Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Venetian Bird (1952)

Venetian Bird (released in the US as The Assassin) is a taut private eye/spy thriller with just a dash of film noir to add a little extra flavour. This 1952 British production is typical of the superb thrillers made in quantity by the British film industry in that period.

Richard Todd plays Edward Mercer, an English private detective doing a routine job for a French legal firm. He’s looking for a man named Renzo Uccello, a man who was last heard of during the war. It’s not a very important job but it does take Mercer to Venice and that suits him - he’s the sort of man who finds it hard to settle down in peacetime. During the war he’d been a British agent operating in Italy and his work had involved, among other things, assassination. His wartime career will later prove to be important in plot terms.

He follows the usual methods employed in trying to find people. He places advertisements in the local newspapers offering a reward for anyone who comes forward with information as to Uccello’s present whereabouts. A man answers the ad and Mercer arranges to meet him. The following day the man is found floating dead in one of the canals. This certainly seems to suggest that this case might not be quite as routine as it appeared.

The trail leads Mercer to Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok), a rather classy and glamorous woman who works for a leading art gallery, designing tapestries. These are high art tapestries and very expensive. The gallery is owned by the wealthy and powerful Count Boria (Walter Rilla). Mercer is not sure what the connection with Uccello might be but he is pretty sure there is one.

Chief of Police Spadoni (George Coulouris) takes a considerable interest in Mercer’s activities. He is aware of Mercer’s wartime record. He is also aware of certain facts about Renzo Uccello. The combination of these two circumstances suggests to Spadoni that it would be advisable for him to keep a very close watch on Mercer’s investigation. He assigns one of his undercover men (played by John Gregson) to do just that.

Mercer soon makes his own rather startling discoveries about Renzo Uccello. There is a great deal at stake - in fact the very future of Italian democracy. And, inevitably, Mercer starts to fall in love with Adriana.

Richard Todd was always a reliable actor. This particular role possibly needed someone who was a bit more of an obvious tough guy but Todd does succeed in making Mercer convincingly dogged and he makes him a sympathetic hero. Eva Bartok and John Gregson are also very solid, as they usually were. George Coulouris is excellent as Spadoni, a hardheaded but essentially decent cop faced with a case that is very much bigger than anything he’s ever had to deal with before. Sid James is fun as an Italian mortician. Since this is Sid James and he’s playing a mortician you might expect him to be there for comic relief but in the early part of his career he played a lot of straight dramatic roles. He does however play the part with a twinkle in his eye and he has the opportunity to ham it up just a little.

Director Ralph Thomas had a lengthy, successful and extremely varied career. He was the sort of director best described as a highly skilled artisan, being able to handle just about any genre. He’s in complete control here, keeping things tight and nicely suspenseful and stylish in an unassuming and non-intrusive way. He’d helmed another superb thriller, The Clouded Yellow, a couple of years earlier so he knew his way around the thriller genre.

There’s a limited use of stock footage but also some actual location shooting in Venice and the movie makes very good use of its exotic setting. Even the process shots are very well done. 

While there’s a political conspiracy at the centre of the story it’s used as an engine to drive the plot and mercifully the audience is not bludgeoned with clumsy political propaganda.

The Region 2 DVD is typical of the releases from Strawberry Media - no extras but a superb transfer and at a very reasonable price. 

Venetian Bird is a well-crafted and very polished thriller. Highly recommended.

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