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.
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
The early 1950s has often been dismissed by critics as a weak period in British cinema, when British producers churned out war films and comedies that were popular but not very interesting. In reality this was a stable production period in which British films competed very well with a diminished Hollywood for a big share of over 1 billion cinema admissions annually in the UK. There were also some excellent films that are certainly worth re-visiting. The Long Memory is one of the best and over the last few years plenty of viewers seem to have found it (many on a DVD box set of John Mills performances). The first point of interest is its director Robert Hamer, the genius at Ealing whose later career was damaged by alcohol. Hamer left Ealing after making three well-received films, Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), It Always Rains on Sundays (1947) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). He’d also directed a segment to the portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945) and made uncredited contributions to San Demetrio, London (1943) and The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947). Charles Barr (in Ealing Studios, Movie, 1977) picks out Hamer (and Alexander Mackendrick) as the Ealing directors who showed most ‘personal continuity’ and exemplified the best of ‘mature Ealing’. It’s fairly typical that in a Guardian piece in 2004, Kevin Jackson ignores The Long Memory completely and focuses primarily on Kind Hearts and Coronets. Keith is a big fan of that fine film and writes about it on this blog, but I prefer the other Ealing films and The Long Memory.
Why Hamer left Ealing isn’t clear to me but the consensus seems to be that he had a conflict with studio head Michael Balcon and decided to strike out as a director for hire with various producers. The Long Memory is the third of his features in this freelance career. Although made for two small independents, Europa Films and British Filmmakers, it had the backing of Rank and was an ‘A’ release on the Odeon circuit in 1953 with a starry cast led by John Mills. Mills plays Phillip, a ‘wronged man’ first seen on the day of his release from prison, arriving back in London and then heading down the Thames to find a home in an abandoned barge near to Gravesend. He is followed by a plain clothes police officer. A flashback then reveals that he once had a girlfriend, Fay (Elizabeth Sellars) whose father was an old ship’s captain mixed up in smuggling. Phillip got caught up with the smuggling operation and following a fracas he was arrested and convicted of a crime he didn’t really commit. After 12 years inside he discovers that Fay is now married to a police Superintendent (played by John McCallum, one of Hamer’s actors from Ealing). Why did she betray him? Who else might Phillip want to seek out for revenge?
The Long Memory is notable for both its contemporary concerns – the arrival of refugees in the UK, the importance of smuggling and the black market in a period of austerity (rationing was still in force in 1952) – and its distinctive visual style. Oddly, its narrative doesn’t seem to acknowledge the war directly – Phillip would have been sent to prison in 1940. The film is strikingly shot, making use of the stark landscape of the estuary mudflats and the whole river environment as far up as Tower Bridge. The landscape is similar to the Romney Marsh wetlands of Kent and East Sussex on the South Coast which featured in The Loves of Joanna Godden. Douglas Slocombe, who shot that film, was still working at Ealing in 1952 and Hamer communicated his ideas to Harry Waxman, another distinguished British cinematographer whose previous titles included Brighton Rock (1947) and who would later shoot The Wicker Man (1973). Waxman covered much of the action in long shot on the mudflats and in beautifully orchestrated chase sequences. At other times the film takes on a noir atmosphere – the story, from a novel by Howard Clewes, a well-known ‘action’ novelist of the period, shares elements with several other British films of the post-war era. The ‘wronged man’, the black market and the revenge narrative were also the basis for They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), a classic British noir directed by Cavalcanti, Hamer’s mentor in his GPO Film Unit and early Ealing days. Basil Dearden, Hamer’s directing colleague at Ealing, made The Ship That Died of Shame in 1955 about a trio of ex-Navy men who run a smuggling boat until their confidence gets the better of them and in an actual Ealing film, Pool of London (1950), there are similar chase scenes through night-time London, as there are as well in the classic Jules Dassin film Night and the City (1950). British noir was strong for several years from 1947 through to the late 1950s (though it wasn’t described as such at the time) and Hamer certainly knew what he was doing. In a marvellous sequence, Phillip, the Mills character, watches a house in Gravesend throughout the night – and is in turn watched by the police. From inside the house, a frightened man peers through the letterbox to see Phillip framed half in the shadows but clearly visible.
Hamer began his career as an editor and in the second half of The Long Memory his editor Gordon Hales puts together an exciting chase sequence with parallel actions in different locations involving different couples whose lives are intersecting. This may be a relatively conventional crime thriller but it is presented with real flair and I wish I could see it on a big screen. Part of the pleasure is in recognising the array of British character actors – Geoffrey Keen as a principled investigative journalist on a Sunday tabloid, Peter Jones as a younger journalist with much to learn, John Slater as a rather dim-witted heavy, Thora Hird as his wife, Vida Hope, Laurence Naismith and more.
The Long Memory is fine as it is but it’s worth noting that the off relationship between Fay and Bob Lowther the police Superintendent seems to signal a growing interest in the domestic melodramas of the families of police officers in later police procedurals in the 1950s, both in the UK and the US. In the clip below the journalist and the police Superintendent discuss Phillip Davidson’s possible actions – does the journalist know that the woman he suggests is in danger is in fact the Superintendent’s wife? The clip includes some interesting location work (I love the sound of the steam train towards the end of the clip).