By Tony Williams.
1946 was an “annus mirabilis” (“amazing year” for those who never studied Latin) for American, British film noir, and many of its international counterparts. Both appearing a year after the end of World War Two, The Stranger and Appointment with Crime were generic achievements in their own right but also reflected the grim realities of their eras, as the best examples of noir often do. The Stranger revealed that the home front was not entirely immune from the continuing Nazi threat while the less historically conscious Appointment with Crime conveyed an environmental grimness with a particular noir stylistics that linked it not only with Graham Greene’s astute Zolaesque observations of the physical and spiritual impoverishment of early twentieth century Britain in his crime fiction – observations often caustically dismissed by condescending establishment critics by the dismissive term “Greeneland” – but also an awareness of the dangerous post-war cultural and social climate denied at the time. Both films are different in nature: one directed by a major talent subjected to studio interference, while the other the work of a lesser talent that still manages to convey the nature of a post-war “Bleak House” Britain, which contradicts the ideological images of England’s “green and pleasant land” still current in mainstream PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” and “Mystery.”
The Stranger has already received detailed coverage in this publication, but the intention of this review is to emphasize how Olive’s valuable DVD audio-commentary complements the Kino-Lorber version, as well as reveal other recognition of the film’s socio-historical context. “Nitrate Diva” contributor Nora Fiore displays expert informative talent, revealing that certain audio-commentaries more than make up for the fact that many professors today are being forced to choose non-black and white, “cool” and popular films for their classes to promote enrollments rather than introduce students to a cinematic world they may not have known about before and often end up appreciating. If 60 years ago Jean-Luc Godard once proclaimed “The Cinema is Nicholas Ray,” today’s opportunistic professors will now say “Gilligan’s Island Is the Cinema,” within a bland, non-brave, new world of Media Studies
Like Bret Wood in his Kino Lorber commentary, Fiore is fully aware of studio cuts and inserts references to them whenever necessary. At the same time, she is both fully conscious of the film’s historical context as well as its cinematic associations, such as Touch of Evil’s cameraman Russell Metty working on this film, as well as supplying relevant information concerning various actors such as Everett Sloane’s voice being used for the radio broadcast heard in Mr. Potter’s store. As Michael Caine supposedly said (and did in that awful Get Carter remake) – “Not many people know about that.” Fiore speculates that since Konstantin Shayne was Akim Tamiroff’s brother-in-law, he may have brought him to Welles’s attention for future collaborations. She also suggests that Welles modeled his Kindler on Nietzsche’s appearance, seeing the character’s fascination with clocks to suggest the order, obedience, and dehumanizing nature of the Final Solution.
One really significant observation is how the film’s narrative grammar resembles a horror film. Since Welles’s first Mercury Radio presentation was the 1938 Dracula, could not Edward G. Robinson’s character be regarded as the film’s Van Helsing? (This reviewer’s mind is presently focused on a substitute class on Fantasy Literature and Film, should numbers not be enough for his usual film class in an institution echoing educationally Joseph Conrad’s ironically titled short story “An Outpost of Progress”). The strongest aspects of Fiore’s commentary lie on its application to certain features of post-war American society, such as husbands returning to the domestic hearth as strangers due to P.T.S.D. and the ideological pressure on women to confine themselves to the home resulting in their lack of independent agency that would lead to that meaningfully titled 50s TV program, “Father Knows Best.” This forms an interesting and very relevant sub-text to the film, revealing its potential richness despite studio interference. Another interesting parallel is Fiore’s comparison of Fascism to an abusive marriage in which the female is an isolated victim trapped within the home. Like certain victims of domestic abuse Mary programmatically protects her victimizer by presenting a false image to the outside world. Loretta Young’s heroine thus moves from being a Jane Eyre figure in this narrative towards becoming dangerously close to Bertha Rochester’s “Madwoman in the Attic” – to borrow the term from that classic feminist literary critical text that resulted in rediscovery of marginalized female voices within the literary canon. Towards the end, Mary bitterly regrets ever marrying her Mr. Rochester in Welles’s possibly conscious, deliberate reversal of this text of which he appeared in a film version a few years previously. The Gothic expressionist lighting employed by Welles reveals an early recognition of the horror film’s capacity to reflect contemporary social problems something that the genre fully achieved in the 1970s. The Stranger is a richly ambiguous movie since it shows how easily Fascism can blend into the American community to reveal that nobody is immune, especially when the monster looks like a normal person as does Dracula in a Victorian drawing room when he sheds his “creature of the night” persona, something associated to Kindler in his night time scenes in this film.
Fiore also speculates that Kindler’s chosen surname “Rankin” is a pointed reference to one of the most virulent, anti-semitic Ku Klux Klan supporters of HUAC, and we know today that these types have not gone away. She also painstakingly examines each contributor to the screenplay suggesting who was responsible for which approach or scene, though there is no firm evidence existing today to be absolutely certain. Like Robinson’s Mr. Wilson, Fiore is a good detective in this investigation especially recognizing the female perspective in this film while contributing expert observations on Loretta Young’s character and a brilliant reading of her final process of ascent to the top of the clock tower. Rather than being dismissed as it has in the past, Fiore reveals that “despite the system” (also the title of Clinton Heylin’s fascinating study of Welles), The Stranger is a film depicting a network of complex relationships both personal and social despite the way it was marketed as a simple thriller. Dr. Jennifer Lynde Barker’s DVD essay, “The Stranger: Murderers among us,” forms a valuable critical complement to Fiore’s excellent DVD commentary.
By no stretch of the imagination can John Harlow (1896-1977) be compared to Welles, but dismissing him because he directed two old Mother Riley films would be as problematic as exclusively associating John Baxter with Arthur Askey comedies such as the British Western Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956) and other British cinematic low comedy works. However, if more films of his were available Harlow might fit into Andrew Sarris’s Category IX “Subjects for Further Research” in any British counterpart of The American Cinema. Harlow not only directed several 40s and 50s crime films such as Meet Sexton Blake (1945) with David Farrar but also many crime and noir-related films several of which I saw in the 50s in the old ITV Television Wales and the West station where John Baxter programmed many now forgotten British films including his own. These included Candles at Nine (1944) starring Jessie Matthews before she relocated for a long period to Australia, Green Fingers (1947) with Robert Beatty, Carol Raye, and Nova Pilbeam, and While I Live (1947), an obsessive tale of reincarnation starring Sonia Dresdel and Carol Raye that introduced the musical theme “The Dream of Olwen”. A year before Appointment with Crime, Harlow directed future Dr. Who William Hartnell in The Agitator (1945), the second of three attempts to launch him as a major star in British cinema. Appointment with Crime was made to promote Hartnell as a British version of James Cagney and other Hollywood tough guy actors, but it failed leaving the actor to perform later distinguished character roles in Brighton Rock (1947), Odd Man Out (1947), and This Sporting Life (1963) including Sergeant Bullimore in the ITV comedy series The Army Game (1957-60) variants of which he repeated in Private’s Progress (1956) and Carry on Sergeant (1958).
Appointment in Crime benefits from Hartnell’s leading performance as a betrayed “tough guy,” complemented by solid support from Robert Beatty, Joyce Howard, Raymond Lovell, Herbert Lom, Alan Wheatley (both playing an implicit gay criminal couple), and Ivor Barnard as the Dickensian-surnamed Jonah Crackle. The last character conveys overtones of a sinister Dickensian working-class threat who has survived into post-war society but who also wears a leather jacket in certain scenes similar to that worn by Hartnell revealing the survival of a Victorian underworld in post-war British society usually characterized by the Labour Party electoral victory a year before when things were supposed to change permanently for the better, but we now know that they did not. Unlike Dancing with Crime (1947), no reference is made to the recent war nor criminal forces present in black market Britain of that time, but the bleak visual style conveys much of that atmosphere in a generic low-budget work of the type dismissed by guardians of British good taste as “morbid burrowings” but films that were quintessentially noir having undeniable associations with the English Gothic and associated crime traditions (1). Although worth viewing, Appointment with Crime does reveals the type of uncertainty associated with British cinematic attempts to appropriate Hollywood genres seen, especially in the British Western. As a film noir, it is certainly bleak and grim but too reductive in its borrowings that need necessary adaptation. For example, like The Third Man (1948), it overuses the canted angle shot too much, depends too much on a distracting kaleidoscopic series of shots showing the Hartnell character’s time in prison, and adds an intrusive musical background score to certain scenes involving Beatty and Howard when no accompaniment would have been much more appropriate.
However, despite these problems, Appointment with Crime is well worth seeing, particularly in its different use of historical context from The Stranger. Hartnell’s character manipulates Howards in the same was as Welles’s Kindler does to Mary in The Stranger but the presence of an outside investigator in both films (Robinson, Beatty) makes her see the error of her ways. Is this an implicit, unconscious reference to the hasty nature of wartime romances that often led to both partners realizing their hasty mistakes due to the way historical circumstances affected them?
At any rate, more British film noirs need rereleasing on DVD, especially Lance Comfort’s Temptation Harbor (1947) adapted from a Georges Simenon novel with the tantalizing cast of Robert Newton, Simone Simon, William Hartnell, and Marcel Dalio that is not in circulation for some perverse reason outside the British Film Archive and National Film Theatre and other screenings. Before the Kray Brothers were the Messinas, Jack Spot, Billy Hill and other unsavory characters that the British establishment preferred to ignore unlike those post-war dark figures such as Neville Heath and acid-bath murderer Haigh who could not be summarily dismissed on the grounds of “bad taste,” all of whom provided the real life background for British film noir that genteel establishment figures often dismissed as un-British or “not one of us” as Mrs. Thatcher would say in the future” Colin Wilson’s late 60s novel The Killer republished by Savoy Books in 2002, which suggested that dark, depraved, unacknowledged forces within the negative realm of British culture and society influenced the late Ian Brady while David Britton’s banned Lord Horror (1989) and the graphic novels Meng & Ecker (1997) were not entirely divorced from the society that generated them. British film noir is merely an introductory veneer on an infernoesque cultural netherworld that few have dared to explore.
- See the excellent chapter in Robert Murphy, Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-49. London: Routledge, 1989, 168-190. Further studies on British film noir have since appeared by critics such as Steve Chibnall and Andrew Spicer, resulting in the recognition of a hitherto marginalized national genre. However, further work still needs to be done on noir novelists such as Peter Cheyney as well as Arthur LaBern. See here Tony Williams, “Night Darkens the Street: Two Post-War Naturalist Novels of Arthur LaBern,” Excavatio XXVVI (2015).
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is a Contributing Editor to Film International and author, most recently, of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016) and co-editor, with Esther C.M. Yau, of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (2017).