Thursday, May 28, 2015

High Treason (1951)

High Treason is a 1951 British Cold War spy thriller directed by Roy Boulting, and it’s a fairly competent one.

In some ways this one is structured more like a police procedural than an action spy thriller. The heroes operate more like policemen than James Bond-style spies.

A dockyard explosion destroys a British arms shipment. It’s the latest in a series of similar events. Commander Robert Brennan (Liam Redmond) of Special Branch is put in charge of the investigation, assisted by Superintendent Folland (André Morell) and Major Elliott (Anthony Bushell) of the Security Service (Britain’s counter-espionage agency more popularly known as MI5). There’s a very strong suspicion, amounting to a near certainty, that these acts of sabotage are organised by Soviet agents who have access to information from someone highly placed in the British bureaucracy.

The audience knows from the start who the Soviet agents are. The suspense factor comes from the fact that some of these agents are more innocent dupes than traitors and don’t really deserve the drastic fate that seems to be in store of them. And of course the suspense also comes from knowing that the enemy agents’ latest lot is far more ambitious and far more dangerous than anything they’ve tried before. I’m not saying that the fate of civilisation is at stake, but the stakes are still quite high.

While some of these spies are deluded rather than evil there’s no question that some are very evil indeed - they are very highly placed and they understand exactly what they’re doing.

Commander Brennan has a few leads but what he doesn’t know is that he’s engaged in a race against the clock.

From the acting point of view this is not a star vehicle for any one actor. All the performers are reliable and all the performances are effective. Two players who do stand out are Anthony Nicholls as the oily MP Grant Mansfield and Mary Morris as the ideological zealot Anna Braun. These are two very different but very chilling portrayals of evil. Kenneth Griffith does well as the hapless but oddly sympathetic Jimmy Ellis, a foolish and frightened young man in way over his head.

The Soviet spies in this thriller come from all walks of life. Some are frustrated insignificant little people, others are wealthy and powerful. Some are working-class, some middle-class and some upper-class. Some are fanatics, some are misguided fools.

While there’s no doubt who the bad guys are, and the film doesn’t pull its punches in this area, it doesn’t really come across as propaganda - this is a movie about the dangers of people who believe in Causes with a capital C rather than any one cause.

Surprisingly enough this movie doesn’t really feel dated at all. There will always be fanatics whose commitment to their cause blinds them to the truth that people matter more than ideologies. There will always be people who not only want to save the world but believe that they have a foolproof plan for doing so, and that the self-evident righteousness of the ends justifies any means. There will always be cynical egoists who believe they are the natural leaders of the people and therefore should have absolute unquestioned power. And there will always be naïve well-meaning dupes to help them. The causes may vary, the methods may vary, but the psychological motivations remain the same. It’s these psychological motivations that are the main focus of Frank Harvey and Roy Boulting’s screenplay.

Most of the movie is focused on Commander Brennan’s patient and methodical investigation. The emphasis is on routine police work rather than spy tradecraft. The action-packed finale, with an abundance of gunplay and a remarkably high body count, therefore comes as a bit of a surprise. Director Boulting handles this action set-piece quite effectively, as he does the film’s violent opening sequence. Presumably the idea was to emphasise that espionage is not a gentleman’s game but a bloody business in which real people get hurt.

This is one of four forgotten but extremely fine slightly noir-flavoured suspense thrillers in Strawberry Media’s excellent Great British Movies: Film Noir - Volume 2 DVD boxed set, along with Dublin Nightmare, The Big Chance and Deadly Nightshade. The transfers of all four films are exceptionally good. Don’t expect any extras but for the absurdly low price this set represents superb value for money.

High Treason is a well-crafted thriller with a nice mix of thrills and suspense. It would make a fine addition to the collection of any spy movie fan. Highly recommended.

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