Sunday, January 15, 2017

Offbeat (1961)

Offbeat (released in the US as The Devil Inside) is a 1961 low-budget film noir-influenced British crime thriller concerning Scotland Yard’s famous Ghost Squad. This was a real-life division within Scotland Yard whose officers infiltrated criminal organisations for extended periods of time.

Layton (William Sylvester) is an MI5 man seconded to the Ghost Squad to penetrate one of the new highly organised gangs behind a series of alarming and very sophisticated robberies. He’s been provided with a false identity, that of Steve Ross, a criminal who disappeared from view a year or so earlier. First Layton/Steve Ross has to prove his bona fides to the London underworld and this provides the movie’s excellent opening sequence as he robs a bank single-handed.

It doesn’t take long for him to make contact with the organisation run by James Dawson (Anthony Dawson), and a very well-run criminal organisation it is. It even has a pension plan! Dawson and his partner, the easy-going Johnny Hemick (John Meillon), need a man who is ice-cold under pressure and Steve Ross seems to fit the bill perfectly. Steve’s first job for the gang is a very daring robbery - a jewellery store with three-quarters of a million pounds in diamonds locked in the safe. The store is incredibly well-protected but Steve has an idea that will allow these security measures to be very neatly circumvented.

In the meantime Steve has become very friendly indeed with another member of the gang, glamorous blonde Ruth Lombard (Mai Zetterling). It would be very foolish for an undercover cop to fall in love in a situation like this but that’s exactly what seems likely to happen.

The heist itself (including the elaborate planning stages) occupies most of the film and it’s wonderfully tense and exciting as it keeps seeming that everything is about to go wrong but these are professional thieves and they have planned this robbery very well indeed.

While it’s a terrific caper movie there’s a lot more going on in this movie. Steve has made a disturbing discovery. He really likes these people. And he really enjoys being a criminal. Added to which are the charms of the lovely Ruth Lombard. Of course he’s still a cop and he has his duty to perform. It’s just that it now seems like a rather unpleasant duty - it seems uncomfortably like betrayal.

The theme of divided loyalties and betrayal and counter-betrayal provide a very definite hint of film noir. This is combined with a strong sense of moral ambiguity - these are rather honourable thieves in their own way. This of course adds further to the noir flavour. 

The suspense in this movie (and very effective suspense it is) comes not just from the usual hazards of a bold and risky heist but from our considerable uncertainty as to which way Steve Ross will finally jump. I’m obviously not going to give you any hints as to the answer. All I will say is that we’re kept guessing until the end.

William Sylvester was an American actor who was trained in Britain and become something of a fixture in low-budget British crime pictures in the 50s and early 60s (including Dublin Nightmare and the superb Portrait of Alison). He had a certain intensity about him which works very much in his favour in this film. Steve Ross is a man who seems to be in absolute control of himself but we can’t help suspecting that maybe he’s just a little too tightly wound.

Swedish-born Mai Zetterling had a modestly successful film career in Britain during the same period. She makes a fairly good female lead here. Anthony Dawson and Australian character actor John Meillon provide fine support - both Johnny Hemick and Dawson are a bit more interesting than you would usually expect from supporting characters and we care about their fate just as we care about Steve Ross and Ruth.

Director Cliff Owen had a very undistinguished career spent mostly in television but he obviously did have some real ability as he does a fine job maintaining the tension and the pacing. Writer Peter Barnes (who also worked on the excellent spy thriller Ring of Spies) provides a clever script.

Offbeat gets the standard DVD treatment from Network - a very good anamorphic transfer without any extras (apart from a photo gallery) and at a reasonable price.

Offbeat is worth the attention of noir fans and it’s a very entertaining crime suspense thriller. Highly recommended.

Scotland Yard’s Ghost Squad was also the subject of a very good early 60s British television crime series, called (naturally) Ghost Squad. It's worth a look as well.

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