Tom Walls is the gentleman thief trying to evade capture by other less-successful crooks. Lilli Palmer is the love interest in a creaky comedy thriller.
Script adapt.: A.R. Rawlinson, Michael Pertwee, Basil Mason. (o.a. W.R. Ferguson)
Director: Albert de Courville
Players: Noel Madison, Leon M. Lion, Edmund Breon
A country squire is found dead and suspicion is thrown on his heirs. The local vicar uncovers the truth.
Standard country house whodunit given a lift by some lovely photography (Claude Friese-Greene) and Vorhaus' direction. The stars of the piece are distinguished old actors Lewis Casson and Nigel Playfair. They overdo the sentiment a tad, but they're rather sweet. The rest of the performances are adequate, but the dialogue isn't up to much. What sticks in the mind are the little touches Vorhaus adds, like the drop of blood dripping off a knife.
Script adapt.: Bernard Vorhaus, Michael Hankinson (o.a. Jack Celestin, Jack De Leon)
Director: Bernard Vorhaus
Players: Sally Blane, Anthony Bushell, Phyllis Dare, Judy Kelly, George Merritt, Gus MacNaughton, Hal Gordon, Jimmy Godden, Hay Petrie, Kenneth Kove
Ah, the literary adaptation - the most respectable genre of British cinema. At least it is until Tod Slaughter and George King get their hands on a classic!
Sir Percival Glyde dies in Africa and his killer takes his place to claim his inheritance back home. He finds that there is little fortune, but luckily Sir Percy was betrothed in his absence to a beautiful heiress. Unluckily, a woman turns up claiming to have married Sir Percy and to have a grown-up daughter. She spots the imposter immediately, but is persuaded by her advisor Count Fosco to go along with the deception in the hope of some blackmail money. Her daughter, a passable look-alike for Glyde's betrothed, is quite mad and has sworn vengeance on the man who wronged her mother. As the complications mount, so does the body count as Glyde deals with any threat to his position.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is at the schlockier end of the classics scale, but it's still at bit of a shock to see what Slaughter and King do with it. In the original, Sir Percy's foul deeds are motivated by the need to hide his illegitimacy, but the addition of the imposter storyline enables Slaughter to get down to business right away. The film's not two minutes old before he's hammering a stake into the ear of the sleeping Sir Percival. After that there's a couple of throttlings, a freezing to death and a hanging before he finally gets his just desserts and is burnt to death.
Perhaps the most terrifying sequence occurs in the middle of the film. A young woman, alone in bed, hears footsteps on the stairs. She cowers as the footsteps get nearer and nearer. She cries in terror for what is to come. It's her wedding night and she's going to have to sleep with Sir Percival.
Tod Slaughter cackles and leers his way through the proceedings with the glee of an actor who knows exactly what his audience wants. He's at the top of his game. Casual acts of violence are interspersed with blatant letching: there are just single entendres here. He's aided in his villainy by Hay Petrie as Count Fosco. Physically, Petrie is miscast, since Fosco is one of literature's more notable fatties. He rises above such limitations and does his usual professional job. The rest of the cast are purely functional and aren't even memorably bad as Slaughter's cast so often are.
As director and producer, George King gets the most out of the production. Sadly this was the last King-Slaughter collaboration but at least they ended on a high.
Script adapt.: Edward Dryhurst, Frederick Hayward, H.F. Maltby. (o.a. Wilkie Collins)
Director: George King
Players: Sylvia Marriott, Hilary Eaves, Geoffrey Wardwell, David Horne, Margaret Yarde, Rita Grant David Keir, Elsie Wagstaff
Kindly moneylender or spine-breaking mass murderer? Well, he's played by Tod Slaughter, so what do you think? This cracking melodrama is prefaced by a bizarre re-enactment of the radio show "In Town Tonight" complete with a performance by Flotsam and Jetsam (two blokes in dinner jackets around a piano singing 'witty' songs - you know the drill) and Mr Slaughter describing his latest role in the new, old melodrama "The Crimes of Stephen Hawke".
It's an expensive-looking production by the standard of producer George King - at one point the camera actually moves! (though only by about two feet so they couldn't have bought much track). Eric Portman playing Hawke's daughter's boyfriend (and son of one of Hawke's victims) is obviously still learning his film craft but at least he went on to better things. Marjorie Taylor as the daughter is the epitome of all those plumy-voiced non-actresses that plagued the quota quickies. She's eclipsed in the rotten acting stakes by the child playing Hawke's first victim, Master Terence. He's only on screen for about thirty seconds before Hawke puts him out of his - and our - misery, but his pudgy features, greasy hair and indescribably squeaky voice will haunt your nightmares long after you've forgotten the rest of the film.
Script adapt.: H.F. Maltby (o.a. Jack Celestin)
Director: George King
Players: Ben Soutten, D.J. Williams, Charles Penrose, Norman Pierce, George Slater
Dull proto-noir about an employee caught up in the murderous schemes of his boss's wife.
Script adapt.: Brock Williams. (o.a. Laurence Maynell)
Director: Michael Powell
Players: Patric Knowles, Beatrix Thomson, Frederick Piper, Reginald Purdell, Allan Jeayes, Glennis Lorimer, Googie Withers, Mabel Poulton, Billy Watts, Morris Harvey, Davina Craig
Jack Hawkins was never better than he was here as captain of a corvette in WWII. He's the stiff-upper-lipped officer faced with having to do something really shite in order to protect his ship. Donald Sinden is his second-in-command and the voice of his conscience. The moral dilemmas of a Good War were never better expressed.
Script adapt.: Eric Ambler. (o.a. Nicholas Monsarrat)
Director: Charles Frend
Players: John Stratton, Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker, Virginia McKenna, Moira Lister, Liam Redmond, Bruce Seton, June Thorburn, Megs Jenkins, Glyn Houston, Alec McCowen, Andrew Cruickshank, Sam Kydd
All he does is step off a train to buy a newspaper, but before the end of the evening he'll have to share a room with a French beauty, with suspicious in-laws, bible quoting landladies and jealous husbands all after his blood.
The Aldwych farces have a central role in British comedy. This series of plays, performed at the Aldwych theatre in the 20s and 30s was the Carry On of its day. The plays were mainly written by Ben Travers and featured the same group of players. The Aldwych team included Ralph Lynn as the Silly Ass, Yvonne Arnaud as the French temptress, Mary Brough as suspicious old bat, Robertson Hare as put-upon baldie and Tom Walls as both actor (elderly drunk) and director. Walls directed film versions of nine of the plays.
Few successful directors have come in for more criticism than Tom Walls. His style is seen as exemplifying the front-row-of-the-stalls perspective of the worst of the quota quickie play transfers. Granted, some of his earlier efforts such as Rookery Nook or Thark are hampered by the primitive sound systems available then, and granted too that Walls seemed proud of bringing as much dialogue as possible from the original plays. However, in A Cuckoo in the Nest the audience is never conscious of stilted camera work.
In my opinion, the criticism of his style stems from snobbery. Farce has never been respectable, even farce as middle-class as this. British comedy in general has always had a bad reception from the critics, and they've never liked British films of the 30s. However, when faced with a director like Ozu who also favoured sticking actors in front of a fixed camera and letting them get on with it, critics will rave about his unique use of space. Moral: if you want to be an artist, don't do pratfalls.
Much of the success of the Aldwych plays and films came from familiarity. These days the plays are rarely revived professionally and the films almost never shown. It is therefore difficult to get into them at first acquaintance. A Cuckoo in the Nest is a good starting point.
Most of the action is slow by modern standards with timing honed by months of performing in front of a theatre audience. But there are still plenty of laughs to be had if you can get into flow.
Script adapt.: (o.a.) Ben Travers, A. R. Rawlinson
Director: Tom Walls
Players: Veronica Rose, Gordon James, Grace Edwin, Mark Daly, Cecil Parker, Roger Livesey, Frank Pettingell, Joan Brierley, Norah Howard
How a mine was revitalised. Curious documentary short with lots of fascinating glimpses of the life of a mining community but it's only in the reconstruction of an old mining disaster that the film really grips.
Director: Humphrey Jennings
What is the most influential British film of all time? One of the many fine documentaries this country has produced from Housing Problems to Lambeth Boys? Maybe Room at the Top or one of the Swinging Sixties films like A Hard Day's Night? An early Hitchcock perhaps or a costume melodrama? Maybe not. One of the prime contenders for most influential British film of all time has to be Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein.
The Hammer production company had been knocking around since the days of the quota. It concentrated on cheap pictures and when the quota ended it virtually died. After the war it revived to take advantage of the production boom and made several no-budget second features: mainly adaptations of popular radio dramas (i.e. The Adventures of P.C. 49, The Man in Black). It hit pay dirt with the feature version of the TV series The Quatermass Experiment (renamed The Quatermass Xperiment to take advantage of the new adults only X certificate). This was quickly followed up with Quatermass II and X the Unknown. Sensing the audience was ready for Horror the company looked around for another property and turned to that old favourite Frankenstein.
Of course, the novel had memorably been filmed by Universal in Hollywood; so Hammer had to tiptoe around the various copyrights Universal owned but still keep as many popular elements as possible. Boris Karloff's Monster makeup was copyrighted, and many of the better plot points weren't in the original novel. Hammer decided to up the sex and gore content and film it in colour. The result was a smash hit.
The story is told by Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) to a priest while waiting for his execution. It's the familiar tale of how he grew up with an obsession to create life. He hires a tutor, Paul (Robert Urquhart), who becomes his ally in his quest. Paul begins to get cold feet particularly when he believes Victor has bumped off an eminent scientist in order to get his brain. During a squabble the brain is damaged and Paul refuses to have anything to do with the enterprise. A freak bolt of lightening starts the process off and the Creature (Christopher Lee) is born.
The Creature is unstable and escapes. Paul shoots it dead and leaves the castle (he was only staying to protect the Baron's fiancée Hazel Court) but of course the Baron resurrects the Creature. He uses it to kill a servant Justine (Valerie Gaunt) who was his discarded mistress, but the Creature escapes again and attacks the fiancée and Victor. He is destroyed when he is set alight with an oil lamp and then falls into a vat of acid. With all evidence of the creature dissolved, and no one prepared to back up his story, Victor is convicted of Justine's murder and heads for the guillotine.
Peter Cushing gives a wonderful performance as the Baron: a man whose rationality and scientific curiosity is underpinned by an insane desire to create life. He doesn't have much of a conscience of his own and so Robert Urquhart has to do the agonising for him. Much of the time between shocks is filled up with their moral battles.
Christopher Lee as the Creature doesn't have a lot to do except lurch around and throttle people. The script (by Jimmy Sangster) doesn't allow the Creature an existence of its own but regards it as more of a mute expression of The Baron's subconscious. Lee, therefore, cannot achieve the sort of pathos Boris Karloff was able to give the Creature. The other players do well with only Melvyn Hayes as the young Baron seeming out of place, though that might be because he's now seen as a camp comedy actor.
As horror films go, it now looks pretty tame but at the time it was a heady brew of sex and violence, and audiences lapped it up. It set Hammer up for a profitable run of films and started the horror careers of Cushing, Lee, Court, Sangster and director Terence Fisher. It also marks the point at which the modern horror film begins with gory violence becoming explicit.
Script adapt.: James Sangster. (o.a. Mary Shelley)
Director: Terence Fisher
Players: Valerie Gaunt, Noel Hood, Paul Hardtmuth, Fred Johnson, Sally Walsh, Claude Kingston, Marjorie Hume, Henry Caine, Michael Mulcaster, Patrick Troughton
Drossmouth Repertory Company is getting ready to put on its new play "Tarnished Gold". Robert Morley is the megalomaniac producer who has to get it ready within a week, Margaret Rutherford is the first-time playwright.
This is a fair backstage comedy-drama taken from the stage hit and filled with some great talent. Kay Kendall in particular is luminous as the star on her way up, which she was. If there's a problem with the film it's that this sort of putting-on-a-show thing has been done so often. The presence of Rutherford evokes memories of the later Miss Marple "Murder Most Foul" and you half expect someone to be bumped off.
Although it rarely feels like a photographed stage play, there's something about the rhythm of the piece with its little moments of poignancy followed by a little bit of comedy, and the way everyone in the cast gets their own minute in the limelight that just screams "well-made play". All in all, it's fine for a wet afternoon in front of the telly, but not worth going out for.
Script adapt.: Michael Pertwee, Jack Davies (o.a. Philip King)
Director: Ralph Smart
Players: Joan Rice, Michael Medwin, Olive Sloane, Charlotte Mitchell, Charles Lamb, Stringer Davies, Joan Hickson