The Good Die Young (UK 1954)

Was my view of ’50s British cinema formed by the selection of films screened on television during the ’70s? I don’t know obviously but it’s possible that such hard-hitting thrillers as The Good Die Young didn’t get the exposure that more insipid films did (the titles of which I don’t remember). Certainly my impression of ‘British cinema’ used to agree with Truffaut’s contention that it was an oxymoron. Maybe films like The Good Die Young were screened but the only place to see them now on TV in the UK is on the Talking Pictures channel.

This was the 10th feature film by director Lewis Gilbert, who died aged 97 earlier this year, and an efficient job he does; he went on to direct a number of war films in the ’50s and three Bond movies. There’s even an expressionist scene when Stanley Baker’s ex-boxer finds his £1000 savings have been frittered on his feckless brother-in-law. The boxing match is superbly done, particularly in the editing.

The sensationalism (for the time) of the film is evident in the poster as is the excellent cast. The Americans Grahame, Basehart (Joe) and Ireland were no doubt included to try to appeal to the American market but they are seamlessly integrated into the plot where three ‘down on their luck’ ordinary guys are seduced by a Playboy (Laurence Harvey) into a robbery. I’ve never seen Harvey better, he plays the upper class slime-ball perfectly and the scene when he asks his estranged father (Robert Morley) for money is brilliantly done. Never have I seen such loathing in a ‘gentleman’s club’ before. And that’s the key to the success of the film: the upper middle class, so often, as I remember, lauded by British cinema are shown for the shallow fakers they are.

Grahame’s role is interesting as although she is once again playing a ‘loose woman’ there’s no sense she’s a ‘tart with a heart’. Her treatment of her husband (Ireland) is entirely heartless. Joan Collins, as Joe’s sweet wife (Mary), was appearing in her 9th feature; 25 years later she was reinvigorating her career as a nymphomaniac in The Stud (UK, 1978) – an analogue for the history of British cinema during this time?

The film has elements of noir, the aforementioned expressionist scene and the grim narrative; the climax goes fully Gothic in a churchyard at night with rats scurrying. Mention also needs making of Freda Jackson playing the clinging mother of Mary. She oozes hatred of husband Joe and is merciless in her intention to keep Mary to herself.


  1. Roy Stafford

    Yes, I like this film very much. It used to play regularly on Film 4/Channel 4. Two points on your reading. I think the ‘sensationalism’ of this 1950s thriller is not new so much as a carry-over from the post-1945 British cinema interest in sensational crime and melodrama films. The dire reputation of 1950s British cinema comes from critics who only quote the relatively bland mainstream features which were commercially successful in what was the high point of British production by Rank, ABC and the independents (i.e. up to 1955/6 and the impact of ITV). Re the Americans in the cast, certainly the presence of recognisable names might sell a film to American TV in this period (which happened a lot since Hollywood wouldn’t sell its product to TV in the early 1950s). But, I think the more likely reason for this practice (from the mid-40s on) was to try to attract British audiences. There were also pragmatic reasons. Some Americans appeared regularly in British films, others were in Europe because of HUAC. Some were attracted to productions in which they might get better parts (any parts?), depending on their box office value at home. The producers of The Good Die Young were the Woolf Brothers, British cinema royalty and through Romulus/Remus Films the most successful of the independents in the 1950s. They did successfully sell this film in Europe and North America (via United Artists). Ironically given your quote about the upper middle class, they were two old Etonians.

  2. keith1942

    I was glad to see that Nick attributed the quote to Truffaut rather than Hitchcock which the cineastes often did.
    “a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction (e.g. faith unfaithful kept him falsely true).”
    I assume using this definition is ironic. Some silly comments are best forgotten.
    It is a very effective film with a fine cast. In fact Basehart and Graham had sojourns in Britain and their work was superior to some of the other Hollywood ex-patriates.
    As for Harvey, I think his early film performances are often good but he seems to have been typecast as a star and become stereotyped.

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