Town on Trial (UK-US 1957)

Supt Halloran (John Mills) brings a drunk Fiona Dixon (Elizabeth Seal), the mayor’s daughter, home to meet her parents as the maid looks on

This is a real gem of UK crime cinema, spiced up by the inclusion of two US actors and a stronger Hollywood feel than was the norm for British pictures in the 1950s. Nothing could be more ‘English’ than the murder of a ‘floozy’ in a Home Counties small town social club where the middle classes meet to play tennis, swim and generally frolic. Yet the arrival of Superintendent Mike Halloran (John Mills) as a hard-bitten and abrasive investigator soon sets the locals talking – to each other but not to him. Although the events and characters are very familiar and I can see why some IMDB ‘users’ see the film as a precursor to current police procedurals such as Midsomer Murders, the style and the tone of the film do seem quite striking. Halloran is no avuncular John Nettles type. He drives his men and doesn’t tread lightly in dealing with the locals.

There is certainly some noirish cinematography by Basil Emmott and the script by Ken Hughes and Robert Westerby is sharp. Director John Guillermin, star John Mills and cinematographer Basil Emmott combined for I Was Monty’s Double in 1958. In this film they have a supporting cast filled with familiar British character actors. The potential murder suspects include Derek Farr as that familiar post-war character, the bogus war hero and Alec McCowen as a disturbed young man. Geoffrey Keen with rimless specs is the pompous Town Mayor, Dandy Nichols is a landlady and Harry Fowler a band-leader. Elizabeth Seal as the adventurous daughter of the Mayor nearly steals the film with an outrageous dance. The Americans are represented by Charles Coburn as a disgraced Canadian doctor acting as the local GP and Barbara Bates as his niece working as a children’s nurse. Bates is probably best remembered in the UK for her small but important role in All About Eve (US 1950). I thought she was excellent in Town on Trial. She plays the only woman to confront and almost charm Halloran, whose gruff manner is partly explained when he tells her that he was once married with a daughter but mother and child were killed in an air raid. Several commentators suggest that Mills ‘can’t do romance’ but I believed his relationship with Bates here and I’m coming to the conclusion that the more I see of the variety of his work, the better an actor he appears to be. I used to groan when I saw his name in the cast but I’m changing my mind.

Barbara Bates as Nurse Elizabeth Fenner. Her uncle played by Charles Coburn is in the background right, out of focus

The mystery behind the film for me is the company Marksman which produced the film for Columbia in the UK. Columbia seemed to use a number of small companies in the 1950s and this is something I will try to explore in the future. I’m quite surprised that this film has not received much critical attention. It doesn’t even figure in British Crime Cinema, eds Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy, Routledge 1999 – but as the editors point out, crime cinema in the UK in the 1950s has received little attention by UK scholars.

The alternative title of the film is The Case of the Stocking Killer so I don’t need to say any more about the murder method. The film takes place in the fictitious town of ‘Oakley Park’ which is supposed to be somewhere on the Thames close to London (a town of 50,000 is mentioned). Largely a police procedural, the film also develops as a satire on the bourgeoisie of the town and ends with a thriller finale that seems to have borrowed something from Mine Own Executioner (UK 1947) – and a couple of other plot points as well. According to IMDb the film was intended to be shown in a 1.75:1 ratio, certainly non-standard and very close to contemporary 16:9 TV sets at 1.78:1

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