Network continue with their efforts to make widely available all 47 films in the British-made Edgar Wallace B-movie crime series, with the release of this second 3-disc volume of the black & white second features produced by Jack Greenwood for Anglo Amalgamated at Wimbledon’s Merton Park Studios in the early- to mid-1960s. Once again we’re presented with seven nicely restored prints of these likable cult offerings, together with the inclusion of one of the pre-series crime thrillers produced by Independent Artists Ltd in 1959. First up in the series proper on disc 1, though – after the, by now, cosily sinister Michael Carr theme accompanied by its spot-lit revolving bust of Wallace, set amid billowing mists – is “The Man at Carlton Tower”, directed by Robert Tronson, a man whose directing credits would later include stints on some of the best shows in British television, including episodes of “Callan” and “Armchair Theatre”. Familiar faces such as Nigel Green and Alan Cuthbertson immediately radiate the reassuring sense that you’re on safe ground during this twisty heist thriller in which Green plays a ruthless master jewel thief who guns down a bobby on night patrol (on those eerily empty London streets you always only see in ‘60s crime thrillers) in the opening minutes, after he’s disturbed lifting £100,000 pounds worth of valuables from the premises of a high street jewellery store. A very young and very blonde Nyree Dawn Porter (“The Protectors”) even turns up later as the lady of a country manor house that the mastermind might be using to hide the missing loot.
Writer Philip Mackie (“The Naked Civil Servant) delivers another impossibly complicated setpiece of choreographed deception, here, compacted neatly into 54 minutes. It gets kick-started when Cuthbertson’s Detective Superintendent Cowley of the Yard (basically the same kind of character Cuthbertson played in every film and TV series he ever made) asks for help from former head of the Criminal Investigation Unit in Rhodesia, Tim Jordan (Lee Montague) in tracking down the unfortunate policeman’s murderer, because the murdering thief’s methods appear to be exactly the same as an old nemesis of Jordan’s who used to operate out of Rhodesia, by the name of Lew Daney (Green) -- a thief who slipped Jordan’s net before he retired from police work with a comfortable inheritance and moved to London to live the life of slick-haired playboy based at the Carlton Hotel. Meanwhile, a former partner of Daney’s, Harry Stone (Alfred Burke, “Public Eye”), who Jordan earlier noticed attempting to book into the Carlton under a false name (until he noticed that Jordan was staying there too) makes contact with Daney, looking to go back into ‘business’ with him in smuggling his ill-gotten gains out of the country. During the course of investigating the convoluted case, Jordan does some easily transparent undercover work at Daney’s gentlemen’s club (‘where the men are ugly and the women beautiful’) and flirts with Daney’s embittered wife (Maxine Audley) who wants revenge on her cheating spouse; then later he takes his prey’s girlfriend (Porter) out to dinner too, this after being shot at in her country manor home, Clench House (‘you want the part of the case that involves meeting pretty girls, while we slave away here checking all the dreary details,’ moans Cowley). The case becomes increasingly imponderable because Jordan was always the kind of criminal mastermind who never made mistakes and never left clues, yet all of a sudden he’s leaving obvious trails all over the place -- almost as though he wants Jordan to know he’s behind the whole job. Terrence Alexander (“Bergerac”) also turns up as a bowtie and carnation-wearing spiv forger and former associate of Daney’s in this fairly unpretentious little British thriller, which remains watchable more for its cast than for having a particularly thrilling plot (the twist is easily guessable). Nevertheless, it’s a solid enough entry in the series.
Writer-producer Gerard Glaister (responsible for some classic shows such as “Secret Army” and “Colditz”) helms the following update of Wallace’s “The Clue of the Silver Key”. The set-up rather shows the tale’s nineteenth century origins perhaps, despite the sixties setting, with its ailing skinflint moneylender, Harvey Lane (Finlay Currie, looking disconcertingly like Steve Pemberton’s Oscar Lomax from “Psychoville” -- permanently ensconced in dressing gown and dark glasses and confined to a wheelchair) who refuses to allow his niece (played by a returning Jennifer Daniels from “Kiss of the Vampire”) to marry impoverished artist Gerry Dornford (Lyndon Brook) and threatening to write her out of his will altogether should she defy his decision. Naturally, the angry artist threatens murder, but when the old codger is indeed shot dead on the balcony of his townhouse-mansion the mystery turns into a complicated affair revolving around some forged cheques, a cache of mysterious promissory notes made out to an elusive businessman nobody can track down and a silver-painted, luminous key that’s found in the dead man’s pocket. A former employee of Lane’s also turns up dead, and It’s up to bad-tempered Superintendent Meredith of the Yard (played once again by Bernard Lee, otherwise known as M from the James Bond movies) and his right-hand man Sgt Anson (Stanley Morgan) to piece together what at first seems to be an extremely fractured case involving a rather great cast of British thesps such as Anthony Sharp as Dornford’s agent Mike Hennessey (“A Clockwork Orange”, “House of Mortal Sin”) and Patrick Cargill as Lane’s manservant and would-be detective Binny (Commissionaire Braithwaite in “Inspector Clouseau”). There’s a nice running subplot about a callow bobby (Derrick Sherwin, better remembered today for his brief stint as a producer on DOCTOR WHO, at the end of the ‘60s) who keeps earning Meredith’s ire for his fecklessness, but ends up coming good when his clumsiness incidentally ends up saving lives after the murderer is unmasked but turns out to be such a psychopath that he’s still perfectly willing to murder Meredith and several other members of the cast for pure pleasure anyway. The rather disparate plot elements come together quite satisfactorily after 57 minutes, and, as in a previous tale involving Bernard Lee’s Inspector Meredith, it involves various cast members posing as several different people using disguises to conceal their identity. Surprisingly, it all appears to make sense in the end.
One of the big names in British TV script writing for many decades was Richard Harris (“The Avengers”, “Public Eye”, “Shoestring”) who wrote the third film in this set. In fact, Detective Inspector Minter (played by Derek Farr), who gets called in to investigate a series of attempts made on the life of tubby, wavy-haired surplus supplies millionaire Frank Weyman (Richard Pearson), looks a lot like David Jason’s Inspector Frost in his shabby overcoat and tweed hat -- and Harris contributed a handful of episodes to that series in the early nineties. “Attempt to Kill”, directed by Royston Morley, is set in a quiet, picturesque village where any prospective guilty parties have only the local pub in which to confer, meaning Farr’s placid detective need only prop up the bar now and again with a pint in his fist, in order to see the petty lies of the chief suspects in this drama exposed in public. In this case, Frank has plenty of acquaintances who might have a motive for doing away with him: his estranged wife (Freda Jackson, “The Brides of Dracula”) who’s refusing his demands for a divorce while making her own demands for money; a disgruntled ex-employee (Denis Holmes) sacked for pestering the pretty secretary (Patricia Mort) Weyman is planning on marrying once his wife does agree to release him from his matrimonial bonds, unaware that his best friend, flaxen-haired motor mechanic Gerry Hamilton (Tony Wright), is also in love with her; and a vengeful, wheelchair-bound ex-business partner who’s been indulging in industrial espionage in order to undermine Weyman’s empire: any combination of all of them might be involved – and of course, there’s a will and a life insurance plan to complicate matters further, as well. As is frequently the way with most of these thrillers, the most likely suspect gets bumped off at the end of the second reel and Minter gathers the remaining ones in the drawing-room, Agatha Christie-style, in the final minutes for a detailed breakdown of how all the various intrigues fit together to provide the identity of the killer -- his investigations having been all the while accompanied by a lively jazz incidental score, in this case provided by Bernard Ebbinghouse.
With “Man Detained” writer Harris attempts a mini urban crime drama in West London with small-time burglar Frank Murray (Michael Coles, “Doctor Who and the Daleks”) thinking he’s hit the big time when he finds £10,000 in readies concealed in a box in the safe of central London’s Maple photographic studios, while he’s attempting to rob the place of its petty cash. When dutiful secretary Miss Simpson (Elvi Hale) phones the police, the owner of the establishment, Thomas Maple (Victor Platt), is unaccountably distraught about the fact, and persuades her that he’d already removed the big box of cash she’d accidently stumbled on in the safe the day before, and so there’s no need to make a big fuss. In reality Maple is involved in a counterfeiting scheme with devious foreign crook James Helder, played by ITC regular Paul Stassino (who at one point uses the pseudonym John Craven while extracting information from Simpson). When Maple seems to be going to pieces, Helder finishes him off, alerting Inspector Verity (series regular Bernard Archard) and Detective Sergeant Wentworth (Clifford Earl) to the rum goings on. To add insult to injury, Helder’s been dallying with the murdered man’s wife the whole time! There are some good moments in this otherwise straightforward drama – Elvi Hale’s mute discovery of her murdered boss, or Verity’s interview with Maple’s unfaithful wife, who doesn’t bother hiding her indifference at his death but assures the detective that this doesn’t indicate any guilt on her part because, ‘my father died when I was ten years old … and I didn’t even cry then.’ This story develops into a vehicle for Murray’s redemption when he ends up helping Scotland Yard to nail the cold blooded Helder after the police discover the counterfeit money in Murray’s poky flat on a routine check of the petty thieves on their books. This attempt at punchy contemporary crime drama is rather spoiled though, by the inability of the villain to match his ruthlessness with any equivalent skills in shooting straight: the faintly absurd conclusion sees him firing at Verity and the sundry policemen who’re hot in pursuit by this stage (with the usual jazzy incidental music accompanying them) across a patch of waste-ground near some railway sidings, but being unable to hit anyone, even at point blank range, except one of his own men, who isn’t even in his path at the time the gun goes off.
For “Never Back Losers” the series attempts something of a ‘hard-boiled’ gangster piece about bent turf accountants and small-time hoods, which spends most of its time in decidedly quaint suburban North London surroundings; but it does at least give us Patrick Magee exuding menace as a gang lord-cum-fruit machine magnate (apparently a lucrative market in 1961!) who enjoys playing poker in a smoky, dimly lit den, surrounded by sharp-suited henchmen. Although released near the end of 1961, this, like many films in the first part of the series, is distinctly 1950s in feel and appearance: Jack Hedley would grow up to be the dissolute frequenter of prostitutes Ltd Fred Williams, in Lucio Fulci’s notorious “New York Ripper”, but here we catch him in more innocent days as an ambitious young insurance claims investigator, Jim Matthews, who’s just been promoted from the floor of his firm’s accountancy office and finds himself immediately plunged into the seedy world of race fixing; except that the seediness in this genteel crime drama has a hard time asserting itself in the rather bland location surroundings used as the backdrops for this pleasant tale of intrigue. Matthews is given the job of investigating an accident claim after an experienced jockey, Wally Sanders (George Tovey), who was recently involved in suspected race fixing after coming last in a race he should have won easily, winds up in hospital with a broken neck, having been in a car crash which occurred in suspicious circumstances just days after the £2,000 pound policy was taken out. An array of sweaty backstreet bookmakers and a crook called ‘Lucky’ Ben Black (Magee) all seem to be at odds with each other over the matter, which makes it hard for Matthews to figure out who might be responsible for giving him a beating outside the Silver Moon members club. But it does bring him into contact with lovely club hostess Marion Palmer (Jacqueline Ellis), sister to Sanders’ replacement, Clive (Larry Martyn), who might himself be about to meet the same fate as the luckless Sanders. This rather mediocre entry is kept busy thanks to Magee’s enjoyable performance, but the script doesn’t make as much as it could out of its rival-race-fixing-gangs-and-rackets plotline, and the whole thing ends with the villain’s heavies being easily rounded up in the final seconds by whistle tooting bobbies, as though they were a crowd of errant schoolboys.
A quality director (Clive Donner) and a top-notch cast make “The Sinister Man” one of the better entries in this collection. Even the discovery of the body of dead Oxford scholar Professor Neil Rayburn, found floating down the Thames at the top of the film, is given extra weight simply by virtue of having the body dragged out of the weir by Wilfred Brambell, in what is effectively nothing but a cameo for the distinguished actor. Touches such as these throughout give the whole thing an extra bit of class which elevates it above many of its companions. Superintendent Wills (John Bentley) is the latest incorruptible Scotland Yard detective on the case, who finds himself drawn into the world of Oxford academia and international politics after it emerges that the murdered man was a scholar in Oriental studies and was secretly working on some pieces of recently discovered tablet that might help the independent state of Kytan counter the territorial claims of its unnamed neighbour (clearly we can exchange ‘Kytan’ for Tibet and the neighbour is meant to be China) by proving that the country has always historically been an independent territory and not part of its neighbour’s empire as claimed. These pieces of stone have gone missing at the same time as Rayburn though. Wills and his team end up in Oxford where Rayburn’s colleagues predictably have a variety of possible motives for being involved in offing him. Jacqueline Ellis stars again (this time a blonde instead of a brunette) as Elsa Marlowe, and Patrick Allen appears as a smarmy visiting American academic who’s got his eye on Elsa, as has Mitch Hallam (William Gaunt, “The Champions”). When the tarpaulin that the body was wrapped in is traced to a certain boat hire firm, the owner also winds up dead and showing signs of having been delivered “a death blow”: ‘I believe both this man and the Professor were victims of karate – the killer blow of Kento!’ opines the police pathologist, solemnly. This, of course, makes bowtie-wearing Japanese graduate student John Choto (Ric Young, “Alias”, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”) number one suspect on the police list when it is proved that he knows judo and one of Rayburn’s clay pipes is discovered in his rooms. The real villain is easy enough to work out, but this otherwise routine whodunit is enlivened with unusual amounts of location shooting on London streets and in Oxford itself. The authentic street life makes it fascinating enough in of itself as an historical piece, and Donner even drafts in a few passers-by for some crowd scenes. Naturally, the usual clichés about the inscrutability of the Orientals are given another workout, and just when you think you’ve gone a whole hour in a 1960s film which involved a largely Asian guest cast without Burt Kwouk making an appearance, he does actually turn up in the final scenes in a cameo as a guard. It was probably against the law for him not to back in those days!
“Backfire!” is quite unusual among the features on this volume in that half the running time is taken up with the lead-up and planning of a crime rather than a procedural investigation, and there is no real police involvement to speak of thereafter. Alfred Burke and Zena Marshall play two of the most cold-blooded and ruthless villains in the series, Mitchell and Pauline Logan – recently employed partners to the avuncular Bernard Curzon (Oliver Johnston), whose ailing family cosmetics firm has been in the process of going under ever since they took over the day-to-day running of his factory -- its recent lack of success all thanks to their introduction of a series of flop new product ranges while creaming off previous profits to pay for Pauline’s £7,000 fur coat and a luxury penthouse suite. When their unpaid suppliers start threatening to take action, Mitchell calls on the services of a psychopathic ‘fixer’, friend called Kyser (John Cazabon) who rigs up an automatic timer device attached to an explosives trigger to burn down the factory for the insurance pay-out, enabling the Logans to pay off their debts and keep a tidy little nest egg for themselves afterwards. Curzon vetoes the idea, but Mitchell and Pauline go ahead with it anyway. The plan takes a sinister turn though when Pauline realises that her fur coat has been left in the building on the night the ‘accident’ has been arranged to take place. Unable to let such a huge sum of money go up in smoke, Mitchell dashes over to the factory but finds that the cleaning lady has changed the day she usually works on the site, prompting him to take even more drastic action in order to make sure she can’t spill the beans on the scam. This entry is unusually hard-hitting since the people Mitchell starts bumping off without the slightest display of conscience have all had the first half of the film in order for their likability and innocence to be established. Noel Trevarthen stars as the young insurance claims adjuster Bryce, sent in to investigate; and Suzanne Neve (“UFO”) is Curzon’s innocent blonde secretary daughter, who is on the verge of becoming the evil pair’s next victim after discovering Pauline’s supposedly destroyed fur coat still around, hidden in her closet, in this enjoyable 1962 tale with some ‘groovy’ electric guitar-driven incidental music.
These seven thrillers are accompanied by a gallery of production stills and poster art for each title, along with PDF files of contemporary publicity materials which can be accessed by inserting disc three into a computer. In addition, another one of the series’ film precursors, produced by Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn for Independent Artists Ltd at Beaconsfield Studios (and distributed by Anglo Amalgamated), is included as an extra on the third disc: “The White Trap” is a 1959 film directed by Sidney Hayers, a reliable pair of hands who went on to have a solid career in American TV after directing mini classics “Circus of Horrors” and “Night of the Eagle”. It’s a bit of surprise, being a 57 minute long feature that feels considerably grittier than the main body of films included alongside it. Lee Paterson plays Paul Langley, an ex-army man wrongly convicted for smuggling, but unwilling to wait for his appeal claim to be heard because his ill wife is pregnant and just about to give birth to their child. Paterson stages a violent escape from a prison van that’s transferring him to the more secure Dartmoor prison after several previous escapes, and hooks up with an old army comrade who, back in the war, had escaped from a prison camp alongside him. The main body of the film revolves around a tightly constructed manhunt with the police staking out the hospital in which Langley’s wife is about to give birth and the man himself determined to slip into the building (the ‘white trap’ of the title) to pay her what could be one last visit, even though its corridors are crawling with detectives. The location shooting inside the white corridors of what looks like a real-life hospital gives this often suspenseful manhunt thriller an extra charge and, unlike the Edgar Wallace titles, not all of the detectives hunting Langley are entirely sympathetic while the tough conclusion is bitter sweet at best.
This taut thriller rounds-off another collection of easily digestible and thoroughly likable U certificate second features from the British cinema of the early-sixties. The set as usual also comes with a booklet of writing by genre expert Kim Newman. Highly recommended.