British director, John Gilling co-produced this lively period swashbuckler with the independent company, Regency Films -- and, together with cinematographer Harry Waxman, delivered an interesting mix of bright-eyed, wind-swept adventure flick and overwrought family melodrama; paying homage to the dark and desperate Cornwall of Hitchcock's "Jamaica Inn" while saturating the whole rumbustious escapade in a dazzling sheen of Hammer-esque Technicolor gloss.
Gilling's credentials stretch way-back to the early days of Britain's Gothic heritage: after leaving the Navy, he followed up a pre-war film-editing career by writing and, eventually (in 1948) directing the work of Britain's very own 'Mr. Murder', Todd Slaughter. "The Greed of William Hart" led on to the British Bela Lugosi vehicle, "Old Mother Riley Meets a Vampire" (1952), and the classic cult Hammer clone "The Flesh and the Fiends" (1959) while Gilling is perhaps best remembered for his own mid-period Hammer efforts "The Plague Of The Zombies" and "The Reptile" (1965). Coincidentally, "Fury At Smuggler's Bay" (1961) shares both it's 18th century Cornish setting and certain key plot elements with the first of these Hammer classics, in which the local squire turns out to be not quite the benevolent, reliable figure his Victorian status deems him to be.
The film seems, mostly, to be a kind of adventure-movie remake of "Jamaica Inn". As in that 1939 film, the story takes place against a backdrop of smuggling on the Cornish coast. While many of Cornwall's impoverished fishermen augment their meager living by illegally smuggling goods, a gang of cut-throat mercenaries known as "The Wreckers" who are led by the ruthless "Black John", are also engaged in theft and murder -- luring ships onto the rocks by putting out the beach lights lit to guide them, and then killing their crews and stealing their cargo! In the Hitchcock film, Charles Laughton's corpulent Squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallon, after initially appearing to be a benevolent upholder of the law, turns out to be in charge of the murderous wrecking crews! In Gilling's film, Peter Cushing takes the role of Squire Trevenyan: at first, a much less sympathetic figure than Laughton was, but ultimately not quite the monster he turned out to be!
Although its story is rather simple, the film has a rather curious structure in which the lead role seems to pass back and forth between several characters over the course of its eighty-two minute running time! Trevenyan's dashing son Christopher (John Fraser) is the natural focus of our attention at first; Fraser's handsome mop of blonde hair and the love story between him and Michele Mercier's character makes him the archetypal romantic hero. Christopher is courting a fisherman's daughter called Louise Lejuene; unfortunately, this brings him into conflict with the rigid, Victorian morals of his father -- for not only is Louise of a lower class than Christopher, Squire Trevenyan also suspects (correctly!) the Lejuene family to be deeply involved in the smuggling operations he is attempting to curtail! Christopher's involvement with them tends to make him more sympathetic to the poor inhabitants of the Cornish fishing villages and he is, like them, much more concerned with the activities of the dastardly Black John (played by a grizzled Bernard Lee) and his men than the relatively harmless smuggling of the local populace.
Just when things seem set, another lead character enters the fray: the roughish highwayman known only as "The Captain", and played, with lashings of Cary Grant-esque charm by a swathe William Franklyn. Here is another character known and admired by the local population but despised by Squire Trevenyan. The Squire and his son, Christopher are robbed by The Captain at one point, and their differing reactions to the experience neatly sum up the attitudes of both men. Christopher speaks almost admiringly of how, once he has robbed a traveler, The Captain will then keep an eye on him for the rest of his journey to make sure he doesn't encounter any more danger on the roads! His father though, is contemptuous and dismissive of the romantic criminal. In fact, it soon becomes notable that the Squire seems far more concerned with persecuting the local fishermen than with finding and stopping the wreckers! With his father refusing to allow him to have anything to do with Louise, Christopher decides to move away from the village; but in his absence the squire captures some local smugglers (among them, Louise's father) and sentences them to be hanged! Louise turns to The Captain for help, who then organises the kidnapping of Christopher, hoping to blackmail the squire into letting the men go!
Gilling demonstrates great finesse throughout the proceedings and keeps things rollicking along nicely, never letting the talky melodrama swamp the galloping action sequences. The shipwreck and storm footage is surprisingly convincing considering the low-budget origins of the film and there is a fairly well-shot and choreographed sword fight between William Franklyn and John Fraser at one point, that only relies on over-cranking the camera to speed up the action (as many films from this era were prone to doing) for one particularly difficult piece of swordplay! Harold Geller's florid score makes a fair job at impersonating James Bernard's taught style, thereby augmenting the "Hammer feel" of the work, and Harry Waxman's photography is always bright and vivacious -- capturing the rugged beauty of the coastal locations with simple efficiency.
At the end of the day, this is straightforward, Saturday matinee adventure material for the kids -- but it is very well made and still watchable for the terrific cast which was assembled for it. Heading them, but really playing quite a minor role, is Peter Cushing -- here, at the height of his Hammer-derived fame and giving a typically committed performance as a rigid authority figure who is eventually trapped and, to some extent, corrupted by the very values system he sets out to uphold. Bernard Lee is mesmerising as the manner-less, evil-hearted thug at the heart of the wrecking operations and plays his pantomime villain with total conviction. William Franklyn and John Fraser compete for hero status and, as in their fight scene in the film, there is no clear winner. Franklyn's thief with a conscious, The Captain, is a great character and with his band of poor followers and helpers, is very much a Robin Hood figure. Franklyn ups the handsome-hero-with-a-quick-wit-and-an-even-quicker-sword angle, and plays down the more roguish side to the man, while John Fraser's upper-crust hero is more of a clean-cut figure. The women in the picture have little to do but gaze adoringly at their men, but Michele Mercier and a young, "pre-Carry On" Liz Frazer manage to make their characters into something more than just agreeable scenery filler with the little screen time they do get. There is also a nice cameo from British cinema's ultimate stalwart, Miles Malleson, who adds a dash of much-needed comic relief with his rather doddering Duke Of Avon!
Cinema Club's Region 2 UK disc is a no-thrills affair with no extras at all included. We do get a nice, 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer with excellent colour and very little damage evident on the print though! The mono audio track is simple and clear with no distortion or crackling. For the very low price (about £3.99) you really can't complain!