Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Man Bait (1952)

Mention Hammer Films and most people think immediately of horror movies but in fact horror came fairly late in the company’s history. Formed in 1932 Hammer really started to hit their stride in the early 50s with a series of film noir B-movies, such as Man Bait (also released with the less lurid title The Last Page)

Many of Hammer’s best efforts in the film noir mould (including this one) were directed by Terence Fisher, later to become much better known as director of some of the studio’s most successful horror films. Fisher had already made several films including the superb mystery thriller So Long at the Fair.

Hammer imported American stars for most of these movies. They were either stars of the second rank, or stars who had fallen on slightly hard times and were prepared to work for modest fees, but in fact Hammer showed rather good judgment in choosing these imports from cross the Atlantic and got some impressive performances out of them (Lizabeth Scott being particularly memorable in the superb Terence Fisher-directed Stolen Face). In the case of Man Bait the imported star was George Brent.

Brent is John Harman, the manager of a large bookshop in London. He has just cashed in an insurance policy, the money being intended to finance traveling expenses and treatment for his invalid wife. His employees include a very flighty but very attractive young lady named Ruby (Diana Dors). Working late one night they find themselves kissing. Harman is embarrassed, apologises, and assumes the matter has been forgotten. But Ruby has met a very plausible but very shady character named Jeffrey Hart. He’s just out of prison and broke but now sees his opportunity, Ruby can blackmail her boss, and they can share the proceeds. It seems like a simple plan, but things go terribly wrong.

On thing you always expect of a Terence Fisher movie is that it will be tightly paced with not a single wasted shot, and this movie is no exception. You also expect the direction to be exceptionally professional and extremely effective, and that’s certainly the case here. Fisher might not qualify as a great film artist or an auteur but he was a master craftsman.

Brent is quite good. Peter Reynolds is wonderfully slimy as Jeffrey Hart. The cast as a whole performs admirably.

And then there’s Diana Dors. Despite the credits which say “introducing Diana Dors” the 20-year-old was already a veteran with more than a dozen movies to her credit. She was eventually to find her blonde bombshell image a major problem and always had difficulties getting taken seriously enough to land worthwhile roles. Whenever she did get a decent role she invariably turned in a very fine performance. Ruby is an interesting character. She’s set up as a femme fatale but we’re left wondering whether to regard her as villainess or victim. Diana Dors makes her a interesting mix of vulnerability and over-confidence combined with a sexuality that is not quite under her control. It’s a great performance by
a talented and underrated actress.

It certainly has some features that mark it as film noir but whether it’s true film noir or not it’s a well-made and highly entertaining crime thriller and I recommend it unreservedly.

The VCI DVD release pairs it with another Hammer film noir, the delightfully titled Bad Blonde which I haven’t yet had a chance to watch. There are one or two moments when the sound becomes just a tiny bit a bit crackly but in general the sound quality is more than acceptable and the picture quality is excellent. It’s also quite inexpensive and very good value for money so there’s no reason whatsoever not to grab this one.

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