Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Portrait of Alison (1955)

Portrait of Alison (released in the US as Postmark for Danger) is a fine example of the mystery thrillers that were a staple of the British film industry in the 1950s.

Tim Forrester (Robert Beatty) is an artist. Not a hugely successful artist - he mostly makes his living doing commercial art. He’s content enough. At the beginning of the movie he’s completing a painting for an advertising agency. His model is Jill Stewart (Josephine Griffin) and there’s a suggestion of a minor romantic involvement that is unlikely to go anywhere, mainly because Jill is determined to marry serious money. She seems likely to achieve that objective in the person of the rich if slightly dull and slightly over-serious Henry Carmichael (Allan Cuthbertson).

Tim’s brother Dave (William Sylvester) arrives with bad news. Their brother Lewis has been killed in a car accident in Italy.

This is upsetting enough but worse is to come. The police seem very interested in the case, more interested than one might expect in what was after all just an accidental death. And then Tim receives a mysterious commission - to paint a portrait (from a photograph) of the girl who was killed in the accident with his brother. To help with the portrait her father lends Tim her favourite dress which he sets up on a dressmaker’s dummy. Things get really strange when the portrait is vandalised and the photograph and the dress are stolen. Worse still, Tim finds himself a murder suspect.

Clearly Lewis Forrester was mixed up in something dangerous in Italy and it appears to be connected with a postcard Lewis sent. The trouble is that no-one is sure what the postcard meant or where it is now.

The screenplay by Guy Green and Ken Hughes throws in plenty of twists and succeeds fairly well in keeping the audience guessing. Guy Green directed as well and with considerable panache. 

The strong cast is a major plus. Both Robert Beatty and William Sylvester are very solid and Terry Moore and Josephine Griffin are extremely good as the two women who complicate Tim Forrester’s life. The supporting cast includes such reliable stalwarts of British cinema as Geoffrey Keen (playing a policeman as he so often did) and Allan Cuthbertson. All the performances are nicely judged.

This is not film noir but it does have the occasional noirish visual moment and on the whole it’s a movie that film noir fans are likely to enjoy. The key role played by the portrait does suggest some affinity with the noir classic Laura.

There’s a bit more action than you generally get in British mysteries of this era with a couple of fairly good fight scenes. It was obviously not a big-budget effort but the production values are quite adequate - this movie never looks cheap or shoddy.

One interesting feature is that this is a very rare example of a thriller in which the protagonist mostly behaves quite sensibly, rather than making the series of dumb mistakes  that you expect movie heroes to make in order to drive the plot.

Network DVD have done an admirable job here. The widescreen anamorphic transfer is excellent.

Portrait of Alison might not be in the very top rank of British mystery thrillers but overall it’s a well-crafted movie that delivers the goods. Highly recommended.

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