Hot on the heels of Network’s last rather excellent three-disc collection of the British-made Edgar Wallace second features, which were produced by Anglo Amalgamated at Merton Park Studios in the sixties, comes volume three, which kicks off with the 1962 thriller “Candidate For Murder”. A fair attempt to buck the trend of police procedurals and detective-driven thrillers, which, up till this point, have constituted the bulk of the material that makes up the first two of the released DVD volumes in this enjoyable mystery series, this particular picture is perhaps more notable still for being the one that introduced its lead, Michael Gough, to his second wife, soon-to-be “Doctor Who” companion Anneke Wills -- who has a small supporting role in it playing the house maid his character takes rather a shine too. In fact Gough is furnished with a major role here by screenwriter Lukas Heller (“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”, “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte”) which will be pretty much lapped up by fans of the actor, in which he’s the archetypal calculating, brooding, petulant control freak who, jealous of his actress wife’s developing friendship with a young barrister acquaintance, arranges for a German contract killer to fly in from France to murder her on the eve of her planned flight to LA -- where she is due to start work on a new Hollywood film, finally away from the controlling influence of her estranged husband for good.
Gough’s performance, alongside Austrian-born Hans von Borsody who plays Kersten the suave, tight-lipped hit man, is a prime instance of the actor doing what he did best during this stage of his career through a succession of low budget films such as “Horrors of the Black Museum” or memorable appearances in popular shows such as “The Avengers” -- where he would play a series of fiendishly insane sociopaths who veil their askew moral compass behind an acid-tongued cloak of sophistication and tart urbanity. Here, the actor gets to provides us with a demonstration piece that includes the full gamut of the traits harnessed by his propensity for essaying such evil-minded screen characters, this time in the guise of one Donald Edwards – who starts off hardly able to contain himself with prurient curiosity when he first meets up with the professional killer he’s hired at a disused outhouse on an abandoned farm, inside which he’s arranged to give Kersten his written instructions -- wanting to know ‘what it feels like’ to kill someone and ‘how they react’ when his victims first realise they’re going to die … then sulking when the killer refuses to discuss such matters. The first half of this hour-long feature builds up a steady sense of anticipation as Edwards baits his understandably wary wife Helene (Erika Remberg, “Circus of Horrors”) about her relationship with ‘her boyfriend’, barrister Robert Vaughan (John Justin, later to appear with Gough again in Ken Russell’s “Savage Messiah”); then, when Kersten turns up at Helene’s going-away party, she suspects her devious husband is up to something and perhaps aiming to do her enthusiastic would-be suitor harm. But the person who’s really in his sights is a lot closer to home. The second act turns into a game of cat & mouse between Kersten and Gough when the hit man claims to have fulfilled his side of the contract and disposed of Helene’s body; the ever-suspicious Edwards doesn’t believe him, and withholds the payment until he has proof. Meanwhile, a distraught Robert follows Edwards to the farmhouse rendezvous point after Helene fails to turn up at the airport for her flight to LA. Gough’s mini-portrait of Edwards’ gradual disintegration, his smarmy overconfidence becoming a wreckless, dangerous paranoia as the original plan gets more and more complicated, is what keeps the film’s rather contrived plotting on the road, although the motivation for one key character at the denouement never really fully convinces. Still, it constitutes a fair start, though, to this third volume of black & white ‘60s features, and character actor Paul Whitsun-Jones makes a noticeable impression as an annoying party guest.
The second film indirectly continues the “Doctor Who” connection started by Anneke Wills’ brief presence in the first one, when Debra Watling’s dad Jack Watling turns up in the intricately plotted “Flat Two”, which stars John Le Mesurier (“Dad’s Army”) as a barrister caught up in a complicated murder case. Shady casino boss Emil Louba (David Bauer, “Diamonds Are Forever”) tries to take advantage of naïve young gambler Susan (Ann Bell, “Dr Terror’s House of Horrors”, “Tenko”) by offering to pay the £10,000 pound debt she’s run up at his roulette table -- so long as she agrees to go away with him on a Mediterranean holiday. Her outraged architect fiancé Frank Leamington (Watling) himself takes advantage of the convenient fact that he designed the very apartment building Louba lives in, gaining entry to the building via the pull-down fire escape and planning to confront the scoundrel over his abuse of his position. Unfortunately, Louba’s rather shady past also comes back to haunt him when an associate from his days spent running a club in Malta during the Second World War, Charles Berry (Barry Keegan), turns up on the same night for an appointment at which he’s planning a spot of blackmail, and an unscrupulous desk clerk at the apartment (Charles Lloyd Pack), unaware of Leamington’s presence in the flat, arranges for Berry to rob Louba’s wall-safe while he’s out. The up-shot of all this is that Leamington and Berry find themselves creeping about the same darkened apartment at the same time; and when Inspector Hurley Brown (Campbell Singer) and his friend Warden (John Le Mesurier) also turn up having earlier arranged a meeting with Loube, and instead find his body in the bathtub with his skull shattered by a blunt object, they’re presented with two likely suspects for the crime, each one of which suspects the other of being the guilty party thanks to this over-elaborate set-up. A convoluted back-story involving a bad marriage in Malta and a range of suspects and motives can’t disguise the identity of the real murderer from anyone who’s watched enough of these deftly constructed British thrillers, but Mesurier, Singer and Bernard Archard (making his third out of a total of four appearances as various investigating officers brought in on the case -- this time he’s called Inspector Trainer) keep the interest ticking along as the plot does cartwheels trying to throw the viewer off the scent.
“The Share Out” is another in the sub-series of mysteries that star the Bond franchise’s Bernard Lee in his semi-regular role as the doughty, Mackintosh-clad Superintendent Meredith. This time he has a white collar gang in his sights after tracking a property scam involving a company -- Calderwood Ltd. -- which employs private detectives to dig up dirt on prospective clients which then enables the board to blackmail them into selling their high value properties at a knock-down price. The board consists of five altogether -- led by Colonel Calderwood (Alexander Knox, who played Control in the 1979 TV version of “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy”)) -- and has already amassed a small fortune to be divided between the group in the form of diamonds which are kept in an office safe that requires all five of their individual keys in order to open it. When one of Calderwood’s Private Investigators turns out to be trying to cut a deal with Meredith, he’s ruthlessly bumped off; but Scotland Yard’s finest has already strong-armed his replacement, Mike Stafford (“Doctor Who’s” William Russell), into informing on the gang’s future activities. It turns out that none of the company board members now trusts any other, and everyone is trying to do over the rest in order to remain the last man standing when the dust settles. Mike reports back to Meredith that the first investigation Colonel Calderwood has assigned him is to look into the loyalty of company Secretary Diana Marsh (Moira Redmond): meanwhile, the other board members, Crewe (Richard Vernon) and Monet (John Gabriel), circle each other warily. And so, with Meredith’s consent, Stafford sets about sowing as much mutual suspicion and discontent among them all as possible, while Scotland Yard turns up the heat on individual members to encourage them to further question each-other’s loyalties. Stafford risks blowing his cover in order to persuade Diana to work with the police when she realises Calderwood is having her investigated. But then another member of the board turns up dead aboard Diana’s houseboat, and the paranoia goes into overdrive as each of the remaining four suspects the other. This is an efficient enough little police thriller with a winning performance from Russell issuing from a period just before he set foot aboard the TARDIS as schoolteacher Ian Chesterton for the next three years. Moira Redmond was developing a neat line in prim, beautiful but deceptive secretary types in this series and although, once again, it’s not too difficult to guess the last minute twist, it makes for a cynical development that gives this Philip Mackie- scripted effort something to remember it by.
Scotland Yard are up to more tricks in “Number Six”. When Detective Superintendent Hallett (Michael Goodliffe, Hunter 2 in “Callan”) gets word that suave, globetrotting lady killer Charles Valentine (Ivan Desny) is back in London, he decides to keep him under strict surveillance with the help of an anonymous agent known only by the code name number 6. Not even Hallett’s own subordinates at the Yard know the secret identity of this crack agent: Valentine has a habit of taking up with rich young heiresses who wind up dead as soon as he’s married them, but in each instance he always seems to have an alibi. Valentine soon finds out he’s being kept an eye on by Hallett, but he doesn’t know who’s doing the monitoring. That doesn’t stop him making his moves on his next victim, though: fabulously wealthy Nadia Leiven (Nadja Regin). Hallett always seems to know all about his discreet meetings with this young lady at Valentine’s remote country cottage, but the fraudster thinks he’s worked out who the spy in his camp is and sets about removing this unwanted hindrance on his movements … This is another of those pre-James Bond, pre-swinging London-set sophisticated metropolitan thrillers full of tasteful Kensington town house locations and jazzy, ‘50s style nightclubs; Valentine is a slick, pencil-moustached lothario whom ladies swoon at even when they know he’s probably murdered five other women. The viewer is invited to guess the identity of the mysterious agent who’s out to thwart Valentine’s plot and there are the usual range of suspicious red herring associates who seem too good to be true, and of course are: there’s Valentine’s beady-eyed valet Welland (Leonard Sach); Nadia’s equally unscrupulous driver, Smith (Harold Goodwin); blonde nightclub singer and former girlfriend Carol (Joyce Blair); and Valentine’s trainee spiv partner Jimmy Gale (Brian Bedford). The solution becomes obvious about twenty minutes from the end, and this is a relatively average entry in the series with an unspectacular reveal; it’s a quaint period piece though and watchable enough.
“Time to Remember” is one of the stronger entries in this particular volume, with Harry H. Corbett starring as an ambitious estate agent who stumbles into trouble involving some hidden stolen diamonds and jewellery. The action starts in a wintery part of west London with David Lodge heading a gang of burglars who’re busy plotting to blow the safe of a spacious town house, the wealthy owner of which, Lady Cumberland, has just died. Their efforts are thwarted by over-eagerness and a determined patrolling bobby; only the French safe-cracker, Victor (Robert Rietty) -- especially flown in for the job by the boss -- and his driver Sammy (Ray Barrett,) get away with the collection of priceless stamps Victor was promised for taking part in the raid. Everybody else is rounded up except gang leader ‘Jumbo’ Johnson, who flees back into the house and plants the jewellery already extracted from the safe in one of the house’s many chimneys, while attempting to make a getaway across the rooftops. Unfortunately he slips in a struggle with one of the police officers who have by now been called to the scene, falling to what turns out to be his death -- although not before he gets to muddy the waters by telling the police that Victor had all the diamonds and jewels with him when he flew out of the country. He also manages to convey the true location of the loot to his wife (Genine Graham) before dying of his fatal injuries. In France Victor is forced to go on the run after Johnson’s attempt to frame him as a diversion, and his girlfriend Suzanne (Hammer starlet Yvonne Monlaur, “The Brides of Dracula”) is contacted by Sammy in Paris, who is convinced the haul must still be in the vicinity of the town house’s London Eaton Street address. Meanwhile Mrs Johnson contacts small-time estate agent Jack Burgess (Harry H. Corbett) of Burgess & Company (the ‘company’ being his fiancée-secretary Vera [Patricia Mort]) in an attempt to buy the house her husband died attempting to rob. This lengthy preamble brings us to an excellent little thriller in which Corbett plays another of his regular small-guy-tries-to-better-himself-and-fails-miserably roles. Even when he was cast as a detective in one of the other thrillers in this series he was still a working class scholarship boy from a Grammar School who was out to prove himself the equal of his public school superiors in the force. Here he’s a struggling provincial agent who’s girlfriend is about to leave him and who sees an opportunity to greatly improve his prospects when he pieces together the chain of events which have led Mrs Johnson to attempt to purchase the house. Unfortunately, things don’t play out as planned and Corbett’s increasing agitation as he becomes embroiled deeper and deeper in a very deadly business provides the core interest of an entertaining fifty-eight minutes.
“Solo For Sparrow” is another curiosity: written by “Public Eye” creator Roger Marshall and directed by Gordon Flemyng (“Doctor Who and the Daleks”) this also features Michael Cain in a small role as one of the heavies in a gang of ruthless, smartly suited heisters who kill an old spinster, left to lock up a high-street jewellery store, after they kidnap her and steal her keys. There’s a tougher edge to the handling of the inevitable police investigation which dominates subsequent events: rather than the usual stiff-upper-lipped Scotland Yard crew shown proceeding smoothly through their inquiries, here politics is involved and the Yard are only brought in by Superintendent Allan Cuthbertson (inhabiting his usual bureaucratic persona) in order to remove any potential for risk to his own reputation should a local inquiry go badly. His top man, Insp. Sparrow (Glyn Houston), is put out to pasture on the case but decides to conduct his own unofficial investigation nonetheless. “Softly, Softly” star Houston is a prototype Jack Regan or Callan – a maverick, but still operating within the cosy world established by the Merton Park series, just willing to bend the rules a bit in order to flush out the gang using his underworld connections and by applying the heat to his suspected weak link, which turns out to be Reynolds, the Jewellery shop owner (Anthony Newlands). Unfortunately the gang’s leader, played by Michael Coles, finds out that Sparrow is working on his own and arranges his kidnap, then plots to murder him. The socially stratified world of early-sixties Britain is hinted at here, when it is revealed that Sparrow’s prospects of promotion have been dented by his recent divorce. Cain’s role is limited to providing background muscle for the gang and the occasional attempt at an Irish accent, although he does get into a gunfight for the climax, and is disarmed by having a chicken thrown at him! The final scenes take place in the same farmland location used in “A Candidate for Murder” and Wanda Ventham turns up briefly as a waitress.
The final film in the Merton Park series for this volume is “Playback” -- writer Robert Banks Stewart’s attempt at a British Film Noir, Chelsea style! Barry Foster (“Frenzy”) plays PC Dave Hollis, easy meat for perfectly poised German-accented Femme Fatale Lisa Shillack (Margit Saad), who is so obviously up to no good she might as well come with a sign pinned to her saying ‘I’ll get you hanged!’ Hollis’ association with Shillack turns bad from the off when he stops to help her get back inside her mews flat when he finds her locked out of her garage while on his night patrol, and is charmed into hanging about for a nightcap and some flirting, which causes him to miss a robbery taking place further on down the road on his beat! Obliged to lie about his reasons for not being where he was supposed to be during the raid Hollis then has to call back to retrieve the police lamp he left in the young lady’s garage, and gets to meet her bland but harmless businessman husband, who, of course, turns out to be worth a bob or two and keeps valuable jewellery locked up in his home safe. Hollis starts wining and dining Shillack on a policeman’s wage, at a swanky Country Club casino that makes the most of recently liberalised gambling laws, but is still run by dubious sorts like Ralph Monk (Nigel Green) -- who beats up Hollis for previous unpaid debts. Now needing money fast and still bitter over having been turned down flat for a plainclothes job at the CID (his reckless pursuit of Shillack has even cost him this promotion), Hollis is easy to manipulate into agreeing to murder Lisa’s husband with the man’s own gun, in a scheme she’s already worked out in advance (surely a cause for concern to even the most smitten of suitors?) Naturally, Shillack is playing an even more devious game and Hollis soon finds himself wanted for a capital offence and wounding a police officer (his recently promoted colleague, played by Victor Pratt). It all winds up rather predictably of course thanks to the usual noir theme of fate (Banks Stewart follows the noir convention of starting from the end of the story and then playing back events to show how they got started), but Foster’s fall from grace is mercilessly and succinctly catalogued and Foster manages to make Hollis sympathetic, for all his stupidity.
Once again, we end this volume with one of the series of precursors to the Edgar Wallace films, produced at Beaconsfield Studios in 1959 and included as an extra. “Breakout” turns out to be another little gem, directed by Peter Graham Scott with American lead Lee Patterson as fixer George Munroe, who is employed by some underworld associates to help spring Hazel Court’s husband from prison in the back of a grocery delivery van while he’s on leave from his job as a town planner! Court appears only fleetingly but is utterly enchanting here; Terence Alexander plays one of the Oxford educated gang paid to organise the jail-break, while all the while carrying on a dalliance with Court behind his incarcerated client’s back (who can blame him!) and a very young Billie Whitelaw plays Patterson’s dissatisfied other-half (and looks and sounds like Paloma Faith). There’s a lovely little turn from Dermot Kelly as a stereotypical Irishman called O'Quinn, who’s paid to get himself banged up for affray so that he can pass on information to the would-be escapee. This little film holds the attention nicely as it follows the planning and the execution (which naturally doesn’t run too smoothly!) and the inevitable dénouement of the plot, managing also to include some enjoyable character moments along with the suspense along the way.
As always this third collection of second features comes with a booklet written by Kim Newman and a gallery of stills. The Merton Park formula is by this stage well-established but feels no less enjoyable for that. The collection includes a nice, rounded mix of procedurals and gritty Brit crime thrillers, with the usual plethora of reliable cast members and up-and-coming names -- as well as intricate plotting from some of British film and TV’s finest writers. If you’ve enjoyed the previous two sets, this will prove no less entertaining to you.
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