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Nowhere to Go

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Studio Canal
Crime Drama
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Seth Holt
George Nader
Maggie Smith
Bernard Lee
Bessie Love
Howard Marion
Bottom Line: 
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This bleak noir thriller comes from the last days of the legendary Ealing Studios but is a million miles away from the classic satirical post-war British comedies this great film institution first came to be associated with under the leadership of producer Michael Balcon, who by then had become firmly established as one of the most important names connected to British film production since the 1930s. Stylishly shot through an inky vortex of shadow-latticed wide angle lenses supplied by Paul Beeson, whose resume makes up a solid plank of stylish but little recognised work for  a host of minor genre films and TV produced throughout the fifties and sixties, “Nowhere to Go” feels more like a slightly more prestigious foray into the realm of the second feature crime thriller, so beloved of smaller distributors like Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn’s Independent Artists outfit in the late fifties. This was a sub-genre that was about to be cornered by Wimbledon’s Merton Park studios for a long-running series of programmers produced for Anglo-Amalgamated in the first half of the sixties under the “Edgar Wallace Mysteries” banner. Indeed, many of that series's regular stars, such as Bernard Lee, Oliver Johnson and Glyn Houston (even Harry H Corbett!), turn up here in roles of varying importance and size. Ealing had recently gained distribution backing from MGM after the loss of its studios to the BBC in the mid-fifties and the end of its previous deal with the Rank Organisation, though the new association proved to be a fraught one and the film ended up being cut by some fifteen minutes and relegated to the lower half of a double bill without much ceremony, thus putting the cap on Ealing’s misfortunes. The familiar quirks of the British-made but  American-backed low budget ‘50s crime thriller are all present and correct here: a high quality British cast crop up in bit parts and minor roles, supporting an American star (in this case playing a Canadian) set adrift in a hostile London of shabby post-war elegance rendered in low key-light, that’s nevertheless set to a breezy jazz score from Dizzy Reece and imagined through a prism of ‘40s American film noir and the gritty realism of Jules Dassin’s and Jean-Pierrre Melville’s series of urban French gangster flicks of the period.

Taking the helm here for his first full-length feature as a director was former Ealing editor and producer Seth Holt. Having Worked in both of these former capacities throughout the fifties, Holt had been involved in the making of several of Ealing Studios’ best loved pictures, “The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951) and “The Lady Killers” (1955), during the course of learning his film-making craft. With the demise of Ealing he went on to produce the film version of “Saturday Night Sunday Morning” before embarking on a handful of films as a director for Hammer Productions: the first was 1961’s “A Taste of Honey” – which was also the first of Jimmy Sangster’s twist-laden ‘mini Hitchcock’ thrillers. Holt is probably best known today for the taut and unusually heavy hitting psychological thriller for Hammer “The Nanny”, which starred Bette Davis at her most unhinged. He tragically died in 1971 during production of the underrated “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb”.

In his debut as a director here he hits the ground running with an assured nine minute opening sequence depicting a prison break, milked in the minutest of Hitchcockian detail for mood and suspense. All low angles and deep shadow … vistas of fog, rainy London streets, derelict train stations and cramped alleys -- “Nowhere to Go” soon establishes its murky milieu of loneliness born of necessary mistrust and suspicion on a ‘50s London crime circuit marinated in low level violence and cold cynicism. American actor George Nader is the Canadian small-time thief we see making his night-time escape across foggy train tracks after some help from his London accomplice Sloane (played by Bernard Lee), who first actually breaks into the place with a grappling hook over the prison wall to leave explosives for Gregory to blow his way out of his cell with in the opening minutes. The escapee finds himself holed up in an anonymous, dimly lit west end flat while the police scour the capital. As he contemplates the past events which have brought him here, the film flashes back to the circumstance of his arrest, establishing Gregory as an opportunistic but well-prepared criminal who, with the help of his associate Sloane (posing as an expert in numismatics -- the study and collection of coins and currency), befriends a widowed Canadian heiress renting a town house in London while she auctions her late husband’s valuable coin collection. Gregory spends a great deal of time currying favour with the lonely old woman as a fellow Canadian alone in England, before callously defrauding her of a £55,000 fortune, persuading her to leave town for a few days while he surreptitiously sells the collection and pockets the cash, having by now falsely established himself as her acting agent. The loot is hidden away, ironically enough, in a vaulted bank safety deposit box -- and the thief is happy to then let himself be picked up by the police, believing he will only receive a minor jail sentence for what is essentially a victimless crime. However, because of his lack of co-operation in establishing the whereabouts of the ill-gained fortune, Gregory is unexpectedly clobbered with a ten year sentence by a punitive no-nonsense judge, thus necessitating the daring escape plan seen engineered earlier by his pal, Sloane.

Hunkered down in his drab London flat hideaway, Gregory sets about plotting to get his hands on the stashed proceeds, still safely ensconced in their anonymous deposit box, before leaving the country on a fake passport that’s being arranged for him by Sloane. However, the agreement between the two thieves for Gregory to first obtain the money and then spit the fortune goes wrong when the police coincidentally turn up at the bank on another matter, leaving Gregory unable to secure the loot. A combination of misunderstanding and greed leads Gregory to fall out with Sloane over the matter, and the American finds himself alone and without friends -- forced to rely on the ‘good will’ of a criminal network of suspicious underworld characters, each of whom is almost certainly out for what they can get or has another agenda. His increasingly desperate actions lead inadvertently to a murder charge being added to Gregory’s burdens, and the spiral of misfortune continues until one last desperate attempt to flee the capital with the help of a former associate's ex girlfriend.

Based on a novel by Donald MacKenzie and a screenplay co-written between Holt and the renowned fifties/sixties film critic Kenneth Tynan, “Nowhere to Go” is a bleak morality tale about community and isolation, and the one accentuating the other. It falls into that bracket of ‘man on the run’ thrillers in which the protagonist never actually seems able to move anywhere. Holt and Beeson come up with a boxy composition style in which streets and alleys always appear to hem Gregory between shadow-casting terraces or high brick walls that forever swamp and constrain the isolated figure within strict bounds; cramped flats are shot from low angles so that their ceilings are often in view, pressing down upon the heads of their inhabitants – again underlining the feeling of entrapment and containment. Visual symbolism is used to drum home the same message: when Gregory attempts to use a spacious Kensington town house for somewhere to lie low, Holt foregrounds a fish tank in its airy hallway, emphasising the idea that there is no escape (an earlier foreshadowing scene takes space in a pet shop where a young lad is seen clutching a fish tank with a dead fish floating on the surface) and the hunted thief’s attempts to utilise a former criminal contact (Howard Marion), who’s now supposedly  ‘going straight’ and running a smoky London jazz club, supplies yet another piece of symbolism representing Gregory’s plight, when the dodgy owner of the establishment points out that the only floor show he can afford features a shackled jackdaw forced to balance on a ball.

Gregory’s crime was facilitated by his access to networks of community which he is able cynically to exploit by taking advantage of readily available information about people and their movements in the city: the heiress, Mrs Jefferson (Bessie Love), for instance, is selected as a potential victim after Gregory reads about her and her collection in the newspaper society columns, which give out all the information he needs in order to be able to set up an elaborate con job that takes advantage of her circumstances.Gregory later selects the Kensington address he uses as his hideout when things go wrong by scouring the personal ads, making use of the once common practice of notifying one’s friends via the newspaper columns when one  was not at home or soon to be out of the country. He even solicits sympathy and anonymity by posing as a disabled man with a limp, wearing a surgical boot that draws sympathetic attention but also unwillingness in strangers to look him too closely in the eye! Gregory lives in a world where the apparent connections between people are illusory and community cannot be trusted; when a ‘friend’ betrays him, he quickly finds out that he can’t rely on anyone in the criminal world for sure or for too long. The interlinked community of the outside world constantly conspires against him: enquiring policemen now appear on every street corner and the ‘empty’Kensington flat turns out to have a housekeeper who still comes in to feed the fish when her employers are not home. People turn out to be impossible to escape, but isolation only becomes more accute as a result. Eventually, Gregory is forced to rely on a young woman whom he hardly knows -- socialite Bridget Howard (a twenty-something Maggie Smith in what was in fact her very first screen role), a lonely deb with a penchant for the criminal classes who smuggles him out of London and across the Brecon Beacons in North Wales. Beeson’s cinematography poetically contrasts the murky shadow realm of the earlier London settings with these light, airy wide expanses of Welsh moorland for the film's final act, offset by belching smoke from factory chimneys in the far distance which mingle with the early morning mist rising off the land. The contrast seems to symbolise the possibility of escape, but in typical bleak British style, the dream is set not to become a reality after the film delivers a bitterly ironic coda.

This edgy British thriller comes with an excellent context-setting featurette “Revisiting Nowhere to Go”, in which historian and film critic Charles Barr fills in the background on the film’s production with contributions from surviving members of the crew, Michael Birkett, the 1st Assistant Director, and camera assistant Herbert Smith, who remember working with Seth Holt. With its excellent performances and inspired technical accomplishments “Nowhere to Go” emerges from obscurity as a highlight of post-war British crime thrillers in the noir style and deserves the wider audience it will hopefully receive thanks to Studio Canal’s excellent new DVD release.

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