Friday, December 12, 2014

Deadly Nightshade (1953)

Deadly Nightshade is one of four films included in a boxed set called Great British Movies: Film Noir - Volume 2 put out by an outfit called Strawberry Media in the UK. I had some doubts about this set, half expecting that the films would have no noir content whatsoever and that the transfers might be iffy. Based on Deadly Nightshade my fears were groundless on both counts.

Deadly Nightshade is a strange genre hybrid. At first it seems like a fairly typical example of the entertaining crime thrillers the British produced in such quantity at this period. But it’s also a spy thriller. It has considerable helpings of moral ambiguity, it has a strong sense of a man whose attempt to escape his fate simply traps him more completely and it has a definite Nothing Is What It Seems To Be quality. All of which is, in my view, just about sufficient to justify the film noir label.

It was directed by John Gilling, a man who made a lot of very interesting genre movies in the 50s and early 60s including a couple of superb gothic horror films for Hammer (The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies). He also wrote and directed The Challenge (aka It Takes a Thief), a very underrated 1960 film noir starring Jayne Mansfield (whose performance in the film is quite impressive).

He was a very talented director who has never received anywhere near the attention he deserves.

Deadly Nightshade starts with the police arresting escaped convict John Barlow in a pub in a small seaside town in the West Country in England. Only it turns out that the man they’ve just arrested isn’t Barlow at all but a painter named Robert Matthews. Their mistake is understandable - Matthews is the spitting image of Barlow. The genial Inspector Clements (John Horsley) is very apologetic, Matthews accepts his apology with good grace and the two men part on good terms. 

Then Barlow turns up on Matthews’ doorstep and things start to get complicated. From this point on any mention of specific plot points is going to entail the risk of spoilers. I’m not going to take that risk, but suffice to say that the plot includes an ocean liner sunk by a German mine seven years after the end of the war, atomic scientists and murder. And none of these events are what they seem to be.

Emrys Jones plays both Matthews and Barlow and does a fine job. He conveys the sense of unease and the ambiguity of both characters subtly and economically and he makes them both convincing. Zena Marshall as the love interest of one of these men is quite solid. John Horsley is quietly understated as the affable but efficient Inspector Clements.

The movie’s biggest fault is an excessive reliance on coincidence but if you accept it as a kind of film noir then that becomes less of a problem. After all in a film noir you’re not entirely surprised to see fate taking a hand to lead a character on his way down the slippery slide to the noir nightmare world.

I don’t want to overstate my case for this movie being film noir. Stylistically it’s more in the mainstream tradition of British mysteries and thrillers of the 40s and 50s, and much of the tension comes from the contrast between the tranquil and innocent rural setting and the psychological turmoil of the characters. So you won’t find any obvious noir visual signatures here. The cinematography (by Monty Berman) is certainly competent but it’s not noir cinematography.

This movie was produced by Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker who would go on to be among the most important producers in British television in the 1960s. In the 50s they specialised in low-budget movies and Deadly Nightshade was clearly made on a rather modest budget. This imposes certain limitations - there was obviously no money for attempting ambitious action sequences. This does not prove to be a major problem - with a competently written script by Lawrence Huntington, with a talented director like Gilling and with a fairly strong cast the movie has enough going for it to compensate for a lack of big money.

The transfer is flawless and quite simply superb. The movie looks terrific. 

Deadly Nightshade is an unusual and interesting movie and it’s also rather entertaining. As a slightly noirish spy thriller it works well. Highly recommended.

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