by Allan Fish
(UK 1938 84m) not on DVD
Doing the nine o’clock walk
p Jerome Jackson d Arthur Woods w Derek Twist, Paul Gangelin novel James Curtis ph Basil Emmott ed Leslie Norman m Bretton Byrd art Peter Proud, Michael Relph
Emlyn Williams (Shorty Matthews), Anna Konstam (Molly O’Neill), Allan Jeayes (Wally Mason), Ernest Thesiger (Walter Hoover), Ronald Shiner (Charlie), Yolande Terrell (Marge), Julie Barrie, Jenny Hartley, William Hartnell, Will Hay Jnr, Iris Vandeleur,
Occasionally you come across something to warm the cockles of your heart. I’d long known of Arthur Woods’ ‘B’ crime pic, indeed I remember reading about it in the Halliwell Guide, where he called it, with typically succinct idiosyncrasy, an “excellent little-seen suspenser.” It was years later when I finally got to see it, and in a wretched print, too. It’s never shown on TV, and as for video or DVD you’re having a laugh. Yet here’s a film that wouldn’t be disgraced in comparison with the best of Hitchcock in the thirties. It may not be The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes, but it’s at least as good as anything else Hitch made in that decade.
Shorty Matthews is a penny and shilling crook who’s been inside for 18 months for some petty crime or other, and who is released on the day a man is hanged for murder. He decides to go and look up some friends in his old haunts, and then makes his way to see his old flame, Alice, now living the high life as a dance hall hostess. When he gets to her lodgings, he’s horrified to find her dead, strangled with a silk stocking, and, fearing that he’d be the principal suspect, he makes a run for it. Sadly for him, he’s seen leaving the scene of the crime and the police have a description posted in all the evening papers. He decides to catch a lift with some lorry driver up north, and runs into a friend of Alice’s who he convinces of his innocence, and who conspires with him to try and do what they can to find the real murderer.
It has essences of Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, but this is an altogether darker film. It has been compared to the French fatalist films of the period, and not without due cause, for I can think of no other pre-war British film that captures this mood so effectively. Even in the terrible available print, the photography has a sense of gloomy doom about it, with the incessant rain and the numerous shots of trucks coming and going along muddy roads. The cast, too, are well chosen. Ernest Thesiger has one of his greatest roles as the real murderer, a simpering fetishist ex-teacher every bit as sinister as any of his more famous turns for James Whale. As for Shorty himself, I’d go so far as to say it was Williams’ finest hour. He had something inherently dishonest about him in his youth that prompted movie producers to use him – when they weren’t using his writing talents doctoring up the likes of Evergreen and Hitch’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – as such slime-balls as the crooked bookie in The Stars Look Down, the blackmailer in Friday the Thirteenth or even Caligula in Korda’s doomed I, Claudius. His was a visage born to play such Dickensian miscreants as Urian Heep, Rigaud and Dick Swiveller, an Artful Dodger graduated to hardcore, if cowardly, crime.
The script is taut, well-structured and straight to the point, and then there’s Woods. Of all promising directors lost during the war – Pen Tennyson is the first most people name – surely he was the biggest loss (he was killed in air combat in 1944 after putting his directorial career on hold to fight). Maybe the very notion that sent him into the war when others took the propaganda film route was what made the fatalism of his greatest film so potent. He was only 33 when it was made, and surely had it not been for the fact that Warners – whose subsidiary based at Teddington Studios financed the film – made a film of the same title and also featuring truck drivers two years later and thus made sure the British film wasn’t kept in circulation as a potential rival, it would be better known today. As it is, it’s a dimly lit gem whose mood would not be picked up till It Always Rains on Sunday and They Made Me a Fugitive a decade later.