The Promise is a six part TV crime fiction serial that was successful in its home territory (the best TV drama launch since 2015) and has recently completed its run on BBC4 in the UK. It will stay on BBC iPlayer for an indeterminate period. This serial is in many ways quite familiar and at least two of my colleagues abandoned watching it because they thought the concepts were becoming hackneyed. I can see this but there are enough original elements to make it an interesting watch for me.
The serial also comes with a pedigree, boasting as ‘creator’ and co-writer of all six episodes, Anne Landois (one of the principal writers of the last four Engrenages (Spiral) serials). One of its attractions is the setting in South Western France in Nouvelle-Aquitaine. ‘Les Landes’ is the coastal region south of Bordeaux, most of which is dominated by an extensive pine forest that extends to the coast. Although one of the largest French départements, Landes is relatively under-populated and isolated with a few small towns. Forestry is the major primary resource and source of employment. Visually distinctive, the forest also provides the perfect environment in which to disappear.
During Christmas 1999, a fierce storm causes damage and some confusion in which an 11 year-old girl goes missing. Local detective Pierre Castaing (Olivier Marchal, a well-known actor in French film and TV – and a former police officer) takes charge of the search. His two young daughters are close to him as the search extends. Castaing begins to suspect a man, but his colleagues arrest a younger man. The girl is not found and after a year Castaing loses control of the case and is ostracised by his colleagues. The case has had a devastating on Castaing and his marriage is breaking up. Twenty years later, Castaing’s older daughter Sarah (Sofia Essaïdi) is working as a team leader in the ‘Juvenile Unit’ of the local police in Bordeaux. She is alerted to a kidnapping of a young girl in an outer suburb of Bordeaux. Eventually she will find the girl in the woods some way south of the city, but the kidnapper is not around. His trail will take her down to a village near Bayonne, 185 km away. This is her home territory, reviving memories of her father’s case all those years ago. (Bayonne is actually just outside the Landes départment and IMDb lists the shoot as being around Dax.)
The first episode is bewildering in the way that the transitions between 1999 and 2019 are not marked in any way. I think of myself as a ‘visually literate’ person but I missed many of the markers of different time periods. Pierre Castaing drives a Range Rover but in a rural area these are more common and could be twenty years old. White vans for the kidnapper are not particularly distinctive. Rural areas are often ‘behind’ the big city in fashions. At the end of the episode I was baffled but intrigued. I assumed I would make sense of the narrative in the next few episodes but the time shifting continues throughout the serial, weaving Sarah’s story around the flashbacks to Pierre’s. The viewer is likely to forget the ordering of the different time segments. At one point a wipe is used in such a way that father’s head is replaced by his daughter’s twenty years later within the same shot. It’s rare to find a serial in which the viewer has to work so hard to re-construct a linear narrative.
It is likely that many viewers in the UK gave up after this first episode as, alongside the time-shifts, it does feel like we have been here often before. An 11 year-old girl seemingly kidnapped by an older man, a police detective with a collapsing marriage, a younger police captain with her own personal issues etc. All of these have become conventions but I think there are sufficient different elements to make this a narrative that repays the extra work for the viewer. However, there are a couple of serious flaws. The most glaring is that Sarah manages to stay in Bayonne to pursue her investigations without, as far as I can see, any official request that she return to Bordeaux where she has an important role. Her behaviour, mirroring her father’s, affects her relationships with the local police. A second flaw is the handling of Sarah’s romance/relationship with a lawyer in Bordeaux. He seems like more of an afterthought or perhaps he simply represents the big city which seems irrelevant in the Landes?
This isn’t, in the end, a ‘procedural’ like most of the crime fiction dramas featuring female detectives. It does present a detailed family melodrama set in a small community with the local landscape playing a crucial role. The setting actually begins to move the tone or ‘feel’ of the narrative towards both rural horror and the ‘uncanny’ – only marginally and not as much as some other French serials such as Witnesses (2014 – ). The cinematography by Benjamin Louet, presented in a 2:1 ratio with many drone shots and overheads adds to the genre feel of horror/mystery. The six episodes are each 52-53 minutes and less time than usual is spent on re-capping at the start of each episode, so this is a ‘300 minute plus’ narrative.
Anne Landois’ co-creator and co-writer on the serial is Gaëlle Bellan, who wrote episodes for Engrenages 6. All six episodes of La promesse were directed by Laure de Butler. It does seem that, just as in the UK, more TV drama is now appearing from creative teams led by women. There are a host of female characters in this serial but some of the key characters such as Sarah’s sister and her mother seem to be under-developed. As the image above suggests, the sister Lilas, spends time in prison. The younger women in the cast are played by two actors to cover the twenty year development. The two sisters are well cast as teenagers and adults. Sarah’s mother is played by the same actor who changes the most in physical appearance and demeanour, but without playing a significant role in the narrative development. I’m left wondering, how long must a long narrative be to cover all its possible stories and characters? I’ve deliberately not mentioned aspects of the plot of this serial but I would be interested to watch it again – and to visit the Landes.
Here’s a brief ‘Bande annonce’ for episodes 3 and 4
This film offers a second adaptation by 20th Century Fox of Raymond Chandler’s third novel, The High Window (which was also the title for the film’s UK release). The first use of Chandler’s story was as the basis for a B Movie series film featuring Lloyd Nolan as ‘Michael Shayne’ and titled Time to Kill (US 1942). It was the second time that a Chandler novel was adapted for a film featuring a different character than Philip Marlowe. Farewell My Lovely was used for The Falcon Takes Over (US 1942) at RKO. Even though Fox saw only B movie material in Chandler at this point they reputedly paid him $3,500 for the rights. But this meant that they could re-use the material four years later in a more faithful adaptation at a time when direct adaptations of Farewell My Lovely (as Murder My Sweet, 1944) and The Big Sleep (Warner Bros, 1946) had been A movie successes for RKO and Warner Bros.
The High Window is probably less well-known than the first two famous novels listed above and it isn’t by any means the best Chandler adaptation, but it is entertaining and it does have some interesting features. Fox took a purely commercial decision to re-use the story material, but still in something of a B movie operation, to produce a 72 minute film. I’m not sure that it could be labelled a B simply because of its length but George Montgomery, who was a Fox B leading man, was the youngest and arguably lowest-ranked actor to play Philip Marlowe in the film adaptations. Montgomery was still only 31 when he played Marlowe. He’d been a boxing champion, stunt man and then a minor supporting player in films of the late 1930s. He’d grown up on a ranch in Montana and was seen as a good fit for B Westerns at Republic before signing a contract at Fox where for a time he continued in B Westerns. He did have several good selling points for the studio, including his stature as a 6′ 3″ athletic figure who also happened to be very good-looking. Fox did cast him in lead roles in A features with Maureen O’Hara, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney and Betty Grable during 1942-3 but then war service intervened and on his return he found himself back in the Bs.
Montgomery was an athletic Marlowe leaping over fences and cutting a dash in fights with hoodlums. At this time he sported a pencil moustache, giving him a connection to earlier male stars such as Clark Gable. In The Brasher Doubloon his Marlowe is summoned to a large house in Pasadena where he first meets a young woman working as a secretary for the wealthy widow Mrs Murdock. The young woman is Merle Davis played by Fox’s new starlet Nancy Guild (which studio publicists claimed ryhmed with ‘Wild’). Guild had signed a 7 year contract at Fox in 1946 aged just 21 but in this film (and seemingly in others) she first appears as a nervous young woman who nevertheless attracts Marlowe (remember that Montgomery is playing a younger Marlowe). The suggestion is that she is somewhat under the control of Mrs Murdock but she will assert herself later in the narrative. Marlowe discovers that his task is to find a rare coin, the doubloon of the title, which has been stolen from a locked safe in the house. The only obvious suspects are Merle and the widow’s son Leslie (Conrad Janis). Marlowe’s investigation will involve various shady characters played by Fox’s supporting players (several interesting character actors) and he will have time to pursue his attempts to seduce Merle before a final showdown with a twist that will reveal the secret back story.
Overall, if I’d been offered this as a B picture in a 1947 double bill I think I would have enjoyed it and found it entertaining. It’s only because I’m looking back as part of research into Raymond Chandler in Hollywood that I’m disappointed in the adaptation. I don’t have criticism of Montgomery as Marlowe or of Guild as Merle. I find them both attractive characters and she reminds me of a less cynical and deadly version of Cathy, the Jane Greer femme fatale character in Out of the Past (also 1947). As directed by John Brahm, The Brasher Doubloon isn’t particularly ‘noirish‘. Brahm was another German emigré and he had already had some success with The Lodger (1944), Hangover Square (1945) and The Locket (1946) and his work on The Brasher Doubloon is fine with some interesting angles as the stills here suggest, but nothing too ‘disturbing’ in the way of other noirs of the period. The DoP was Lloyd Ahern, who was credited on his first film in that role after more than 20 years as a camera assistant. One of the problems might be that Chandler’s novel was adapted by Dorothy Bennett, a studio writer who was paid over $1,000 a week for the work. She cut out some major characters for the novel, making for a less complex plot. Perhaps this could have been a good thing? She cut out Mrs Murdock’s daughter-in-law and it strikes me that if the novel had been adapted ‘faithfully’ we would have had Marlowe investigating a case in which, as in The Big Sleep, he visits a wealthy household with two young women, one of whom is a potential flirt and one who he finds attractive. The scene in which Marlowe first meets Mrs Murdock is very similar to the scene in The Big Sleep in which he first meets General Sternwood. Chandler is, after all, a writer more interested in characters and descriptions than in plotting. He repeats himself and is often not too worried about the coherence of his narratives. The Brasher Doubloon seems almost as interested in the romance as it is about the disappearance of the titular coin.
This short (70 minutes) crime film was broadcast yesterday by Talking Pictures TV in the UK, drawing on its own library of titles owned by Renown Pictures. It is interesting for two or three reasons. First it offers a good example of a British B picture during the peak production period in British cinemas – the broad crime genre was the most widely produced and this police-procedural is an example of one of the largest categories of crime film. It’s an independent production from Insignia Films with studio work at Nettlefold, one of the many smaller studios around London still active in 1954. However, much of the film was shot on location in the Pool of London and parts of Bermondsey and Poplar.
The plot is familiar. A ship with an American captain (Robert Ayres) and an American radio operator, Judy Roberts (Phyllis Kirk), is at the quayside for a week. Judy is persuaded by the steward to smuggle a few packets of cigarettes through customs for one of his friends ashore. She doesn’t realise that the packets also include diamonds. She then innocently visits an old pub in Poplar where she bumps into Inspector Barker (John Bentley) of the River Police. They are attracted to each other but any potential romance is interrupted when Judy is arrested after she repeats the cigarette smuggling favour. The plot in some ways resembles the earlier Ealing film, Pool of London (UK 1950). River Beat is a ‘lesser story’ in many ways but it does offer a similarly detailed depiction of the lost world of the Pool of London (the quaysides closest to Tower Bridge along with St Katharine’s Dock and Shad Thames). In these narratives the police usually catch the criminals and in this case the climactic chase sequence on the water is well handled.
Director Guy Green began his career as a cinematographer, often working with David Lean and also with visiting Hollywood directors. This was his début feature and with his DoP Geoffrey Faithfull he captures the street scenes very well. Phyllis Kirk had begun in films and TV in 1950 and in 1953 had a couple of roles as leading lady in two Hollywood films, the best known being House of Wax with Vincent Price. The British film industry regularly imported minor stars from Hollywood to head the cast, believing this gave the films more kudos in British cinemas and for possible export. She does a reasonable job in River Beat and certainly better than many US imports. The British leading man, John Bentley, had a career lasting from the late 1940s until the mid-1970s, latterly mostly in TV. He is probably best remembered playing Paul Temple in B movies based on the stories by Francis Durbridge. Though these were small independent B movies they had a following at the time and Bentley went on to play similar characters in several more B crime thrillers, including River Beat. Trivia fact: Bentley ended his career in the soap opera Crossroads set in his home region of the West Midlands. In some ways his career seems in tune with the history of British cinema and TV. The US poster for the film above is typical of the period. Ms Kirk is dressed attractively in the film but not in the sleazy way of the poster. John Bentley was not a name in the US and is relatively marginalised. Like Bentley, screenwriter Rex Rienits was mainly active in the 1950s and 1960s on smaller films and TV series. River Beat was his ‘original story and screenplay’.
I wouldn’t make any great claims for River Beat, but I did enjoying seeing an area where I worked some twenty-five years later when it was beginning to disappear. This was quite an entertaining way to spend some time on the sofa on a day of lousy weather. I’m not sure what I’d do without Talking Pictures TV as a diversion.
Like many other appreciative TV viewers I have just watched the second crime serial/long form narrative of Innocent on ITV in the UK. A few months earlier I completed the fourth serial of Unforgotten, also on ITV in the UK, which saw the final appearance of DCI Cassie Stewart played by Nicola Walker. The major figure behind both ‘franchises’ appears to be the writer Chris Lang, who perhaps deserves the US title of showrunner. As far as I can see he seems to be directly involved as a writer for Unforgotten produced by Mainstreet Pictures and as ‘Executive Producer’ and co-writer of Innocent for TXTV which he co-founded with Matthew Arlidge, also a writer on Innocent, and Jeremy Gwilt. These three and Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes of Mainstreet are highly experienced figures in TV drama, mainly for ITV. However, my interest here is not so much in the companies but in the possible innovations in these two franchises.
Crime shows, along with with medical dramas – ‘cops and docs’ – are at the centre of TV drama. My interest is primarily in crime fiction across literature, film and television. I’m interested in what might be a shift in approaches to crime fiction narratives. In TV, the UK tradition has been to focus on either the ‘police procedural’ or the amateur/private detective investigation. ITV tends to call both forms ‘mystery drama’. Some of the most successful series have been based on lead characters from literary crime fiction, others are original. As someone who has decided for various reasons to avoid US TV crime dramas (and mainstream Hollywood films), my main focus has been on European and other non-US narrative forms. The major influence in the UK seems to have been the success of European crime fiction and especially Nordic crime fiction on TV epitomised by The Killing and The Bridge following the initial success of crime writers such as Henning Mankell with his Inspector Wallander stories in print form and then film/TV. At first this seemed to be a general influence in terms of noir and the tone and visual qualities of the crime fiction programmes as well as the increased emphasis on female leads. More recently perhaps we have seen more interest in the crime melodrama aspects – a focus on the emotional lives of both the police investigators and the various people involved in crimes, either as perpetrators or victims, witnesses etc.
There is nothing new in this interest in melodrama. As far back as 1956 and Ealing’s The Long Arm, we’ve seen little glimpses of the home lives of police investigators. Since then it has gradually been increasing, but the approach of Nordic crime fiction was on another level. The Killing (Forbrydelsen, Denmark 2007), the first serial of 20 x one hour episodes, stands out for me because of the interweaving of three major strands – the hunt for the murderer, the melodrama about the victim’s family and the political intrigue. I don’t think any of the later attempts to follow this model have achieved quite the same blend – or the same high quality of writing, performance and overall presentation. However, I was struck by my first viewing of Unforgotten and then by Innocent, both of which I found engaging and compulsive viewing. A comparison of both their shared and different elements is intriguing.
Unforgotten is an example of the ‘cold case investigation’ narrative. A separate police unit in London headed by DCI Cassie Stuart and DI ‘Sunny’ Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) plus a small team of detectives investigate cases on the basis of new evidence. Each of the four serials comprises six 46 minute episodes (2015-2021). It shares the basic premise with the BBC series New Tricks (2003-15) and Waking the Dead (2000-2011), both very successful but in formal terms mainly single episode cases for the former and two-part episodes for the latter. But New Tricks featured retired detectives working for a serving officer in charge and tended towards a lighter and sometimes comic tone and Waking the Dead emphasised psychological profiling and forensics. Unforgotten focuses more on traditional procedural work and adds the dimension of the personal emotional life of DCI Stuart and to a lesser extent DI Khan. But what really distinguishes these serial narratives is the complexity of the crimes. I’m referring to serials 3 and 4 in which the investigation uncovers an incident several years ago which involved several individuals who have since led separate lives and may have dispersed geographically. Each of these individual histories needs to be investigated and each has the potential to develop into a personal narrative as well as contributing to the overall investigation. The original crime is eventually solved through dogged procedural effort rather than sudden flashes of inspiration (though this may happen at moments along the way). In terms of narrative structure this means each episode could be following two or three personal narratives, some of them emotional in bringing up past indiscretions, injuries, arguments etc. The complexity of the cases and the emotional triggers also impact upon DCI Stuart and the serials were highly praised partly because of Nicola Walker’s performances (and those of the team overall).
The same level of complexity is found in the narratives of Innocent which has so far run as two serials of 4 x 46 minutes in 2018 and 2021. The difference here is that the narrative begins not so much with the discovery of new evidence in an old case, but with the release from prison of a convicted murderer because of a re-trial. This character returns to their community, not surprisingly keen to clear their name but also to find the real killer. The local police have to re-open the case, but this is clearly a different scenario. Interestingly, the two serials have also been set in more rural parts of the UK meaning that the return of the ‘innocent’ has more impact in a small community where the interlocking narratives are more visible and also more emotionally charged.
In the second serial aired Monday to Thursday last week, Sally Wright is released from prison after 5 years following a re-trial with new evidence turned up by a local journalist, a friend who ran a campaign. Sally (Katherine Kelly) had been convicted of killing one of her students, Matthew Taylor, a 16 year-old boy with whom, it was alleged, she was having a sexual relationship. As a result of the conviction she lost her job and her home when her husband divorced her. In a small market town like Keswick (pop. 5-6,000) she is a very visible figure and she provokes some people by demanding her job back at the school. There are several ‘interested parties’ who, for different reasons, are concerned about her release. They include her ex-husband who is now engaged to a woman who was the murdered boy’s social worker and a governor of the school. This woman has a daughter who is still at the school and there is at least one other ex-school student who is involved. Matthew’s parents are also enraged by Sally’s release. There is at least one other possible suspect known to the others so the writers have seven lines of enquiry to pursue, each fuelled by emotional responses. To top off the potential for emotional conflict, the detective assigned to re-open the case is DCI Mike Braithwaite. He has just returned to work after a period mourning the deaths of his wife and daughter in a car crash. Well played by Shaun Dooley, he proves both determined to solve the murder and also capable of treating Sally with empathy.
This then is the distinctive pattern of the narrative structure. Two non-competing investigators and seven potential suspects, all interconnected through emotional relationships, are contained in a small community in a beautiful location. There are scenes shot in Keswick, augmented by Irish locations since the production received Irish public funding during the pandemic. I was worried about this initially but actually the melding of two location shoots works quite well. Is it really a new type of narrative structure? I do think that it could be traced back to the traditional ‘country house murder’ of the 1930s but the inclusion of the previously convicted murderer makes a difference. In both serials so far the central character’s marriage has ben important. In the first serial a man has been released after a seven year internment for murdering his wife. He now has to recover custody of his children as well as convincing them that he didn’t commit the original murder.
Watching Innocent I also thought of the non-procedural novels of the crime writer Ruth Rendell both under own name and as ‘Barbara Vine’. These often feature a network of close relationships at the centre of which is a serious crime of some kind. Many of them have been adapted for TV films or international film features. But the other touchpoint is perhaps the UK history of soap opera. As is common in many British TV drama series, leading players like Katherine Kelly might be recognised by soap audiences who feel that they ‘know’ characters from earlier years on a soap. But the soap link also refers to ITV’s scheduling which saw Innocent broadcast for four successive nights at 9pm ‘peak time’ and then repeated on the same evening at around midnight while also being available on ITV Hub to stream on the same evening. I watched each episode as they appeared on the hub and I’m sure the knowledge that this was possible attracted me to follow the story over the four evenings. The second serial of Innocent is on ITV Hub now alongside the fourth serial of Unforgotten.
Talking Pictures TV came up trumps again on Saturday night with a screening of an intriguing Claude Chabrol film. As it turned out, there were quite a few problems with the print, but if you can get past these there are several interesting aspects to the film. As a production this is an early example of a Canadian tax deferral scheme which was aimed to attract co-productions and France is perhaps the most likely co-production partner (after Hollywood – though I’m not sure Hollywood does co-productions as such). There have been several Montreal-shot films over the years. In this case the ‘property’ is an Ed McBain ’87th Precinct’ novel from 1975.
‘Ed McBain’ is perhaps the best-known pseudonym of Salvatore Albert Lombino who officially changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. Hunter was not only a hugely prolific writer of genre fiction but also of standalone novels. His books were often adapted for film and TV and he also worked as a scriptwriter, most famously for Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds. He was very popular in Japan with adaptations by Kurosawa (High and Low 1963) and many others. I’ve seen one comment that Chabrol was happy to re-locate the story of Blood Relatives in Montreal from New York and not have to worry about the trappings of the New York police procedural. One aspect of this is the creation of a police detective who I think is quite different to the familiar US type. The investigator Steve Carella is played by Donald Sutherland and overall the police in the film seem relatively laid-back but quite efficient in their operations. But although the narrative begins in the police station, this is not really a procedural. Instead it sends Carella into a deep investigation of a family and plays more like a crime melodrama. I can see why Chabrol would be interested.
A teenage girl smeared with blood and with cuts to her arms and face bursts through a door collapses into a police station. The police then find the girl’s 17 year-old cousin dead from multiple knife wounds in a derelict building. The two girls had been at a party and were sheltering from the rain on their way home when they were attacked. The survivor Patricia (Aude Landry) describes the killer and the usual police work ensues. But the girl’s testimony will unravel and Carella finds himself more concerned with the Landry family – this is familiar Chabrol territory. The film’s title more or less tells you where the narrative is heading, so I won’t spoil any other aspects of the plot. I’ll simply state that several flashbacks are necessary to discover what happened to the unfortunate cousin Muriel (Lisa Langlois).
In a career lasting over 50 years Chabrol made over 70 films. A small number of which were made for TV but even so this is a formidable total and inevitably his career has been divided into periods when he made critically accepted films and other periods when he made cheap escapist films. It isn’t always easy to distinguish between the two and since I’ve only seen a modest proportion of the 70+ titles (perhaps 18 or 19) I’m in no position to judge. However, I’ve run through the list looking to see if he had made any other films in North America before this one. It would appear not, but what I was surprised to discover is the number of his French films that include American actors – Bruce Dern, Mia Farrow, Rod Steiger, Anthony Perkins etc. It’s perhaps not a surprise then to find that Blood Relatives features Donald Pleasence and David Hemmings alongside Sutherland. There is a real flavour of a ‘European International film’ about the casting. Sutherland had previously been in films for Bertolucci and Fellini and Hemmings was in Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso as well as Antonioni’s Blow Up. The other roles are mainly played by Canadian actors apart from Stéphane Audran, whose role is the only real disappointment for me. She plays the drunken mother of Patricia and is almost unrecognisable. I did wonder if she was dubbed but I’m sure I’ve seen her with an acceptable English accent in other films. The other French actor is Laurent Malet who plays Patricia’s brother as a rather beautiful young man who exposes his muscles in tiny shorts. Chabrol had his regular cinematographer Jean Rabier with him but most of the other HoDs and crew appear to be Canadian.
With Chabrol working in English and these interesting casting decisions, the film feels different from either French cinema or Hollywood, though there is still a recognisable Chabrol sensibility I think. I did feel at times that this was an example of a different kind of crime film, possibly derived from a novel by Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith – and Chabrol would later adapt both authors. I also somewhere got a whiff of Hitchcock’s Marnie. Partly this is because Sutherland’s cop treats a psychologically-scarred female character quite gently but firmly, much like Sean Connery treats Tippi Hedren in Marnie. I also remembered that Evan Hunter was asked by Hitchcock to adapt Marnie but he didn’t want to write the rape scene that Hitchcock required. You might the sense that if I was thinking about all these connections, I couldn’t have been following the narrative very closely. You would be wrong but I do think this is an odd film in some ways although it does make me want to catch some more of the Chabrol films I’ve got somewhere in the archive.
There is also the question of the print. DVDBeaver.com gives an interesting account of all the problems. The film seems to exist at various lengths from 90 to 100 minutes. I certainly think the version on TPTV had some cuts. Supposedly the film was to be presented in standard widescreen 1.85:1 but the TV print was closer to a panned and scanned 4:3. Even that didn’t look right on my TV’s 4:3 setting. In the end I found myself using the Zoom settings to achieve a 16:9 image that was slightly cropped top and bottom but was otherwise watchable because nobody was squashed or stretched. the BBFC (British Classification Board) tells me the Rank Organisation submitted the film for UK showings but in Canada and France the distributors were small independents. The print is murky at times and may well have been copied from a VHS master. Still, I think it is an interesting addition to my Chabrol collection and kudos to TPTV for finding it.
A few weeks ago I posted on John Ford’s Gideon’s Day (UK-US 1957) and mentioned Ealing’s The Long Arm as a reference point. The Long Arm turned up on Talking Pictures TV a little while later and offered an opportunity to make a comparison. In this film Jack Hawkins, a regular Ealing player in the 1950s, plays a Scotland Yard Superintendent – as he does in Gideon’s Day. However, the two films are quite different. The Ealing production was made in black and white and broadcast in Academy (1.37:1). IMDb suggests that this was always the intended ratio, even if widescreen was established in the UK by 1956. Unlike the Ford film, with its multiple cases all solved in a 24 hour period, The Long Arm is essentially a narrative about a single investigation spread over several days, perhaps weeks. The common features of the two films are the presence of Jack Hawkins and the family melodrama elements of the Superintendent’s home life. In Gideon’s Day that element is foregrounded by the romance of Gideon’s daughter which is cleverly interwoven with the day’s police action. In The Long Arm Superintendent Halliday’s young son does inadvertently provide his father with a clue that helps the investigation but the theme of romance (and the difficult life of a police officer’s wife) is displaced onto Halliday’s new assistant, DS Ward (John Stratton).
I’ll focus on The Long Arm and return to the comparison later on. The narrative is based on a story by Robert Barr which he adapted with Janet Green for The Long Arm. Barr was a remarkable man who worked in newspapers, radio and then television. He was a radio features writer in 1946 who took the opportunities offered by the re-launched TV service, writing one of the first TV documentaries, a report on Germany under Allied Occupation. He then began to move between non-fiction and drama, focusing on police operations in the UK and becoming something of an expert on Scotland Yard. The Long Arm was the first appearance of his work on film but he was soon to be successful writing for popular TV crime fiction series, mostly police procedurals. He worked on both Z-Cars and its successor Softly, Softly in the 1960s and 70s. Scan down the credits for The Long Arm and you will find Stratford Johns as a Police Constable. Johns would eventually become one of the main stars of Z-Cars and then Softly, Softly. Barr’s collaborator on The Long Arm was Janet Green who had been an actor in the 1930s and subsequently a screenwriter and playwright, writing first for Rank on The Clouded Yellow (1950), an excellent chase thriller, and on another intriguing crime fiction, Eyewitness (also in 1956). She would become best-known for her later scripts for the Basil Dearden-Michael Relph partnership on films such as Sapphire (1959) and Victim (1961). In 1966 Green would be one of the three writers on John Ford’s last feature, 7 Women. I mention these links partly to highlight Ealing’s role in providing blueprints for TV drama series, especially ‘cop shows’ and also the work of ex-Ealing staffers like Dearden and Relph after Ealing collapsed.
The Long Arm was directed by Charles Frend, one of the central group of directors who made multiple films for Ealing. His thirteen films for Ealing comprise a diverse collection which includes major hits such as The Cruel Sea (1953), ‘prestige’ pictures such as Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and the children’s adventure The Magnet (1950). Frend’s reputation seems to have suffered a little since although he made some of Ealing’s best films he didn’t display the kinds of ‘personal vision’ beloved of the auteurists so he is not celebrated like Robert Hamer or Sandy Mackendrick. Nor did he make any of the well-known Ealing comedies. His Ealing career ended with Barnacle Bill in 1957. This was in fact a comedy with Alec Guinness, but like his earlier comedy effort A Run For Your Money (1949), it is now largely forgotten. Instead, I would argue Frend’s most interesting films are San Demetrio London (1943) about an oil tanker miraculously surviving during the Battle of the Atlantic, The Cruel Sea (1953) and Lease of Life (1954).
The plot of The Long Arm pits Halliday against a clever criminal who manages to open the safes of various companies in Central London, the first of which is virtually under the noses of the police. The script is intelligent, though whether it is plausible is open to question. The investigation is thorough and eventually leads to a finale played out on the South Bank by the Royal Festival Hall, then only a few years old. More interesting for me was to see the British European Airways Terminal close by. In the 1950s both BEA and BOAC had check-in buildings in the centre of London and BEA used the ‘Waterloo Airline Terminal’ between 1953 and 1957. The Long Arm was Ealing’s second police-focused drama following The Blue Lamp (1950). That film featured ‘beat bobbies’ and exciting car chases in what was also a ‘social problem’ drama dealing with younger and more reckless criminals. Gordon Dines photographed both films, but The Long Arm features a more ‘opened out’ investigation which takes Halliday out of London, visiting North Wales, and as well as featuring familiar Central London streets it includes Halliday’s home in a quiet street in Bromley.
So what does this all add up to and how does it compare to Ford’s film a year later? Jack Hawkins gives a very strong performance in both films but The Long Arm suffers from weaker roles for women. Despite the modernist poster at the head of this blog post, The Long Arm feels tired and already old-fashioned next to Gideon’s Day. On the other hand it is a proper investigation and in some ways it does indeed resemble the later TV police procedurals. Some crime fiction film fans try to promote it as an example of ‘British noir‘, but I can’t accept that label. There are plenty of night-time scenes but little else that is recognisable as part of the noir crime film repertoire. It is an acceptable Ealing ‘entertainment’ and it points towards later TV cop shows.