It's 1820, it's Edinburgh, and in the movies that can mean only one thing. Yes, it's the Burke and Hare story again. With George Rose and Donald Pleasence as the bodysnatchers and Peter Cushing as the dissecting doctor, this is grisly entertainment even in b&w. This is Pleasence's first stab at the genre he made his own but he more than holds his own against Cushing.
Script: John Gilling, Leon Griffiths
Director: John Gilling
Players: June Laverick, Dermot Walsh, Rene Houston, Billie Whitelaw, Melvyn Hayes
The Deep South and it's raining. Hard. With outlying areas already under water and a lot more water on the way, the evacuation is on. Over at the levee, they're trying to delay the inevitable by using a prison work gang to shore up the bank. When the bank gives way, the prisoners scatter. One of them, Donovan (Howard Keel) reaches a flooded house. Soon he's rescued fellow prisoner Peebles (Cyril Cusack), warder Sharkey (Harry H. Corbett) and lovely doctor Elizabeth Matthews (Anne Heywood). Sharkey wants his prisoners back in custody, Peebles wants to escape and Donovan wants revenge on the man who framed him for murder, but at least they're safe for the present. Or are they?
If you want to enjoy Floods of Fear you need to work very hard at the beginning. There are some dodgy process shots, a very obvious cyclorama and masses of stock footage for you to pretend not to notice. You also have to pretend you don't realise the town is suspiciously full of Canadians. At least those accents are on the same continent as the Deep South. Some of the British actors supply accents that aren't on the same planet.
Once you've got used to those inevitable problems you have to get over Cyril Cusack's performance. His is the weirdest accent, a bit like Peter Lorre doing a Jimmy Cagney impression. His character is only a petty criminal but is quite happy to murder or rape should the opportunity arise. Since he's half the size of Howard Keel he doesn't have the physical presence to be a proper threat and has to settle for a back-stabbing creepiness which frequently becomes risible.
50s British films are littered with Hollywood stars on the way down used to dress up hopeless projects. Howard Keel however is worth every penny he got paid. No British actor would have been so good in the part. He's got the right brand of manly ruggedness for his role and looks great in a wet shirt.
Anne Heywood also looks good in a wet shirt and it's no surprise when she gets together with Keel for a roll in the damp grass (cut to montage of swirling waters reaching a climax and then becoming a calm flow). Heywood was one of the few 50s actresses who could look sexy without turning into a tarty parody so naturally she was underused in British pictures.
Director Charles Crichton is normally associated with Ealing comedies but he does well with the action sequences and keeps the plot moving. The climactic fight between Donovan and the man who framed him is gripping and surprisingly brutal for the period.
By the time Floods of Fear ends, all the hard work you've put into suspending your disbelief will have paid off. It's great entertainment.
Script adapt: Charles Crichton, Vivienne Knight. (o.a. John and Ward Hawkins)
Director: Charles Crichton
Players: John Crawford, Eddie Byrne, John Phillips, James Dyrenforth, Peter Madden, Guy Kingsley Pointer, Jack Lester, Marie Devereux, Robert MacKenzie, Gordon Tanner, Vivian Matalon, Bill Edwards, Graydon Gould, Gordon Sterne, Kevin Scott
A bride and groom board a train to London. Once inside the carriage they put a "do not disturb" sticker on the door, pull down the blinds, and... proceed to break into the next-door carriage. With the help of an accomplice they steal sackfuls of used notes. They bundle them out of the window to another accomplice waiting on the line. When the train reaches a station, they calmly get out, having committed the perfect crime.
Well, that's the plan. The reality is somewhat different. The train has more than its fair share of drunks, guards and annoying kids all anxious to disturb the crooks, while the accomplice has an ulcer which is about to burst. In filmland, there's no such thing as a perfect crime.
The Flying Scot is an example of the sort of low-budget, B-movie that plagued 50s cinema. It has two "American" leads (Lee Patterson and Kay Callard – both Canadian) for no other reason but to pander to the American market. There are a hundred other films like it, except for one thing: The Flying Scot is very, very good.
The opening grabs the audience immediately. For the first ten minutes of the film, during the "perfect plan", no one speaks. Patterson, Callard and accomplice Alan Gifford move with hypnotic precision. The trick of this just being the plan rather than the execution effortlessly pulls the audience in. And from the moment Patterson opens his mouth it's clear the plan is doomed.
Though almost none of The Flying Scot's 69 minute running time is devoted to backstory, plenty of characterisation is brought out by the direction. Take Callard's role as an example. She's the coolest of the conspirators. She seems as happy to take Patterson's smacks as his kisses. Yet a few glances pass between her and Gifford which may just be concern for his condition or may mean they're carrying-on behind Patterson's back.
Norman Hudis' script pares everything down to the bare essentials. We're all so familiar with the genre nothing more needs to be added. Hudis and director Compton Bennett just concentrate on doing what needs to be done as well as possible.
The Flying Scot doesn't have any pretensions to being great art. It doesn't even expect to be raised to the main feature of a double bill. Yet if there were more films as efficient at providing entertainment as this one in low-budget cinema, the industry would have been in much better shape.
Script: Norman Hudis
Director: Compton Bennett
Players: Margaret Withers, Mark Baker, Jeremy Bodkin, Gerald Case, Kerry Jordan, John Dearth, Patsy Smart, John Lee
Old Bob is chief engineer on the London - Edinburgh route. He's close to retirement after thirty years of accident-free service, but has to report his fireman Crow for drunkenness. In his place he gets cocky Jim. Jim starts a romance with Joan, without knowing she's Bob's daughter. On Bob's last day, Joan overhears Crow threaten to cause trouble and follows him onto the train. Crow climbs out to the engine, but when he gets there he finds Bob and Jim fighting over Jim's relationship with Joan. With Jim unconscious, Crow overpowers Bob and separates the engine from the rest of the train. Will there be a major accident? Will Joan save the day?
Les Dawson used to have a joke that went: "The film was so old, Moore Marriott got the girl!". Sadly this film isn't quite that old, but Marriott does at least get the lead role. He was only in his mid-forties at the time, but he's already playing an old man.
As young Jim we have a pre-Hollywood Ray Milland in his second film. He's confident, good-looking and charming. He looks exactly like he would at the height of his fame, and it's easy to see why Hollywood snapped him up. Unfortunately it's not easy to hear why they snapped him up, since he sounds exactly like Stan Laurel.
The film was made silent, but like many films of the time was released as a talkie. There are a handful of dialogue scenes stuck in to show off the new toy, but the rest of the film just adds a music track and sound effects. The Talkie scenes are mostly well-handled and not as embarrassingly stilted as many from this period (such as the famously bad Atlantic).
Director Castleton Knight made a few feature films in the early thirties, but he's best known as a newsreel and documentary maker. He went on to direct the official films for both the London Olympics and the Queen's coronation. It's his skill at actuality footage that makes the film for many enthusiasts, for the true star of the film is the century's most famous engine: The Flying Scotsman.
It's a beautiful machine: black and glossy and powerful. It's a shame there isn't more time devoted to it. The last 20 minutes of the film has lots of action on the train, but until then it's rather neglected.
Pauline Johnson and Alec Hurley as Joan and Crow get to crawl about outside the train in stunts that, while not being spectacular, certainly look dangerous. There is no back projection to give the illusion of danger while keeping the actors safe in the studio; these actually are outside the fastest train of its era. And she, poor woman, is having to do it all in high heels. Marriott and Milland, get to drive the train - I'm so jealous!
While The Flying Scotsman is no classic, it's certainly far better than one would expect. It shows how a bit of intelligence by the producers could overcome the difficult transition to sound to create great entertainment.
Script: Joe Grossman, Victor Kendall, Garnett Weston
Director: Castleton Knight
Players: Dino Galvani, Billy Shine