Anglo Amalgamated Productions was a small British independent production house and distributor overseen by Nat Cohen & Stuart Levy and best known in the 1960s for producing the first twelve Carry-On pictures and several cult rivals to Hammer Productions’ British horror crown, including Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” and two more controversial thrillers produced by Jack Greenwood – namely, Sidney Hayers’ “Circus of Horrors” and Arthur Crabtree’s “Horrors of the Black Museum” -- which between then have since become known as the company’s ‘Sadien trilogy’. Anglo Amalgamated dealt mainly in second features though, many of them produced on a rolling schedule at the famous Wimbledon-based Merton Park Studios Ltd, where Greenwood was managing director. In the first half of the sixties he oversaw the production of over forty hour long B-movies, which were made at Merton Park as part of a popular continuing Edgar Wallace Mystery series of second features – all of them tenuously based on the work of the prolific late Victorian/Edwardian crime novelist and co-creator of King Kong, and designed to play as the lower half of the bill at ABC Cinemas across the country, although they later appeared regularly on US TV, creating the impression that they were actually originally made as a British TV film series (an impression which still persists thanks to the IMDb still listing them as such). These films were handsome-looking, briskly paced contemporary black and white British thrillers, running in parallel with another equally admired series of increasingly lurid films that was being shot at around the same time in West Germany by Rialto Films. That series kick-started the ‘Krimi’ sub-genre and eventually led to the emergence of the giallo in Italy -- marking Wallace as arguably the central inspiration for much of sixties’ European genre cinema.
The Merton Park films were distinctly British in tone, though: well-directed but shot quickly and cheaply and often making use of the same sets, which can appear little changed from film to film, allowing the daydream that they all might somehow be taking place somewhere in the same little corner of a pre-swinging sixties London, SW9. Greenwood would go on to produce more Edgar Wallace specifically for TV as part of The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre; but this extensive collection of cinema films from Merton Park have become much sought after cult favourites, redolent in the special atmospheres of early- to mid-sixties British cinema, and often featuring compelling performances by a host of favourite British character actors, often then just starting out in their careers. The first films announced their membership of the Wallace series via a very distinctive opening credit sequence prologue, which featured a revolving plaster bust of the author amid swirling mist, accompanied by composer Micahel Carr’s famous ‘Man of Mystery’ theme cue, which later became a hit for The Shadows in 1961. This opening initially allowed a number of other British thrillers, not originally made as part of the series, to be included in the syndication packages, since it could be added to their opening reels. This first volume in a proposed seven volume DVD collection of re-mastered prints of the entire collection of films (and which includes many other films related to the series, which were made during the same period of time) is an absolute delight -- showcasing all of the movies in the series released theatrically in the UK in the year 1960, plus two other bonus features that can be viewed as precursors to them.
Scripted by Philip Mackie (“The Naked Civil Servant”) and efficiently directed by Allan Davis, “The Clue of the Twisted Candle” kick-starts the series with perhaps the quintessential exemplar of the Edgar Wallace formula, and is particularly packed with incident considering its scant 61 minute run time; managing ingeniously to combine the complicated criminal intrigues of a fiendish, fork-bearded Greek millionaire (played with relish by distinguished character actor Francis de Wolff) who harbours unwanted enemies in the criminal underworld, with a baffling locked room murder mystery -- each problem requiring plenty of patience, doggedness and lateral thinking on the part of Scotland Yard’s ever-dependable Superintendent Meredith (James Bond’s boss ‘M’, Bernard Lee) and his newbie young partner, Sgt Anson (Stanley Morgan) as they endeavour to connect some extremely disparate puzzle pieces.
Meredith becomes convinced that an innocent man has been put away for murder when John Lexman (David Knight) shoots dead an intruder in his home, claiming to have been merely following advice laid down by his rich employer Ramon Karadis (de Wolff) regarding a written attempt to blackmail him over infelicities committed in his past which he doesn’t want his fiancée Grace (Colette Wilde) to know about. Karadis denies all knowledge of Lexman’s claims about his receipt of the blackmail letter, and refutes having provided the hair-trigger pistol which then went off accidently and killed the man who wrote said letter, a certain Mr Viney (Richard Vernon), whose own weapon mysteriously vanished at the crime scene. The mere fact that Karadis is swarthy, foreign and rich, and has a hot line straight from his candle-festooned study -- part of a bunker-like fortress which has a solid steel vault door that can only be opened from the inside -- direct to Meredith’s desk at Scotland Yard, is enough to alert this solid Brit detective to the fact that something is not right with this mysterious figure who appears to be pulling all the strings for some remote criminal purpose of his own. The action never flags across the hour as a prison break, a heiress (Christine Shaw) and her undercover investigation of her aristocratic mother’s suicide after a similar plot to blackmail her, and the appearance of another mysterious associate of Karadis’ -- an fusty academic called Mr Griswold -- presages the millionaire’s own murder while locked inside his own secure vault with no alternative means of exit! As well as the tight plotting, solid direction and likable performances from the main players, this B picture benefits from some minor bit part turns from dependable sorts such as AJ Brown (“The Forsyte Saga”) as Meredith’s upper-crust Police Commissionaire; Richard Caldicot as Fisher, a prison lag in Lexman’s cell who finds employment as a butler in Karadis’ townhouse home soon after his release; and an enjoyable busy-body landlady played by Gladys Henson, who rents the shabby flat Viney uses to send his blackmailing letter from. Bernard Lee would return periodically to play the same character across several more entries in the series and forges an amusing relationship with his callow trainee sergeant, Anson -- whom he shouts down for incompetence and inefficiency while admitting in confidence to the commissionaire that Anson one of the most promising officers on the force.
“Bergerac” creator and prolific TV writer Robert Banks Stewart adapted the second story in the set -- “A Marriage of Convenience”, directed by Clive Donner (“Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush”, “What’s New Pussycat”, “Vampira”) and starring Harry H. Corbett as the aspirant, working class ‘rough provincial’, Detective Inspector J. Bruce. Corbett’s variable accent sees him through a twitchy performance here as the ambitious and officious, recently-promoted inspector (he hastily abandons a cuppa to pull out a chair for his pipe-smoking superior) who’s desperate to prove himself the equal of the yard’s retired ‘star’ detective: the suave and unctuously public school, upper-crust knob John Mandle (John Van Eyssen – formerly Jonathan Harker in Hammer’s 1958 “[Horror of] Dracula”) who now writes a weekly hack column, ‘Mandle of the Yard’, for a Sunday tabloid in which he exploits his years on the force for sensationalist material, much to Bruce’s chagrin.
Meanwhile, bank robber Larry Wilson (John Cairney) stages a breakout during his scheduled registry office wedding to Barbara Blair (Hammer starlet Jennifer Daniels: “The Reptile”, “Kiss of the Vampire”) having previously arranged a scheme to split £5,000 pounds of the heist money he believes he has coming to him on the outside with her during her prison visits to her stepdad Sam (Russell Waters), who was banged up on an unrelated charge. The trio hide out in a drab, tatty flat (the same one used as Viney’s room in the previous film -- with exactly the same décor and furnishings!) but when Larry goes to meet his partner, Tina (Moira Redmond from the Jimmy Sangster-penned Hammer thriller “Nightmare”) – a female secretary who worked at the bank he received his sentence for robbing – he finds her apartment has long since been vacated with no forwarding address, and that she’s since gotten married … to the detective who arrested him in the first place: none other than Inspector Mandle -- now retired and running a boating business on the East Coast! Smelling a rat, Larry goes off the deep end, determined to track down the devious couple who’ve set him up to take the fall while they made off with all the loot.
The parallels between Corbett and Cairney’s dissatisfied rough-hewn characters gives this enjoyable crime romp a little more bite than is the norm, although there is a dated interlude involving a former French Resistance fighter (Howard Goorney) whom Cairney attacks while trying to discover Mandle’s address: he takes the Frenchman’s place as a door-to-door onion seller, appropriating his beret and managing to pass himself off as the man’s assistant among some disinterested locals, with only a silly comedy French accent, a string of onions around his neck and a bicycle (‘Wilson’s on the run disguised as a French onion seller!’ deadpans Inspector Bruce). There’s a notable sequence here in which Inspector Bruce goes to interview Barbara’s showgirl roommate on a film set which looks almost identical to the one seen in Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom”, also produced by Anglo Amalgamated the same year. Also memorable is a scene in which Wilson turns up at Tina’s old apartment and gets propositioned by the middle-aged woman who now lives there (played by Patricia Burke), despite her almost certainly having seen his picture on the front page of the paper.
“Urge to Kill” went into production at Merton Park just before the two Edgar Wallace films mentioned above, but was actually an unrelated thriller that was based on a novel by Gerald Savory (writer of “The Two Faces of Evil”: perhaps the best episode in the Hammer House of Horror TV series) and then adapted for the stage under the title “Hand in Glove”. Only later did it get shoehorned in with this Edgar Wallace series. Although filled with excellent performances and compelling character vignettes, and once again ably directed, this time by Vernon Sewell, who helmed many a classic British noir in his time before ending up on fag end Brit horror fare such as “The Blood Beast Terror” and “The Curse of the Crimson Altar” for Tigon -- this is far grittier and nastier than the fairly restrained material which usually did for this crime series -- although it doesn’t compare with Sewell’s best work in the noir genre.
It starts abruptly, with a local lass getting murdered in a small village, and then cuts to the kitchen table of a local boarding house run by Aunty B (Ruth Dunning) when news of the killing is brought via gossiping next-door neighbour Mrs Willis (Margaret St. Barbe West), who excitedly relates how young Jenny, Curly the pub landlord’s daughter, has ‘got herself done in … strangulated!’ Particularly grisly is the detail that the body was ‘gashed’ and severely lacerated with glass from a broken bottle! This is much grimmer territory than normal, then, and the script is pretty sharp too as we’re introduced to various likely suspects, all of whom would appear to be gathered round Aunty B’s breakfast table! There’s her simpleton son Hughie (Terence Knapp), who happens to like disappearing in the middle of the night and keeps his pockets full of broken bits of china and glass collected from slag heaps and the like. There’s diminutive, softly spoken businessman Mr Forsythe (Wilfrid Brambell), who peers out from behind bottle-top glasses and makes himself a suspect by questioning the character of the murdered girl, claiming that she was probably in fact a jezebel, and therefore asking for trouble. Then there’s super-smooth ladies’ man Charles Ramskill (Howard Pays), who’s being lined up by Mrs Willis as her shy daughter Lily’s (Anna Turner) best bet of finding an eligible young man for a husband. The locals soon make their beliefs clear on the matter: they suspect Hughie because he’s a bit ‘different’. Before long the rumours are flying, as are the bricks … thorough Aunty B’s front window, while wrapped in paper with the word ‘murderer’ scrawled on them; meanwhile a vigilante group of braying locals is being rustled up by the dead girl’s publican father in the village drinking hole, because the police insist on investigating methodically and fairly instead of fingering poor Hughie straight away.
This is a tale of small town bigotry then, where even kindly Superintendent Allen’s (Patrick Barr, “House of Whipcord”) detective assistant ponders how ‘you never know with these mental cases!’ The viewer is let in on the identity of the real killer pretty early on, who turns out to be hiding a deep-rooted fear of women which manifests itself in an uncontrollable lust to kill whenever he is exposed to female sexual desire (‘you’d be surprised how common it is,’ relates the Superintendent when the killer blusters how it’s a funny sort of a fella who’s afraid of women!). The claustrophobic, unglamorous small town setting (Ramskill entertains his lady friends in a potting shed alongside a railway cuttings) and the distinctly cynical yet humorous tone that pervades the script smacks of Hitchcock (the killer is very much like Barry Foster’s ‘Rusk’ in “Frenzy”) especially when the murderer sets about framing poor old Hughie by planting evidence linking him to a second murder.
We’re back to the usual pristine West London setting for “The Man Who Was Nobody” in which Hazel Court gets a rare and striking leading role as a well-poised ex journo turned Private Investigator, Marjorie Stedman . She’s assigned to look into the disappearance of man-about-town James Tynerwood: a playboy with expensive tastes who ‘doesn’t believe in working for a living’, and who disappears after a check he wrote for £8,000 pounds at a jewellers for an expensive diamond Solitaire ring, bounces -- causing the police to take an interest. It turns out that Tynewood has left debts all over London, but after the police finish interviewing his solicitor Mr Vance (Robert Dorning), as to his whereabouts, Vance brings in Miss Stedman with instructions to find Tynewood before they do and give him the cryptic message ‘South Africa Smith is coming’. The mission entails Stedman going undercover amongst her beatnik contacts (‘a clique that live by night in the cellars and attics of Chelsea,’ explains Stedman to the not-quite-with-it Vance) in smoky jazz dens which eventually lead her to a chic illegal gambling set who play roulette in some well-heeled South Kensington flats, one of which is where the ex-showgirl Alma Weston (Lisa Daniely), whom Tynewood was romancing when he bought the ring, eventually shows up. The mystery deepens after Stedman tracks her to a cosy mews house and rents the flat opposite, whereupon she’s accosted by a brylcreemed hunk who calls himself Mr Smith (John Crawford, “Hell is a City”). ‘I’m neither an escaped lunatic nor a sex maniac,’ the intruder protests after manhandling her in the dark; ‘that just goes to show how deceptive appearances can be’ snaps back the rattled heroine. When Tynewood’s body washes up on the muddy banks of the Thames, Stedman and Smith wheedle their way into one of the debonair businessman Franz Reuter’s (Paul Eddington) exclusive casino meets by posing as a rich couple with a massive uncut diamond as their collateral; and the whole mildly diverting mystery ends up in the uncovering of a diamond fencing operation and a reveal of Mr Smith’s true identity when the villains are finally rounded up. Directed ably enough by second feature specialist Montgomery Tully, this starts off more interestingly than it means to go on thanks largely to Hazel Court’s diverting performance as an independent woman of means who comes across rather like a prototype Emma Peel at first, but soon starts playing second fiddle as soon as the male lead is introduced almost half-way through the picture, whereupon she reverts to the usual woman in peril mode.
“The Clue of the New Pin” is yet another locked vault mystery, Wallace being endlessly adept it seems at coming up with a host of ingenious solutions to explain how a murdered man can be found in a locked vault with the only key to the room still on the table inside and no other exit available. This one is particularly ingenious: after some elaborate set-up, we soon get to know who killed curmudgeonly mystery millionaire John Tredmere (David Horne) because it’s made all too apparent early on that the culprit is his good-for-nothing nephew Rex Lander (Paul Daneman), who stands to inherit the contents of the grumpy bachelor’s cellar vault, which is situated below his sumptuous London townhouse, containing all the goodies he’s brought back from a misspent youth in the far East where he earned a fortune in ‘the good old days’ of the British Empire. We may know who did it and why, but the real mystery in this 58 minute feature revolves around how exactly the impossible-seeing crime was effected: both the police, headed by the Holmesian Superintendent Carver (Bernard Archard, better known to DOCTOR WHO fans as Marcus Scarman in “The Pyramids of Mars”) and a snobbish TV celebrity interviewer (‘a professional smile on his face and a steely glint in his eye’) played by James Villiers (“Repulsion”), who becomes involved after attempting to secure a rare TV interview with this reclusive millionaire who won’t talk about his past, are baffled when Tredmere turns up shot through the heart inside his own locked vault. The suspect is an old associate of the victim’s from his days in Hong Kong, called Ramsey Brown (Clive Morton) -- who was previously seen being thrown out of Tredmere’s house after he turned up demanding a share of the family fortune for keeping quiet about the owner’s dubious past – an event which makes him perfect fodder for framing as a scapegoat for Tredmere’s murder. Unfortunately, Brown then also tries to blackmail Lander with the fact that one of the secrets he knows from Tredmere’s younger days in Hong Kong is that he has an illegitimate half-Asian son who is next in line to inherit the fortune Lander thought was safely his. That is unless Brown can be persuaded to keep quiet and to disappear in order to voluntarily preserve himself as chief suspect in Tredmere’s murder. Confident that the police will never work out how he pulled his trick with the key, Lander calls Brown’s bluff and pulls the same stunt again, shooting Brown dead and also leaving him in the same locked vault! Katherine Woodville (better known to genre TV fans as Dr David Keel’s murdered wife in the first ever episode of “The Avengers”) stars as a beautiful movie star with a connection to Tredmere, who unwittingly adds yet more complication to the case.
“Partners in Crime” re-unites some familiar faces, with Bernard Lee at the top of the cast list again, this time demoted to Inspector but otherwise playing the same type of dependable Scotland Yard sleuth who’s called in on an apparently by-the-numbers murder case when Chairman of successful British soft drinks firm Harold Strickland (Victor Platt), is found shot dead by an masked intruder in the study of his country cottage, having just caught the offender looting the home safe after returning from an evening out with his wife Freda (Moira Redmond again) and business partner Frank Merril (John Van Eyssen -- who also partnered up with Redmond in “A Marriage of Convenience”). This brisk 54 minute mini-feature introduces a new version of the famous theme music, arranged by Ron Goodwin: a more mysterious-sounding, atmospheric affair, with slow-twang, spy-theme lead-guitar and cool vibraphone, harp and flute backing.
The murdered Strickland’s safe is found to be missing only the sum of £50 pounds; and it is soon revealed that the Chairman’s best friend Merril has arranged the whole affair to be staged as a robbery because the two partners – former army comrades – had fallen out over a corporate takeover-bid at which Strickland was planning to oust Merril, buying him out of the drinks firm while he himself retained a key position on the board. An opportunistic lorry driver employee of the firm called Holland (Gordon Boyd) has been paid to carry out the crime, and he plans to leave for his native Australia with his waitress fiancée (Ruth Meyers), who works at a transport café rest-stop on his regular route. Meanwhile, the dastardly Merril is carrying on with Freda while they both pretend to be distraught about the whole affair in front of Inspector Mann and his capable assistant, Sergeant Rutledge (Stanley Morgan). Unfortunately, while the brilliantined lorry driver killer is rejoicing his good fortune in coming into such an agreeable sum for one night’s work, delinquent greasers on motorbikes are robbing his lorry cab of valuables and come across the murder weapon Holland has negligently yet failed to dispose of. They try to pass it on to a backstreet pawn shop (the owner is Mr Rumbold, Nicholas Smith from “Are You Being Served”!) and thus provide Mann with his first solid clue. Director Peter Duffell (“The House that Dripped Blood”) keeps the drama nicely chugging along as the oily Merril’s ruthless scheming starts to unravel at the seams and Inspector Mann attempts to catch him out by plugging away with the usual dogged leg-work customarily employed by the Yard’s finest. It all ends up with an explosive finale at the ‘graveyard’ car scrapyard which Merril’s lorry drivers use as a sleeping stop, when, sensing the net is closing around them, Merril and Freda go there to try to catch up with the feckless Holland and his naive fiancée before the police do.
In “the Fourth Square” another set of white-brick Georgian townhouses provide some salubrious settings for burglary and murder among London’s dissolute jet set. The Stewarts return from an evening out to find Inspector Forbes (Basil Dignam) of CID already at work in their Belgravia Square home, investigating the murder of their house maid after she apparently disturbed a black gloved predator in fedora hat and raincoat, rifling through the safe after leaving two mysterious square ‘trademark’ symbols at the scene. The intruder seemed to already know the combination and the concealed location (behind a painting) of the safe, yet Nina Stewart (Delphi Lawrence) insists nothing is missing from her jewellery box. This turns out not to be true: a valuable emerald ring – a gift from a millionaire Indian playboy called Alvarez (Anthony Newlands) with whom Nina has secretly been conducting an affair was stolen, and Mrs Stewart wants her faithful solicitor Bill Lawrence (Conrad Phillips) to track it down without the police or her husband (or the newspapers) finding out. Alvarez has been in Frankfurt the whole time, but Charles Stewart’s public relations man Henry Adams (Paul Daneman) had a key to the safe and also knows about the recent theft of a broach from a glamorous movie starlet called Fiona Foster (Vilma Ann Leslie), and that the burglar also left one if the distinctive square symbols on her wall, too. Lawrence finds out that Alvarez has been busy romancing a gaggle of pretty ladies (‘this is a dossier on Tom Alvarez and his harem … I suppose we’ll find you in here somewhere,’ Lawrence tartly informs Nina) and dishing out the family heirlooms to them as expensive gifts in the process. The purloined broach and emerald ring are just the first two items in the catalogue; following the trail brings Lawrence to the Eaton Square apartment of one Sandra Martin (Natasha Parry) who’s been made the recipient of an emerald encrusted necklace. It seems the killer is intent on retrieving Alvarez’s jewellery while making numerous attempts on the life of Bill Lawrence as he goes around investigating the matter (ranging from falling window boxes to running him down with a car) -- but who is responsible? Is it the slimy PR agent, Adams? Perhaps its Alvarez’s easily bribed butler, Philippe (Harold Kasket); or Michel (Nicolas Chagrin), effeminate hairdresser to the elite. Or maybe Alvarez’s estranged wife, the dancer and stage magician Josetta (Miriam Karlin, the Catlady in “A Clockwork Orange”). Lawrence ambles through some posh London thoroughfares and plush penthouses trying to find out in a serviceable but fairly standard offering to round off this first volume.
Also included as an extra on disc three of the set is a 54 minute second feature, produced by Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn for Independent Artists Ltd in 1959-60, as part of a short series which also included several Edgar Wallace adaptations and which were being screened at the same time as the first Edgar Wallace films in the Anglo Amalgamated run. “October Moth” isn’t one of them though: it’s written and directed by prolific film and TV writer John Kruse (writing credits include the Sidney Hayers films “Assault” and Revenge” and episodes of “The Persuaders!”, “The Saint” and “The Protectors”). This is a tense psychological thriller and character piece featuring a small cast and beautiful noirish black and white cinematography by Hammer mainstay Michael Reed (director of photography on “Dracula Prince of Darkness” and “The Gorgon”) which makes up for the tiny budget with atmospheric arrangement of light and shadow. This is a tale about isolated brother and sister, Finlay and Molly (Lee Paterson and Lana Morris), who live together in a remote farmhouse where Molly tries desperately to cope with her mentally unstable brother’s delusions. The death of their mother and some faintly alluded to abuse at the hands of their long-since dead father replay’s itself once more when Finlay causes a car accident on the road and brings the comatose female victim (Sheila Raynor) back to the house to be cared for, having deluded himself by this point into believing that she’s his dead mother. The film centres on Molly’s attempts to find some way of getting the injured woman to a hospital without exposing her brother’s mental illness and its accompanying violence. A kindly workman putting up telegraph wires outside the farmhouse (Peter Dyneley) gets involved, but is mistaken for Molly and Finlay’s dad by the shotgun-wielding madman, and a police constable checking out the area after the disappearance of a female social worker (Robert Crawdon) are the only other players in what is otherwise a two-hander for most of its run time, playing like a paired down version of one of Jimmy Sangster’s black and white Hammer thrillers and nothing like the cosy, London-centred modern mysteries showcased elsewhere in this set. The imagery is what marks this out for particular attention but the story would have sufficed if not for an unnecessarily romantic postscript in the closing seconds which skips rather lightly over the implied incestuous undercurrents that might account for Molly’s unwillingness to deal with her brother’s insanity sooner, and which ultimately lead to a brutal death for one of the participants in the drama.
The eight films in this set have all been beautifully restored and look very pleasing to the eye indeed, each presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 . The mono audio is also excellent, crisp and clear throughout all the features. A photo gallery of stills is included on the third disc as an extra and PDF files, accessible from a PC or Mac are also available, featuring contemporary publicity press book materials for many of the films with detailed synopsis’, cast and crew credits and technical information on each film. This and each of the coming sets in the series will be provided with a booklet containing writing by Kim Newman, although this was unavailable for review. It’s a sure thing to say though that this (and, no doubt, all future sets in the series) will be an absolute must for anyone with any kind of interest in the history of British cinema, particularly of the 1960s. Very highly recommended indeed.