A Bit of ‘British Noir’

There's a cool premise or two in this lot and, honestly, two fairly cracking pictures.

This collection brings together five British films from the ’40s and ’50s that are to serve as exemplars of what some might deem an unlikely genre. Fact is, the British invented heavy atmosphere, edge-of-your-seat plots and moral ambiguity. OK. If they didn’t, they might has well have. They certainly did all that better than most. Not that this collection is better than most, although it’s a good way to get acquainted with some of the lesser works of some ace thespians. Truth be told, there are varying degrees of OK, here.

The collection opens with 1943’s They Met in the Dark, in which a former Navy Commander (James Mason) needs to expose an espionage ring that cost him his career. There’s a pretty girl (Joyce Howard), a murder, and even a catchy little song (“Toddle Along”) as well as some comedy to lighten the mood.

However, the film suffers many of the same problems that others in this collection do: a script crippled by glacial exposition and material that hasn’t aged wells in the decades since WWII. The ambiguities aren’t ambiguous enough, the vagaries too vague, and evil is not as evil as it should be to create the kind of nail-biting stuff you need to have yourself a good ol’ get-down with Harry Lime noir-ish time.

Historically, reviewers have seen Tom Walls as being the real reason for watching this film and that’s fairly true today—he’s unexpectedly sharp and fascinating despite the material he’s been handed and makes Mason seem like a child splashing around in the bathtub by comparison. Howard is nearly as compelling as Walls but neither of their performances can help this rise above its lower-middling status.

It’s 1947’s The October Man that adds a little pumpkin spice to the anthology, as the film has a genuinely fascinating premise—one that’s almost worthy of Graham Greene. Novelist Eric Ambler turned in a script involving a man recovering from a brain injury who may or may not have committed a horrible crime. Not even he knows! In truth, actor John Mills gives a performance that is fascinating and places him far away above the material to the point that you actually become invested in a film you know won’t ever have the payoff you hope for. The premise is the best part while the execution falters in enough places that by the final reel you have pretty much stopped caring.

Still, The October Man is a whole lot better than the clumsy Snowbound, a 1948 flick featuring a British Army Vet tracking down Nazis at a ski resort. Or something like that. It’s the kind of stuff that Raiders of the Lost Ark was based on and managed to get right a thousand fold better. To make matters worse, the material is further weakened by a faulty print which is presented as “a special bonus” in the collection. Perhaps this collection should be labeled The Insomnia Cure Edition as a result. Or perhaps not.

The two remaining films are peculiar but also better. Golden Salamander (1950) involves North African gun-runners, a love story, and a British archeologist who gets wrapped up in all that business just as archaeologists are bound to do. Trevor Howard leads a pretty convincing cast with a script that cracks with dialogue and intrigue. If it hasn’t aged as well as some other pictures from the era, but it’s good enough to hold one’s interest. (Some of that is because you’re curious as to which way the whole things going to go—whether it’s going to sink or swim but there are worse things to worry as moving pictures go by.)

This bodes rather well for 1952’s The Assassin (also sometimes known as Venetian Bird), a film that involves Venice, a fugitive, and the kind of labyrinthian secrets that make noir so damn much fun when it works. Like The Golden Salamander, you can’t help but watch this one, taking note of how it could be used as good source material for anyone trying to ape this genre and films of the time. Leading man Richard Todd earns his salary quite nicely and the supporting cast aids and abets without too much trouble. Even director John Gregson deserves credit for keeping this three-star affair chugging along rather nicely.

In the end, collections like this are bound to capture the attention of the completist or the film student. It isn’t going to turn anyone into an October Man acolyte, but it’s not brutally offensive in its faults either.

There are no extras with this DVD.

RATING 5 / 10