed. The woman, a manicurist named Mary, asks that they meet an an out of the way house. Mary is found dead, with Mason following a lead to a talent agency that's a cover for a nest of spies.

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The film was directed by the Czech Karel Lamac, one of his handful of British films. More credit should go to screenwriters Anatole de Grunwald and Miles Malleson, both of whom would go on to more notable work. Malleson, as a character actor, appears in The Golden Salamander and The Assassin. What to look for are some of the smaller moments, a naval officer's date getting two slices of pie, the main villain barging in on a card trick in progress, and the discovery of a missing corpse. Perennial screen Nazi, Karel Stepanek, plays one of the talent agency's stars, a mind reader named The Great Riccardo. The other highlight is a barroom brawl instigated by Mason's mischievous right hand man, played by character actor Edward Rigby. Joyce Howard provides the romantic interest, though she's no match for the more comely Phyllis Stanley as the talent agency's star chanteuse. Stanley, twice, sings the what was intended to be a morale boosting tune for wartime Britons, "Toddle Along".

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Roy Baker worked as an Assistant Director to Alfred Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes, and Carol Reed on Night Train to Munich, but it was his his military service under writer-producer Eric Ambler that got Baker promoted to the directors chair. The October Man, Baker's directorial debut, is about a brain injured man who suffers from guilt, surviving a bus crash, but unable to protect the child of family friends. There is some tangential connection with the earlier films, with a suicidal John Mills contemplating suicide several times, standing over a bridge while a train is coming towards him. The plot is Hitchcockian with Mills accused of a murder he did not commit, with no proof of his innocence, and his paranoia so deep he starts to wonder if he maybe is the murderer. It doesn't help that Mills has a nervous habit of tying his handkerchief into a knot.

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As the chemist gingerly trying to integrate himself back into the world at large, Mills finds himself in a rooming house with several residents arguably in greater need of psychiatric intervention. Among the boarders is a creepy guy named Mr. Peachy. There is support to be found in Joyce Greenwood as the sister of a co-worker. Even if the identity of the murderer is hardy a mystery, what makes The October Man watchable is the cinematography by Edwin Hillier. Having begun his career with Fritz Lang's M, and honing is skills with Michael Powell, Hillier is at his best with several scenes that take place in the dark. There's a scene with a blown fuse causing a blackout in the boarding house, with an encounter between Mills and femme fatale Kay Walsh illuminated by match light. Best are the extreme close ups of Mills and Greenwood under a street lamp. When the film was released in 1947, the New York Times critic Bosley Crowthers complained the story was was "virtually a clichee" (sic). Sometimes, dynamic cinematography can provide an otherwise modest production with unanticipated staying power.

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David MacDonald might seem to have a predilection for movies that take place in enclosed locations. His most famous, or infamous if you will, work is Devil Girl from Mars, about a family and some travelers trapped in a hotel in a remote part of Scotland by a dominatrix from outer space. Snowbound has a slightly more realistic premise, with several people trapped inside a hotel on a remote mountaintop in the Italian Alps, both by a raging snow storm on the outside, and an unreconstructed Nazi inside.

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The initial premise is equally bizarre, with film director Robert Newton putting extra player Dennis Price on his personal payroll, and sending him off to the Alps hotel to look for a mystery woman, in the guise of a screenplay writer accompanied by photographer Stanley Holloway. Perhaps taking a queue from Thomas Mann, our cast of characters all claim to be rooming at this mountainside retreat for their health. More than an hour has past before it's revealed that there is stolen gold that has brought everyone together. In addition to the previously mentioned actors, we have Herbert Lom as the unrepentant former Gestapo officer, British character actor Guy Middleton as another schemer, Marcel Dalio wildly hamming it up as an Italian gentleman, French actress Mila Parely as an Italian countess, also after the gold. Considering their personal circumstances, the most chilling scene is of Price and Newton in conversation, drinking alcohol.

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Ronald Neame began his film career as an Assistant Camerman on Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail. The connections don't end there. The Golden Salamander, Neame's second film as director, competed against Hitchcock's Stagefright at the Locarno Film Festival in 1950, where both films lost to John Ford's When Willie comes Marching Home. The Golden Salamander is based on a novel by Victor Canning, whose novel, The Rainbird Pattern was the source for Hitchcock's Family Plot.

The story here is of an archeologist who stumbles upon a gun running operation in an out of the way town in Tunisia. He stays at the combination hotel-bar run by a young French proprietress. While preparing for antique treasures to be catalogued and shipped to a British museum, the archeologist finds himself in trouble for trying to reveal the gun running operation, though he doesn't know who really is in charge. People get killed, and the archeologist falls in love with his hostess. There's a nod or two towards Casablanca, and a glance to The Maltese Falcon. With his form fitting leather jacket, Herbert Lom looks like an overaged juvenile delinquent. Wilfred Hyde-White is uncharacteristically disheveled as the bar's piano player.

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Much of the action takes place at the hotel-bar, Cafe des Amis, Cafe of Friends. There is almost some wordplay here as the place could have been called Cafe d'Aimee after the actress who plays the proprietress. Anouk Aimee was only eighteen at the time of film, and billed here under the mononym of Anouk. Of course Trevor Howard, Herbert Lom and virtually most of the other men would be drawn to her. The appeal of Trevor Howard as a romantic lead has eluded me. I'm even less convinced of Howard as a two-fisted hero, but the guy was a big star in British films at the time, with a history of working with Ronald Neame since Brief Encounters. As might be expected from a director who started out as a cameraman, this is the most visually accomplished films in this collection, with exteriors shot on location in Tunisia.

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My first encounter that I recall with films by Ralph Thomas was when I saw his version of The 39 Steps on television. I knew that there was an Alfred Hitchcock movie with that title, but I didn't see Hitchcock's name anywhere on the credits. I was maybe in my early teens at the time, and my cinephilia was embryonic at best. Anyways, my mother asked me what was on television, and decided that this was not the 39 Steps I should be watching. I did finally see the Hitchcock film years later, but have yet to revisit Kenneth More following the steps taken by Robert Donat.

Victor Canning's novel, The Venetian Bird also provides source material for Ralph Thomas. The film, released in the U.S. as The Assassin is about a private detective seeking the former Italian partisan who saved the life of a U.S. airman. The partisan is difficult to find, and as it turns out, does not want to be found. A woman running a large gallery of antiques and artifacts may know more than she is willing to reveal. The private eye, who doggedly is trying to find out the truth about the partisan, ends up getting framed for the assassination of a popular politician.

For most of the 1950s, Richard Todd was a very popular actor, first in Britain, and later is the U.S. Todd's forte was playing very physically able heroes, which he did quite well. Eva Bartok is the femme fatale here. While most of the cast is British, they play Italians without the wild gesticulations found in Snowbound. Included in the cast is future Carry On mainstay, Sid James. The film was shot in Venice, climaxing with a rooftop chase, with an ending that visually looks Hitchcockian. Extra bonus, a score by Nino Rota, who happened to begin collaborations with a young writer-director named Federico Fellini that same year.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 18, 2015 03:05 PM