Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Big Chance (1957)

The Big Chance is one of the four rather obscure low-budget British noirs included in Strawberry Media’s Great British Movies: Film Noir - Volume 2 DVD boxed set. It’s a fairly lightweight little movie but it does have some genuine noir credentials and it’s worth a look.

William Russell plays Bill Anderson, a young man who has found life rather a disappointment. What he really wanted to do with his life was to travel to exotic places and his fondest wish was to buy a schooner and set himself up as a trader in the South Seas. That might sound like a rather old-fashioned aspiration for a young man in 1957 but it’s typical of the way Bill’s mind works. He thought that if he could get a job in a travel agency he’d be well on the way to realising his ambitions. Unfortunately it turned out that working in a travel agency is just like any other office job. You spend your time organising foreign travel for other people but you don’t earn enough to do any travelling yourself.

Bill has also found his marriage to be a disappointment. His wife does not share his fantasies about travel or the South Seas. She’s just an ordinary woman who wants a nice home and a steady reliable husband. Bill doesn’t hate her for this. He’s a good-natured soul who really couldn’t hate anybody. He just feels trapped and misunderstood and disappointed.

Then fate steps in (as it tends to do in the world of film noir). Bill finds himself alone in the office. The safe is full of money. He has the combination to the safe. It’s Friday so if the money happened to disappear no-one would know about it for two days. Sitting on his desk there’s a passport belonging to a client that even an amateur like Bill could easily doctor - as luck would have it he has a photo of himself with the Foreign Office stamp in exactly the right place so that it could easily take the place of the real owner’s photo. And he has an air ticket to Panama in the client’s name. Panama! Just the place to buy a schooner and set oneself up as a Pacific island trader. It really does seem like a once in a lifetime opportunity. The temptation proves to be impossible to resist.

Bill has a plan for getting through Customs and Immigration with the stolen money and surprisingly it all goes perfectly. Except for one thing. The flight is delayed for 24 hours because of fog so he’ll have to go through the whole process again the next day.

In the meantime he has met Diana (Adrienne Corri). Diana is running away as well. She’s running away from her elderly but very rich husband. It’s not that he treats her badly. He’s actually kind and indulgent. It’s not that she hates him. Improbable as it may seem she was in love with him when she married him and while she’s not in love with him now she can’t bring herself to hate him. Whatever her faults (and as we will discover she has quite a few) she is not the kind of woman who can hate a man who has done her no actual wrong.

Bill and Diana set off in her car to look for a hotel, they get lost in the fog and end up having to break into an empty house to find shelter. It’s all rather an exciting adventure and it’s quite romantic and they’re both young and of course nature takes its course. 

Writer-director Peter Graham Scott’s screenplay still has plenty of twists in store for them as their plans keep on miscarrying. One of the strengths of this movie is that it packs plenty of plot into its 59-minute running time so that although the budget didn’t allow for any spectacular visual set-pieces there’s still very little chance of the audience becoming bored.

The Big Chance has a genuine noir protagonist, a man who is basically a very decent fellow but who succumbs to temptation just once in his life and finds that once you’ve taken the first step it’s very hard not to keep plunging deeper into the abyss. It also has a femme fatale. And it has quite a few night scenes combined with fog so even the visuals are at least vaguely film noir. It might not tick all the noir boxes but it ticks enough of them to justify Strawberry Media’s inclusion of it in a film noir set.

That the movie works quite well has a lot to do with the two stars. Adrienne Corri is impressive as Diana. Diana is a particular type of femme fatale - she’s not evil, merely irresponsible and manipulative. That of course makes a femme fatale even more dangerous. Diana is not a bad woman. She’s not a woman at all. She’s in her mid-twenties but emotionally she’s about fifteen. She admits to having Daddy Issues and we can believe her. She’s used to having men treat her like a special princess. Corri conveys all this with commendable subtlety. Diana is a character we could despise but we find it difficult to do so. She does the things she does because she doesn’t know any better.

William Russell has had a 70-year (!) acting career, mostly in television (most notably in the early years of Doctor Who). He’s one of those actors who is never out of work but never quite makes it as a star. He gives an effective understated performance. Bill’s problem is very like Diana’s - he’s never grown up. Let’s face it, in 1957 wanting to run away to sea and become a trader in the South Seas is the sort of thing boys read about in story books or saw in adventure films. It’s not exactly a grown-up ambition. Bill is also very definitely not cut out to be a criminal. On the few occasions when he is faced by the threat of violence or when decisive action is required he is hopelessly out of his depth. Russell gets this across very adroitly. Like Diana Bill is a character we could have regarded some derision but we can’t. He’s just not quite ready for the grown-up world.

The two leads have the right chemistry and most importantly their characters mesh perfectly. Bill is exactly the sort of man Diana would go for. She’s a woman who is either going to go for a much older man (like her husband) who will treat her like a pampered daughter or she’s going to go for a man as emotionally immature as she is. Either way she will be looking for a man to manipulate rather than for an adult relationship. And Diana is most certainly the sort of woman Bill would fall for. She gives the impression of being a sophisticated woman of the world (it’s amazing what expensive clothes will do for a woman) even though she isn’t but Bill doesn’t have enough experience to know that. And she seems to him to be a whole lot sexier than his very suburban wife. Bill is also sure that Diana is also exactly the sort of woman who would just love to spend her life on a schooner cruising the South Seas. That Bill actually believes this shows how naïve and juvenile his dreams are. Both William Russell and Adrienne Corri succeed admirably in making the relationship convincing.

The DVD transfer is faultless.

The Big Chance is a very low-key little movie but as long as you don’t approach it with unrealistic expectations it’s quite entertaining and it does have at least something of a film noir flavour. Recommended.

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