This quintessentially British thriller from director Ralph Thomas, here working under the aegis of renowned independent producer Betty E. Box (the pairing later responsible for 1954's comedy hit "Doctor in the House", and the subsequent long-running series it spawned culminating in 1970 with "Doctor in Trouble" ) is a convincing attempt at adapting the Hitchcock thriller format to a brisk, post-war English setting, and plays almost like a 'Hitch's Greatest Hits' of plot points and set-pieces. Its sleeve-worn influences range right across the Master of Suspense's formidable oeuvre to include ideas from Hitchcock's great British high-point in the '30's, "The 39 Steps", while incorporating elements of the glossy '40's Hollywood Selznick collaborations, such as the Freudian psychological thriller "Spellbound": the kind of high concept project Hitchcock was especially attracted to as an escape from the pinched provincial manners still dominating the terminally middle-class representations available to British cinema at the time. The intriguingly titled "The Clouded Yellow" is built around the time-honoured 'innocent man on the run' plot to which Hitchcock would continue to return throughout his career in any number of picaresque chase thrillers, but the story puts a neat spin on the format which allows it also to include low-key traces of the kind of sinister Gothic allusions found in films like "Rebecca" or "Notorious" - with lost childhood memories, murderous emotional suppressions and simmering neurosis all helping to join the dots as the film zips from a charming English countryside idyll to the inevitable, climactic chase and confrontation sequence at a smoky Liverpool City docks - via an extended, middle-section chase across the rivers and hills of the Lake District in summertime.
Dapper wartime spy David Somers ("Brief Encounter"s Trevor Howard) finds himself called back to ration-conscious austerity Britain by Secret Service Chief André Morell ("Quatermass and the Pit"), only to take the rap and get the sack for his role in a bungled mission - despite his being 'the best man they have' ('HAD should be the operative word, old chap,' counters Morell curtly). Cast adrift from his old life of adventure, risk and danger, Somers winds up taking a temporary summer job cataloguing the butterfly collection of elderly, mild-mannered lepidopterist Nicholas Fenton (Barry Jones), at the genial old duffer's Hampshire country cottage deep in the New Forest. Something to take his mind off his troubles, and keep him away from the hubbub of London - so he thinks. Still, his worried ex-chief sends former colleague, Shepley (Kenneth More), to keep a secretive eye on him, just in case. Also residing in the apparently idyllic cottage is Fenton's younger wife, Jess (Sonia Dresdel) and her sultry orphaned niece, Sophie Malraux (Jean Simmons). "She gets things muddled," Mrs Fenton nervously tells Somers, and it soon becomes obvious that the dreamy young lady lives a life of forced seclusion, rarely being allowed to venture much further than the fields and gardens surrounding the house, and being zealously shielded from any contact with the male sex by her overtly prickly Aunt. Sophie even has to play her piano in secret, Somers stumbling upon the girl being scolded for the crime when Mrs Fenton catches her at the forbidden keyboard one evening. The aunt explains that Sophie's father was a world famous pianist who murdered his wife - Sophie's mother - and then committed suicide, and that the girl must be protected from the memory of this traumatic event, which she may well have witnessed.
Nevertheless, Somers' quiet, industrious days of butterfly cataloguing are frequently disrupted by the arrival of mean-spirited, greasily pompadoured poacher-cum-handyman, Hick (Maxwell Reed); who, it soon becomes apparent, has been conducting an illicit sex-based relationship with Jess, and also has a wandering eye on Sophie (who remains ambivalent despite her inveterate loneliness), inspiring suspicion and jealously from the girl's smitten Aunt. When the unpleasant fellow ends up dead - stabbed to death with Sophie's missing letter-opener - and bloodstains are found all over the girl's dress, the police see it as an open & shut case, especially since Sophie is forced to admit that she did leave her bed in the middle of the night of the killing. Somers is convinced that the girl is being set up though, perhaps even by her own aunt, and the ex-spy is soon calling on all his old skills and the network of contacts he's built up over the course of his previous career, to take Sophie on the run and in to hiding - evading the police and Somers' old Secret Service colleagues (who're embarrassed by his escapades and so send Shepley to track him down) alike - until he can discover the identity of the real killer and clear the girl's name.
On one level, the title of the film obviously alludes to Sophie's plight when Somers initially finds her at the cottage; she's caught like one of Fenton's delicate butterflies in a net of her aunt's neuroses and jealousies, to the apparent unconcern of her uncle. "Be careful when you put them back in this drawer, in case you disturb the specimens," Mr Fenton tells Somers when showing him his treasured collection; the same could be said of Sophie, protected from almost all interaction with the world as she is, to the extent that Jess is deliberately colluding in making the girl think she gets ideas muddled and needs her aunt & uncle's protection. When she goes on the run with Somers, the British newspapers waste no time in christening Sophie "The Butterfly Girl" ('as elusive as a butterfly', witters the text of one front page story). But it is also the case that David Somers is just as pinned down in the Hampshire countryside - his old boss still monitoring his movements, perhaps in case he should choose to spill the beans on the Intelligence Services. ("I used to be a newspaper man," he ominoulsy reminds the Chief just before being given the push.) This being the case, he is more than eager to convince Sophie to go on the run when the situation looks bleak; it means a chance to resume the excitement of his old life, making use of all the skills and experiences gleaned in his Secret Service years during which he organised escape bids from occupied territories during the war, and from behind the Iron Curtain in the years afterwards. Soon he is re-making contact with a host of former colleagues, such as a passport forger in a Newcastle taxidermist shop (a scene that actually prefigures a similar one in Hitchcock's remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much"), while also making use of the man's bubbly daughter to act as a diversion when some detectives threaten to track the couple down. An elderly Jewish doctor and his wife, whom Somers helped escape during the war, are only too pleased to help out, and while staying with them, Sophie discovers, with the help of doctor's careful probing, that suppressed childhood memories hold the key to her situation. Then there are the Chinese people-smugglers who are tasked with getting the girl out of the country. These secondary characters all help bring even more of a quirky Hitchcockian feel to the film.
Unlike Hitchcock though, who often avoided location filming preferring the controlled environment of the studio and resorting to back projection whenever possible (an outdated cinematic convention that seems even more artificial now than it did back in the '50s), director Ralph Thomas makes heavy use of featured locations, adding plenty of flavour to the ensuing flight across the UK; from the idyllic New Forest countryside to the crowded, poster-plastered Holborn Underground, to the jostling working class environment of the cities of Newcastle and Liverpool, "The Clouded Yellow" occupies a very specific 50s milieu that adds even more interest and spice to its suspense thriller dynamics, thanks to the work of the great cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth ("2001: A Space Odyssey", "Tess", "Superman"). The centrepiece of the film is the extended chase across the Lake District, which is shot in a similar style to the scenes set in the Scottish countryside in "The 39 Steps" - and it is here that the film proves to be most in debt to Hitchcock in its appearance and in its inventive, suspense-generating scenarios. Thomas would go on to direct the 1959 remake of Hitchcock's British classic, and Kenneth More (who plays the agent charged with anticipating Somers' moves) played Richard Hannay in that version. With Benjamin Frankel's sweeping, romantic score and solid and endearing performances from Howard and the dark-eyed Simmons, whose relationship is never ever clarified as a romantic one (and there is certainly no Hitchcockian kinky stuff with handcuffs to be found here!), this is a clever and intriguing little thriller, that climaxes, in true Hitchcock fashion, with the real killer pursuing Sophie to the a slippery warehouse rooftop, with Somers swinging to the rescue on the end of a construction crane!
This DVD from Eureka Entertainment marks the film's second outing by the company, after the 2008 release was found to be missing about nine minutes of footage. Like that previous disc, this version is a bare bones affair (no trailer, no sub-titles) with an adequate, if not exactly tip-top, transfer, the only other difference besides the restoration of the cut footage being a revamped front-cover, which now boasts some attractive period poster art. The film is a must for any fan of classic British cinema though, and is well worth seeking out.