A fast-talking American sacrifices everything for his scheme to control wrestling in London, but it all goes terrifyingly wrong.
After the second world war cinema turned away from cheering up the audience to reflecting post-war disillusionment. Hollywood produced a series of films featuring cynical heroes, violent criminals and femme fatales which eventually became recognised as film noir. British cinema is perceived as having largely avoided this, choosing instead a less morally ambiguous spiv cycle based on Britain's different economic circumstances. However there are a few films that can easily be slotted into the category of film noir and Night and the City is the prize example.
Of course, the film was made by an American production company, with an American director and two American stars so the definition of British needs to be rather flexible. Director Jules Dassin was on his way up with a reputation for getting the most out of location shooting. The film's main star was Richard Widmark, fast carving a name for himself as a player of manic loser figures. Gene Tierney was his gentle love interest with little to do but look beautiful.
Supporting the Yanks was a roster of British stars and character actors. Googie Withers went below the title to play one of the greatest roles of her career. She plays a nightclub manager trying to scrape enough together to get away from her husband Francis L Sullivan. He's besotted by her, but well aware of her venal nature. When Widmark comes calling looking for the seed money for his latest venture, she cons her husband into supplying it.
Widmark himself is in the conning game. He gets the backing of a famous old Greek wrestler for his big fight, knowing that his son, Herbert Lom, controls wrestling in the city but wouldn't dare destroy Widmark if it means taking down his own father. The film opens with Widmark being pursued through the empty streets of London. He tries to con Gene Tierney out of the money to buy off his pursuer but she, like the rest of London's population, has heard all his lines before.
At the end of the film, Widmark is still running but this time he's running for his life. Instead of empty streets, he has to negotiate a busy city full of informers. Widmark's ability to portray a rat in a trap is used to the full in these scenes.
The British critics of the time were rather sniffy about Night and the City. They criticised its cast of colourful lowlifes and its cavalier attitude to the city's topography. For them it was just another genre flick made ridiculous by the Americans' crass attitude to local culture. Over the years the films reputation has grown substantially and it now looks like a major achievement of post-war cinema.
Script adapt.: Jo Essinger. (o.a. Gerald Kersh)
Director: Jules Dassin
Players: Hugh Marlowe, Stanley Zbyszko, Charles Farrell, Edward Chapman, James Hayter, Ken Richmond, Ada Reeve, Gigg McLaughlin, Aubrey Dexter, Russell Westwood, Maureen Delaney, Thomas Gallagher, Derek Blomfield
Two young schoolteachers spend their holiday in the Yorkshire moors trying to discover what happened to their colleague who went missing the previous year. During a storm they take shelter with a handsome young composer whose sanity seems to be hanging by a thread.
The Night Has Eyes is an enjoyably creepy film most notable for being the first in which James Mason turns his Mr Rochester act up to 11 and treats the heroine badly in order to thrill the audience. Here he's merely tortured rather than sadistic, though of course there's the constant suggestion that he's done away with last year's teacher and may soon do the same to the next.
Joyce Howard is the innocent on the receiving end of Mason's anguish. She does well in a colourless role, and she'd make a better team with Mason in the following year's They Met in the Dark. As her companion, though, Tucker McGuire is a pain in the bum. She's meant to be the man-mad comic relief, but the main relief comes when she's not on screen.
Given that there is a distinct lack of suspects and given their previous screen histories as baddies, it comes as no surprise that the true villains are devoted servants Wilfrid Lawson and Mary Clare. They make a decent pair of rotters, quite happy to dispatch pet rabbits and monkeys - and the occasional passing teacher - to keep their grip on Mason's money.
The script is packed full of spooky house clichés of the sort Anne Radcliffe pioneered, with gobbets of Rebecca and the Hound of the Baskerville's Grimpen Mire thrown in for good measure. Add to the mixture Gunther Krampf's photography - the man really knew how to do fog - and you have the perfect bit of nonsense with which to pass a happy afternoon.
Script adapt.: John Argyle, Leslie Arliss, (o.a.) Alan Kennington
Director: Leslie Arliss
Players: James Mason, Wilfrid Lawson, Mary Clare,, Joyce Howard, Tucker McGuire, John Fernald, Dorothy Black, Amy Dalby
A glamorous nightclub is the secret den of a bunch of gangsters and blackmailers. Irish cop Michael Mahoney (Tom Walls) goes undercover to investigate. Meanwhile beautiful dancer Cora Melish (Winifred Shotter) asks the help of man-about-town Clifford Tope (Ralph Lynn) to retrieve a necklace she'd used as security for her gambling debts but which in reality belongs to the formidable aunt (Norma Varden) of young toff Aubrey Slott (Claude Hulbert). Slott "borrowed" it in order to help out Cora, but the aunt sends her husband (Robertson Hare) to find out what's going on.
The cast list gives it away - yes, this is an Aldwych farce and it's packed full of the silly antics audiences adored. Silly-asses, henpecked husbands, beautiful chorus girls and magnificent battle-axes: they're all here. All this and Robertson Hare loses his trousers! What more can we want?
It's a real Clash of the Titans when Lynn and Hulbert go head-to-head to compete for the attentions of the lovely Shotter. Naturally Lynn wins - what a babe-magnet that man was!
Tom Walls as a director is often criticised for his uncinematic, theatrical style, but here he pulls out all the stops. Several sequences show imagination particularly the overheard conversations sequence and an hypnotic dance sequence which is incredibly static by Hollywood standards but stays in the mind. In the finale he blots his copy book by having the entire cast line up for the equivalent of a curtain call that seems like a big two fingers up to his critics.
If you want to understand the appeal of the Aldwych farces this is probably the best place to start. The roots of British comedy are here.
Script adapt.: (o.a.) Ben Travers, Tom Walls, W.P. Lipscomb
Director: Tom Walls
Players: Mary Brough, Boris Ranevsky, C.V. France, Joan Brierley, Kay Hammond, Al Bowlly, Hal Gordon, Lew Stone, Roy Fox's Band
"Here is the Night Mail crossing the border
Bringing the cheque and the postal order"
I hope that's right. We had to learn it when I was in school so the film always brings back memories for me even though it was a museum piece back then. It's one of the greatest of the British documentaries: lyrical and human. It's an instant fix of nostalgia for anyone of the right age and for the rest of us it's a fascinating attempt to blend poetry with social realism.
Script: Basil Wright, Harry Watt. Poem: W.H. Auden
Director: Basil Wright, Harry Watt
Michael Horden recounts his re-occurring dream about a plane crash to Michael Redgrave who finds the dream starts to come true.
Script adapt.: R.C. Sheriff. (o.a. Victor Goddard)
Director: Leslie Norman
Players: Sheila Sim, Alexander Knox, Denholm Elliott, Ursula Jeans, Ralph Truman, Nigel Stock, Bill Kerr, Alfie Bass, George Rose, Victor Maddern
People who upset occultist Dr Karswell have a habit of dying. When an American psychologist does the same, Karswell hands him a parchment and says he'll die in four days. Can the American beat the curse?
A text book example of how to tell this sort of spooky story, this is one of the highlights of 50s cinema.
Script adapt.: Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester (o.a. M.R. James)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Players: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis, Athene Seyler, Maurice Denham, Ewan Roberts, Liam Redmond, Peter Elliott, Reginald Beckwith, Richard Leech, Rosamund Greenwood, Lynn Tracy, Brian Wilde, Lloyd Lamble, Peter Hobbs, Charles Lloyd Pack, John Salew, Percy Herbert, Janet Barrow
"We have all seen this sort of film in the past, and I am sure we shall see it tomorrow. You cannot imagine the awfulness of it, in out-of-touch Old England, in 1933".
That's how Michael Powell described The Night of the Party in the first volume of his memoirs A Life in Movies, published in 1987. At the time he was right because no print was known to exist. But one turned up shortly after his death and we no longer need to imagine the awfulness - we can experience it for ourselves.
Lord Studholm (Malcolm Keen) is a tyrannical media mogul (spookily his main rag is called The Sun) who makes enemies wherever he goes. He gives a cocktail party at his house in honour of the Princess of Corsova (Muriel Aked) during which the guests play Murder in the Dark. When the lights go on Studholm is found dead - just as Scotland Yard high-up Sir John Holland (Leslie Banks) arrives. After a brief investigation Studholm's secretary Guy Kennington (Ian Hunter) is put on trial at the Old Bailey, but the real murderer makes a dramatic confession and then commits suicide.
Powell puts the blame for the film's failure firmly on the script, but it's just a standard whodunit; a little sillier than most perhaps and dangerously close to parody. He took on the project because he was promised an all-star cast and he thought he could do something with the trial scene. It turned out he couldn't handle either.
The cast is a good one. Apart from those mentioned above the film has Jane Baxter, Viola Keats and Ernest Thesiger as the main suspects. Powell doesn't get a decent performance out of any of them. Muriel Aked makes an interestingly suburban princess, and Ernest Thesiger is wildly over the top, but none of the others register at all. Even Malcolm Keen doesn't seem worth murdering.
The trial scene is a complete mess. It's difficult to see how Powell could have believed it was worth doing. The cross examination of the witnesses is slack and uninteresting. The final confession is motivated by nothing. "I hate liars" is the only justification the murderer gives for pulling out a gun in the middle of the Old Bailey and telling all. It's a jaw-dropping moment, but for all the wrong reasons.
Thankfully, Powell survived this disaster and went on to direct many classic films. There are about a dozen of his quota-quickie films still missing. Let's hope they stay missing for the sake of his reputation.
Script adapt.: Ralph Smart. (o.a. Roland Pertwee)
Director: Michael Powell
Players: Jane Millican, John Turnbull, Laurence Anderson, W. Graham Browne
Titanic movie which more than holds its own against the modern blockbuster.
Script adapt.: Eric Ambler. (o.a. Walter Lord)
Director: Roy Baker
Players: Kenneth Moore, David McCallum, Michael Goodliffe, Ronald Allen, George Rose, Anthony Bushell, Honor Blackman
Margaret Lockwood escapes from a concentration camp and gets to London, but realises the man who helped her (Paul Von Hernried - Paul Henried) is an agent trying to get to her inventor father. British agent Rex Harrison tries to help. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprise their roles from The Lady Vanishes. Excellent comedy thriller.
Script: Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat. Story: Gordon Wellesley
Director: Carol Reed
Players: James Harcourt, Felix Aylmer, Wyndham Goldie, Roland Culver, Eliot Makeham, Raymond Huntley, Austin Trevor, Irene Handl, Ian Fleming, Torin Thatcher
Did you ever wonder why Brian Rix never made it in pictures? Here's one good reason.
He plays doppelgangers Blenkinsop and Atwood. During WWII their identities get mixed up and the prat has to play the hero. Not much cop, but the usual familiar British comedy faces make an appearance.
Script: John Chapman
Director: Darcy Conyers
Players: Leslie Phillips, Hattie Jacques, Liz Fraser, Cecil Parker, William Hartnell, Leo Franklyn, Patrick Cargill, Andrew Sachs