The fourth volume in Network’s on-going series of DVD box set releases showcasing the full range of second feature programmes produced for the Edgar Wallace Mystery series at Wimbledon’s Merton Park Studios, and distributed by Anglo Amalgamated in the 1960s, includes seven more very enjoyable examples of the series’ familiar house style, which, as always, attempt to update the turn-of-the century pulp crime tales of the famously prolific novelist with the aid of pre-swinging London settings and jazzy incidental scores. For this collection, Michael Carr’s ‘Man of Mystery’ theme has been given a pacey, up-tempo ‘pop’ arrangement, signalling the beginnings of an awareness of the youth market just as the pop scene was about to be turned on its head by the arrival of The Beatles.
Film one is “Locker 69”, which is about as generic an example of the series type as can be imagined, giving Norman Harrison – who was more usually an assistant director on a range of 1950s TV film series such as “William Tell” and “Interpol Calling” – the chance to take up position in the main director’s seat for a change in what is a pretty talky, typically twist-laden affair, incorporating the usual range of what are -- by now -- series standards: there’s a lushly staged nightclub scene half way through, with one of the female leads getting to perform in an musical interlude (in this instance twice!); there’s a murder in which the victim’s body mysteriously goes missing; a selection of ‘herrings’ painted a deep shade of red; a locked safety deposit box (in South America, apparently -- although it might just as well be in Scunthorpe since we don’t even get any cursory stock footage to sell the idea); and, of course, the usual Scotland Yard investigation – although this time, the pipe-smoking Inspector Boom (John Glyn-Jones) rather takes a backseat and lets a former bodyguard of the missing/murdered man (Walter Brown) and a newspaper reporter (played by habitual supporting artist Eddie Byrne, here getting a shot at leading man duties) handle most of the work.
This is a fairly run-of-the-mill, formulaic entry despite the tricksy plotting (and if you’ve watched all the others, you’ll guess the ‘twist’ without too much difficulty), which probably could have easily tripped off the typewriter of screenwriter Richard Harris in his sleep. The standard set up involving feuding business partners in an international trading company (in this case a food export firm) provides the initial hook: when Bennett Sanders (Edward Underdown) hires an ex-policeman turned PI as a bodyguard after receiving a series of threatening letters, the later discovery of his body at his house, and an attack upon the PI by a masked intruder, leaves the finger of suspicion pointing at his twitchy associate, Frank Griffiths (series regular Paul Daneman). The involvement of two glamorous young women, nightclub hostess Julie Denver (Penelope Horner) and Eva Terila -- the sister of a young man who has a grudge against Sanders (played by Hammer’s “The Plague of Zombies’” villain John Carson) muddies the waters further. Newsman Simon York (Byrne) is brought into the case by an anonymous tip off; and a posthumous message from Sanders asking for documents stored in a deposit box in South America to be removed by Craig the bodyguard should anything happen to him, leads to the discovery of a complex plot to cover up some unethical business practices. This is a methodical, solidly constructed episode in the series, but there is little in it that makes it stand out from the crowd.
One of the things that makes “Death Trap” – directed by John Moxey (“The City of the Dead”) – stand out in comparison, is the casting of Barbara Shelley at her most ravishingly beautiful; and viewers might also be amused by a brief appearance from Barbara Windsor, playing a character (imaginatively named ‘Babs’), who crops up as a flatmate to one of the main cast members half-way through, and who’s seen exiting the shower, scantily clad in only a bath towel, to answer the door to Kenneth Cope of “Randall and Hopkirk” fame!
Shelley is the shifty secretary of stoic solicitor Paul Heindrick (Albert Lieven, “The Guns of Navarone”), who secretly listens in on her boss’s private meetings with his errant step-son Derek Maitland (Kenneth Cope) while the junior partner is happily admitting to embezzling company monies from under his step dad’s nose. She’s also listening when the sister of a former client (Mercy Haystead) now deceased turns up, enquiring about the firms dealings with her dead sibling and the suspicious circumstances surrounding her sister’s supposed suicide on the day she mysteriously withdrew £7,000 of her life savings, which have now disappeared. The secretary, Jean Anscombe, is also involved with a former employee, Ross Williams (John Meillon), who was once imprisoned for stealing from the company and now wants revenge on his former boss; Heindrick’s apparent involvement in such murky goings-on would appear to provide Ross with the perfect means of blackmail. Maitland’s also seemingly up to no good, and when a midnight meeting between Williams and Heindrick results in a murder (part of an atmospherically filmed night sequence with a misty woodland setting that recalls some of the material Moxey shot for “The City of the Dead”) it’s up to shrewd Inspector Simons (Leslie Sands) to sift through the complex mix of character motives to find the truth behind the matter. This enjoyable crime thriller benefits enormously from the light-hearted set pieces which come between bouts of sleuthing, clue gathering, and the multi-layered intrigue served up by Shelley, Lieven and Cope -- such as the aforementioned Barbara Windsor cameo, and a sequence involving Richard Bird as a vagrant on the lookout for a reward for his discovery of an abandoned car used in the murder.
“The Set-Up” is another film in the series which has its standard mix of Edgar Wallace ingredients enhanced by an enjoyable guest appearance or too, in this case an elderly and eccentric family grocer played by Reginald Barratt, who turns up as a witness with vital information, whereupon a lovely little scene between he and John Carson’s Inspector Jackson plays out, all completely unnecessary as far as plot goes but allowing writer Roger Marshall to inject some character and humour into proceedings to lift a familiar mix of set-ups and double crosses above the generic formula the series is so often in danger of lazily relying on by this stage in the game. A ‘strangers on a train’ scenario kicks off this round of super-involved plotting when Maurice Denham plays a kindly well-to-do traveller who steps in to pay the train fare of recently released convict Arthur Payne (Brian Peck) and befriends him with an offer of possible future work as a driver, taking his name and address for future reference. The keen student of the British Wallace series is by now already alert to the possibility of trouble in this seemingly benign act of kindness and sure enough, Payne is soon paid a visit at his river barge residence (we’ve seen the same one in several of these films) by a well-spoken blonde-haired man (Anthony Bate) who spins him a yarn about paying Payne to help him take revenge on his soon-to-be-ex-wife by having him steal some jewellery from a safe in the couple’s home. In reality, he (his real name is Ray Underwood) and Maurice Denham’s character are in cahoots: Theo Gaunt (Denham) wants to murder his wife, and Payne is being framed for the crime; the house he’s to burgle is actually Gaunt’s, and Underwood telephones the residence to rouse Gaunt’s wife while Payne is still in the middle of opening up the safe, forcing him to quickly flee the scene. But not before he’s handled the gun inside the safe that Gaunt will later kill her with, but which will now have Payne’s fingerprints all over it. Underwood meanwhile, will provide his pal with an alibi.
This film is distinguished by a laughably mild attempt to inject some sleaze into the series when we get to view Underwood hosting a ‘risqué’ private cine-film screening of a homemade ‘nudie cutie’ in his study, for Gaunt and some other business partners. We’re told the film has been shot with a telephoto lens aimed at a beach in France, but it turns out merely to show three middle-aged women in bikinis playing idly with a beach ball; nevertheless, the well-to-do party of voyeurs perv over it as though it were the sauciest piece of ‘stag film’ ever shot. Again, Marshall’s script attempts to add interest to Payne’s efforts to clear his name by creating a relationship history between him and Carson’s investigating police Inspector, Jackson: the Inspector once fell for Payne’s patter and gave him a chance to go straight, but it was a trust which the former convict then betrayed, and Jackson was soon forced to arrest him once again. After being framed for the murder of Guant’s wife, Payne manages to persuade a young woman (Pamela Greer), who’s home he breaks into while on the run, of his innocence -- but Jackson is now considerably less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Anthony Bate is typically oily as Gaunt’s smug associate, Underwood and Maria Corvin plays the conniving femme fatale who tempts Maurice Denholm into the plot with aplomb. All in all, this is a well-written and nicely played variation on familiar material.
Anton Diffring (“Circus of Horrors”) heads the cast in an unusually edgy thriller penned by Arthur La Bern, “Incident at Midnight”. Diffring plays debonair, drug dealing Doctor Erik Leichner whose dodgy side-business involves him in the activities of all sorts of seedy characters, including a hard-headed blonde blackmailer (Jacqueline Jones). Tucked away in minor roles amongst the cast of this one are Warren Mitchell as the dispenser at an all-night pharmacy and Geoffrey Palmer as the doctor who discovers the unfortunate blonde drug courier’s body in the flat that Dr Leichner’s been cheating with her on his wife (Sylva Langova) in. The plot is arranged in such a way as to make it hard to follow who’s fooling who for most of the fifty-four minutes, during which time most of the action takes place on the premises of an all-night London pharmacy in the company of a mysterious woman in a mink coat (Justine Lord) who appears to be casing the joint, and a disgraced former doctor (Martin Miller) by the name of Schroeder, who was struck off the medical register for his narcotics abuse, and now hangs out here every night, waiting for his prescription drugs. When a trio of criminals involved in a warehouse drugs raid, in which one of them was critically injured gate-crashing the establishment, demand Schroeder treat their injured pal the plot thickens around a planned exchange of keys between the gang’s cocky leader Brennan (Tony Garnett) and a contact working for Leichner. A climactic chase through Piccadilly Underground (opposite a large poster for the Daily Worker!) adds some period location authenticity to this unusually stark, noirish urban-set episode.
The convolutions which the plots of films such as the above are required to undergo in the space of the fifty-five minutes or so that these second features tend to last are as nothing compared with the contortions experienced during the Philip Mackie scripted “The £20,000 Kiss”. Michael Goodliffe plays Sir Harold Trevitt – a middle-aged solicitor and MP who seems to have it all going for him: he’s about to marry the daughter of Lord Clandon (John Miller), a bigwig in (what we can safely presume to be) the Conservative Government of the day, and can look forward to a cushy seat in the heart of the cabinet as a result. As long as he keeps his nose clean that is, and doesn’t get involved in any of the sort of political scandals that were all the rage in British politics in 1963, when this was released. Of course he promptly manages to get himself photographed in the arms of the wife of his neighbour, one Leo Hagen (Anthony Newlands), who lives in the flat opposite his own swanky Knightsbridge pad. The plot is the work of the Hagens’ maid, Paula Blair (Mia Karam), who blackmails Maxine Hagen (Dawn Addams) by threatening to send the photographs to her husband if she doesn’t pay her £5,000. Trevitt employs private detective John Durran (Richard Thorp) to help him get out of this sticky situation with his reputation still intact, but matters are soon complicated by the sudden death of Blair and Leo Hagen’s own subsequent attempt at blackmail, which come about because he provided Trevitt with a hunting pistol that the MP was intending to use to scare the girl off on the night of her demise. The twists and turns in this one get so complicated that even Alfred “Public Eye” Burke’s Inspector Waveney gets confused trying to explain it all in the final moments of this enjoyably over-involved whodunit. There’s a nice competitive relationship established between PI John Durran and Waveney, and Anthony Newlands is his usual smarmy self. Paul Whitsun-Jones has another pleasing supporting role as gossiping society columnist Charlie Pinder, who cynically plunders the doings of this well-off Belgravia set for his copy -- while Dawn Addams ably keeps us guessing with her uncanny ability to hypnotise half the male cast into letting themselves get well and truly ensnared in her web of intrigue. John Moxey provides this thriller -- which requires quite a lot of talky exposition -- with some snappy direction.
Robert Tronson’s “On the Run” is another of those prison break thrillers in which lags return to try and pick up a stash of loot, hidden before they were picked up for their last crime. In this instance, Frank Stewart (Emrys Jones) is coerced into burglarising the company he once worked for by bent bookie Wally Lucas (Kevin Stoney) in order to provide his blonde bombshell wife (Delphi Lawrence) with the lavish lifestyle she craves. He and his more experienced associate, Hughes (Philip Locke), are attempting to steal South African gold bonds from the company safe but the alarm is raised and they find themselves left in the lurch by their jumpy getaway driver. As the law chases them through derelict London bombsites, the two manage to dump their ill-gotten gains in a sewer before eventually being cornered and arrested. The action then jumps forward three years, when Stewart has bizarrely broken out of prison just three months before he was due to be paroled for his good behaviour. In fact he’s been a model prisoner up till now, so why jeopardise his chances with a risky jailbreak that’s unlikely to succeed? That’s what the governor, the Police and Stewart’s Chief Warden (who’s played by Brian Wilde of “Porridge”!) are all asking themselves. But in truth, Stewart is the victim of a scam that’s being pulled with the intention of shutting him away for good. Behind the plot is Stewart’s old boss Lucas, who’s been playing away with the lag’s estranged wife. Both of them want his hidden stash for themselves but Stewart’s planned early release threatened to throw a spanner in the works, so Lucas arranged to spring him early and then shop him to the law, thus making sure he’d still be inside when Hughes eventually earns his own release, since he’s agreed to play ball and split the takings from the raid.
While Lucas and Patrick Barr’s Sgt Brent hunt him across London, Stewart looks for his daughter Jean (Katy Wilde) and is befriended by her employer, model agency boss Helen Carr (Sarah Lawson). When the Scottish getaway driver (William Abney), previously employed by Wally Lucas to shop Stewart to the police after helping him escape, gets an attack of conscience and tells Stewart what’s been going down behind his back, the escapee vows to get to the loot before his conniving ex-boss can get to him. This is a fairly routine entry with a lacklustre finale in which Stewart has the chance to get away scot free but instead hangs around for an unnecessary slugging match with Lucas (to a bombastic jazz incidental score) in the sewer that’s also the location of the stolen stash of bonds. It’s greatly helped though by lots of location work in and around London which opens it out (especially in the first half hour) and gives some standard material a grittier feel than most of the other sedate series entries.
The final thriller in this volume features two Hammer starlets and a “Doctor Who” Companion in another mystery full of double dealings which, this time, does actually manage to pull off a genuinely surprising revelation in the final act, although the abbreviated running time requires matters be cleared up with the usual unsatisfying shoot out and a rushed punch up. Directed by Gordon Hales (editor on “Frankenstein Must be Destroyed”) and scripted by John Roddick, “Return to Sender” features Nigel Davenport as moustachioed swindler Dino Steffano: the brains behind an investment scam worth a quarter of a million pounds. With the help of a small group of associates, including his sultry wife Lisa (Yvonne Romain), Steffano has managed to convert his investors’ funds into steal-able cash by funnelling it through foreign companies he in fact already owns himself. Scotland Yard pick him up just as he’s about to sail off into the sunset, but the ultra-cool fraudster seems unperturbed. Instead, he finds out the name of the QC assigned his case by the prosecution – one Robert Lindley (Geoffrey Keen) -- and employs a fixer (who already has a grudge against the incorruptible barrister) by the name of Mike Cochrane (William Russell) to come up with a scheme to discredit this highly respected man. Lisa is to pose as a disgruntled ex-associate of Steffano’s with a score to settle who is apparently willing to supply incriminating information to the prosecution in order to get her own back on him. Lindley is duped into visiting Lisa at her flat, allowing Cochrane an opportunity to mock up a fake photograph that appears to show him enjoying her company while she’s in a state of semi-undress. This is only the first stage of a highly cunning plan which is to culminate with a drugged Lindley being photographed in bed with the alluring raven-haired beauty. However, a chance meeting in a post office in the leafy village in which Lindley spends his weekends, brings Cochrane into the orbit of his prey’s pretty young blonde artist daughter Beth (Jennifer Daniel) -- and the plot thickens until it suddenly does a completely surprising volte-face that changes everything we thought we knew. Davenport is excellent here as one of the most forthrightly unpleasant villains in the entire series -- perfectly without conscience of any kind and willing to do anything to extricate himself from his dilemma; his penchant for chess is a sure sign of a devious mind in the visual short-hand of the crime thriller. Jennifer Daniel is a wise casting decision as well: her doe-eyed look of innocence contrasting nicely with the macabre daubs in oil that adorn her artists’ studio flat; William Russell meanwhile, so familiar from his role as heroic schoolteacher Ian Chesterton on “Doctor Who”, is given a cold, calculating cynic to play, who’s a far cry for the character he would soon become famous for.
As well as these seven Merton Park Edgar Wallace features, the set also includes another entry in an earlier series, made at Beaconsfield Studios for Independent Artists and also distributed by Anglo Amalgamated, this one being released in 1960 when it played as support to Sidney Hayers’ “Payroll”. Produced by Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkin, “House of Mystery” is a genuine treat, and could just be the best thing about this particular volume. It’s actually a supernatural tale focusing on a haunted house and its long history of ghostly happenings which provide the film’s attractions. This second feature even earned itself an glowing entry in Jonathan Rigby’s authoritative historical survey, “English Gothic”.
It was written and directed by Vernon Sewell (“The Blood Beast Terror”) – and, in fact, represented the third time Sewell had remade variations on the self-same story, starting with 1945’s “Latin Quarter” and proceeding with “Ghost Ship” in 1952. Running at just a pert fifty-three minutes in length, the film manages to establish a cosy atmosphere at first, as a young home-buying couple (Ronald Hines & Colette Wilde) are tempted to snap up a picturesque cottage in some leafy suburbia which has an abnormally low asking price, and are surprised to find the empty, cobwebbed residence inhabited by the shadowy, soft-spoken presence of a middle-aged woman (Jane Hylton) who proceeds to relate the troubled history of the house to them over the course of an evening, while Ernest Steward’s lighting gets progressively more expressionistic and the initially laughing couple get more and more spooked.
The film unfolds through a surprisingly sophisticated nested flashback structure in which Hylton first of all tells how the electrical engineer-owner of the cottage, Mark Lemming (Peter Dyneley), who converted what was previously a working farmhouse into its present state, was found dead in his laboratory, apparently having electrocuted himself. The house was later bought by a young couple, Henry and Joan (Maurice Kaufmann and Nanette Newman), who soon start experiencing ghostly phenomena: the lights go on and off for no reason, a spectral figure of a man materialises in the living room in front of Joan and the couple’s evening TV viewing is interrupted by the same man appearing again on their television screen! A dickey-bow-wearing psychic investigator called Burden (Colin Gordon) is called in, and persuades the couple to host a séance with a perpetually cheerful Scottish medium, Mrs Bucknall (Molly Urquhart), who is able to psychically see back in time and uncover the house’s troubled history, and the event which is responsible for the present haunting: it emerges in a further flashback that Lemming caught his wife and her lover plotting to murder him by having him electrocuted in the bath with a deliberately unearthed light switch. So he plans his own revenge, rigging up the living room as an electrical death trap and locking the couple in the room, challenging them to get out alive but actually having no intention of letting anyone succeed.
Electricity and its associated technology is, of course, the constant motif throughout -- from the flickering lamp lights, the ghost-displaying TV, and the surveillance technology which allows Lemming to overhear the plot against him. There’s some lengthy exposition on the theme of extra-sensory perception and how it can be understood through the analogy of electrical signals in the brain mediating perception, an explanation which is also paralleled by other more conventional experts explaining how TVs work, or how electricity is conducted, etc.; and Lemming’s experiments turn out to be based on the idea that thoughts can also be recorded, stored and played back as electrical signals (he experiments by recording the dreams of his sleeping dog, Sally!). The pay-off, delivered when we return to the present day where the young couple have been listening to this multi-layered story as darkness draws in around them, is easily predictable, but effectively conveyed nonetheless.
This final little corker of a film rounds of an enjoyable three-disc set which also includes a gallery of production stills, PDF files of posters and cinema lobby cards for each film ,and a booklet of writings by Kim Newman. As always this is another immaculately restored volume of rarely-seen second features, highly recommended to all fans of sixties British cinema.