Val Guest‘s Jigsaw (1961) offers a textbook example of how a good director can elevate basic material into something worth watching. Writer-producer-director Guest was in the middle of a long prolific career in British cinema when, in the late 1950s and ’60s, he suddenly flourished as a master of the widescreen image. His films of this period are realistic and busy, following many weary characters through atmospheric stories. Examples include the terrific police thriller for Hammer Films, Hell Is a City (1960), and the tense science fiction drama The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961).
Cohen Film Collection (distributed by Kino Lorber) has recently issued Blu-rays of two of the era’s gritty Guest goodies in 2K digital restorations. Expresso Bongo (1959) is a sour rock ‘n’ roll story that focuses on a sleazy agent (Laurence Harvey) who successfully promotes a bongo-playing singer (Cliff Richard) to stardom. The film that concerns us today, however, is Jigsaw.
The opening shot strikes a tatty, faded, frazzled note that will continue throughout while announcing the sense of widescreen style that defines the picture. As shot by Arthur Grant in black and white, we see in the distance a sparse line of caravans before the camera pans slowly left and introduces us to a regular two-story house in isolation. We hear the sea, the wind, barking dogs, and a foghorn.
What’s most remarkable is what we don’t hear. The film has no music score, a highly unusual choice for this era, especially for thrillers. The absence of music has at least a subliminal effect on the viewer as we absorb the naturalistic sounds that underline the sense of realism.
The camera comes to rest outside a window. With a gentle transition, the camera enters the window and looks around the silent room in darkness: a fire in the grate, a round table with an interrupted solitaire game, a movie magazine, and a barely started jigsaw puzzle. Appropriately, the title comes on the screen then, and we learn that the film is based on Hillary Waugh’s novel Sleep Long, My Love (1959). The American Waugh generally receives credit for inventing the meticulous police procedural, especially those inspired by real crimes. He introduced that format in his classic Last Seen Wearing (1952), inspiring everyone from Ed McBain and Elizabeth Linington to all modern practitioners clogging the television landscape.
The camera pauses to look into a mirror reflecting the table and puzzle, thus signaling that the entire film will serve as a mirror of the society that produces the type of crime we’re about to see.
This sequence is a showpiece for Moira Redmond as Joan Simpson, who delivers a monologue as she gets out of bed and wanders the room and bathroom. The camera prowls as restlessly as she, at panther-level. Except for his arm, we don’t see the man, addressed as Johnny, whom she wakes. He never speaks. She says he’ll have to tell his wife about them now because she’s two months pregnant. As his hand approaches her, the film indulges in the Alfred Hitchcock trick of cutting to a train whistle in place of a scream. It’s an old device but it still jars.
The rest of the story is a perfectly mundane police procedural centered on Inspector Fred Fellows (Jack Warner), a weary, cynical, shrewd old bulldog who worries at a baffling case’s lack of clues. He’s showing the ropes to his nephew, Sgt. Jim Wilks (Ronald Lewis), who first pulls an unpromising case of vandalism and mild theft that will lead, step by investigative step, to the house, now empty except for a trunk containing part of Joan Simpson’s corpse. This element is handled with queasy discretion.
The setting is Brighton, the English beach community that in 1934 became the location of two unrelated murder cases where bodies were found in trunks. Similarities do exist between the first of these cases and Waugh’s plot, though his novel was set in Connecticut. Guest must have found it no trouble to transfer the story, and he used the location filming for a seedy, downbeat, cynical, noir-ish kaleidoscope of early ’60s England that serves as an implicit critique of desperation and decay. The opening credits thank the Brighton police for their cooperation. Perhaps they cooperated because the case does, after all, get solved by dogged police work, although the viewer is left with no impulse to pursue a Brighton vacation.
Where another filmmaker might have constructed a plodding procedural of no imagination, Guest continually uses a mobile camera across the widescreen to create nervous tension, zooming in and craning around details even when nothing in particular is happening except that middle-aged men in dull rumpled suits are yakking. The depressive yet sinister atmosphere is palpable, almost stifling. We derive a sense of a masculine world in which men are largely tedious and unworthy, either ineffective or predatory, and desperate women put up with it in varying degrees of anger.
Dozens of characters, mostly uncredited, populate this world. The most prominent female presence is Yolande Donlan (Mrs. Val Guest) in a sympathetic role that becomes a major plot twist. John Le Mesurier and Christine Bocca play a frumpy, middle-class study in contrasts as the victim’s parents. Michael Goodliffe shows up as a highly suspicious character whose loneliness undermines the old jokes about traveling salesmen. Brian Oulton, Norman Chappell, John Barron, and Joan Newell dot the landscape as witnesses of varying helpfulness.
Despite the solved-mystery aspect of the affair, this film must be labeled a British noir, and its grimy downbeat mood justifies the term. This isn’t cozy Agatha Christie territory. Jigsaw foreshadows the boom in gritty British procedurals following Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect serials starring Helen Mirren in the ’90s, not to mention today’s epidemic of Scandinavian potboilers.
Although Guest had an equally strong career in British comedy, his features that crossed the Atlantic tended to be of this disturbing and sober tenor, staged with quiet visual mastery, so that we come away with jitters, far from reassured. This tone tends to fly in the face of commercial conventions, and it signals how the early ’60s were overturning some of those tidy standards as public discontents rumbled to the surface of pop entertainment. Guest made several more such items during this era that we still hope to see.