Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dick Barton, Special Agent (1948)

Hammer Films made some great movies in their day, and a few that were not so great. If you’ve ever speculated on the subject of Hammer’s worst ever movie I think I can now supply a definitive answer. Dick Barton, Special Agent must surely be the worst movie the company ever made. In fact it’s one of the worst movies ever made by any company, in any country, at any time.

Hammer Films had begun in the 1930s but had declared bankruptcy in 1937. In 1946, after his war service, James Carreras revived the company. The intention was to use the company to make “quota quickies” so at this point a word on that subject might be in order. In the late 1920s the British Parliament had passed an Act (which remained in force until 1960) to force British cinemas to screen a designated quota of British films. The idea was that this would stimulate the growth of a thriving British film industry. In fact the legislation resulted in the emergence of the notorious “quota quickies” - movies made on incredibly low budgets that would allow cinemas to fulfill the requirements of the Act. Since cinemas would have to screen these movies to stay within the law these movies could be profitable, even if very few people went to see them, as long as they could be produced on sufficiently minuscule budgets. No matter how bad they were they were guaranteed of exhibition.

Not entirely surprisingly the “quota quickies” soon gained a very poor reputation. If Dick Barton, Special Agent, a quote quickie made by Hammer in 1948, is at all typical of the breed then that poor reputation was richly deserved.

Special Agent Dick Barton (Don Stannard) is on the track of smugglers operating out of an English seaside town. To help him in his investigation he has brought along his two side-kicks, Snowey and Jock. Jock is Scottish, so naturally he brings his bagpipes with him, because Scotsmen don’t go anywhere without their bagpipes. That’s an early indication of the kind of excruciatingly obvious, laboured and unfunny comedy that infests this movie from beginning to end.

Unfortunately the smugglers are already aware that Barton is on their trail and they make their first attempt to kill him before he even arrives. Dick gets his first break in the case when he and his friends are about to tuck into a meal of lobsters, only to find that the lobsters are full of jewellery and other smuggled items. So that’s how the smuggling gang operates!

What our hero doesn’t yet know is that he is dealing with more than just an ordinary smuggling racket. This particularly gang is actually run by ex-Nazis who still think they can win the war even if it has been over for several years. The Nazi mad scientist behind the operation has devised a fiendish plan to wipe out the entire population of Britain!

That’s all you need to know about the plot, because that’s all there is to it. Of the film’s 70 minute running time approximately 50 minutes comprises padding and atrocious comic relief. 

For some unexplained reason at one point the bad guys capture Dick Barton and put him in a suit of armour. You might think this will be the lead-up to some plot point or the setup for some gag, but in fact there appears to be no reason for it whatsoever.

The basic idea could well have made for a reasonably entertaining spy spoof. Although Dick Barton, Special Agent is played mostly for laughs it fails to work as a spoof for the simple reason that it fails to generate any laughs at all. It also fails to generate anything remotely resembling excitement so it ends up not working on any level at all.

Australian-born director Alfred J. Goulding had had some success directing comedy two-reelers in Hollywood. He may have been quite competent in that area but his gift for directing slapstick does not help him in this movie. 

The awful script is another problem but the biggest problem is the acting. Don Stannard is wooden but at least he isn’t overly irritating. That’s more than can be said about his “comic” side-kicks Snowey (George Ford) and Jock (Jack Shaw). 

The bad guys who turn out to be Nazi mad scientists could have been entertaining but the acting is so lame it all just falls flat.

The film was based on a radio series that had enjoyed some popularity. Surprisingly, in view of its utter and complete awfulness, Dick Barton, Special Agent was successful enough to spawn two sequels.

Icon Home Entertainment have released all three Dick Barton movies on a single disc. The sequels have a better reputation than the first film so perhaps the set will turn out not to be a dead loss. The transfer for the first film is adequate.

Dick Barton, Special Agent is a movie to be avoided at all costs.

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