Eyewitness is an example of the most prolific type of 1950s British film, the modestly-budgeted crime film. However, it has several interesting elements which aren’t all that common, being directed by Muriel Box and scripted by Janet Green. Nick wrote recently about another Muriel Box film, Street Corner (1953). He noted that the credits of the print he watched seemed to suggest the film was directed by the producer, William MacQuitty. Nick suggested that this might be for American audiences who might be put off by a female director. I find this odd since the several Muriel Box films I’ve seen tend to describe her as an Oscar winner (for the script of The Seventh Veil, UK 1947 – shared with her husband Sydney). Muriel Box, like her sister-in-law, producer Betty Box, was a stalwart of 50s British cinema and was contracted to Rank from 1956-9.
Janet Green was an actor, retiring in 1945 and concentrating on writing. Her first success was The Clouded Yellow in 1950 and in 1956 The Long Arm (for Ealing). Later she wrote a trio of ‘problem pictures’ for Michael Relph and Basil Dearden – Sapphire (1959), Victim (1961) and Life for Ruth (1962). Her last film was 7 Women for John Ford (1966). She then moved over to TV. So, did the influence of these two women have a significant impact on this seemingly conventional film? Sydney Box produced the film and it was edited by Jean Barker, who worked with Muriel Box on several films, including Street Corner. I think the three women working on this film did have an impact, even though the protagonists are two men.
The film is a concise 82 minutes and the plot in outline is very simple. Lucy (Muriel Pavlow) comes home from work to discover that her husband Jay (Michael Craig) has bought a new TV set ‘on tick’ (credit). The couple have a nicely furnished suburban house but Lucy is well aware of the dangers of ‘live now, pay later’. The couple row and Lucy storms out of the house. She ends up in a cinema, quietly fuming. Meanwhile Jay goes out to the pub. Lucy inadvertently sees two men robbing the safe in the cinema manager’s office and runs when the men see her. When she runs into the street she is knocked down by a bus and ends up in hospital. So far so conventional. But the two safe-breakers turn out to be a mis-matched pair played by Donald Sinden and Nigel Stock. The Sinden character is a nasty piece of work and he decides to follow the ambulance to the local ‘country hospital’, just out of town (dragging the reluctant Stock character with him). He’s quite prepared to break into the hospital and kill Lucy if she has survived being run over.
I won’t spoil the plot any further. What interests me is that with Lucy hors de combat, Jay eventually searching for her unaware of what has happened and the police faced with an unidentified woman in hospital, who is going to protect her from Sinden’s attack? Probably not the hospital surgeon and anaesthetist (Nicholas Parsons and Richard Wattis, now usually seen as vaguely comic character actors). No, it must be the women in the female ward where Lucy lies struggling for consciousness. What struck me was just how well Green’s script and Box’s direction manage to make what might be a fairly banal situation into something quite gripping. There are a number of interesting little sub-plots but Lucy’s protectors turn out to be a little girl, an elderly woman patient (Ada Reeve) and the ward nurse (Belinda Lee). Belinda Lee is the third lead in the film. She was a Rank starlet already with several significant credits to her name aged only 20 but she would die in a car crash in the US aged only 25.
I enjoyed the film and thanks must go yet again to Talking Pictures TV. This film is not mentioned in several of the key film studies texts on 50s British cinema. I hadn’t heard of it before, even though I thought I knew the work of Muriel Box and Janet Green. I’m pleased to have seen it and it confirms my belief that 50s British cinema is more interesting than most critics – and scholars – would like us to think.