Saturday, October 10, 2015

Dick Barton at Bay (1950)

Dick Barton at Bay was the second of the three Dick Barton spy thrillers made by Hammer in the late 40s (although it ended up being the last of the three to be released). It’s not great but it’s certainly a huge improvement on the astoundingly awful Dick Barton, Special Agent.

The Dick Barton character had featured in an extremely popular radio series and Hammer assumed that a series of low-budget Dick Barton movies would be guaranteed money-spinners. Their assumption turned out to be entirely correct. The movie series was tragically cut short when star Don Stannard was killed in a car accident following the completion of the third film.

These movies were “quota quickies” - very cheap films made to take advantage of British government policies to protect the British film industry. Quota quickies are often despised, sometimes for good reason, but they provided much-needed work for British actors and crews and some were quite decent pictures.

Dick Barton at Bay pits its hero against perfidious master-spy Serge Volkoff (Meinhart Maur) who has kidnapped a leading British scientist, Professor Mitchell. To judge by the movies of the time being a leading British scientist was a dangerous occupation. What Volkoff really wants is a death ray that Mitchell has invented, a ray that can knock aircraft out of the sky at will. The British know the invention works because the professor has demonstrated its ability to disintegrate a small model aeroplane at a range of several feet - clearly a most formidable weapon! If a certain unnamed foreign power gets its hands on the death ray the consequences could be unthinkable.

In order to persuade Professor Mitchell to co-operate Volkoff has also kidnapped his daughter (taking advantage of the well-known fact that scientists always have beautiful daughters). Volkoff does face one major hurdle though - he knows that the British intelligence services have assigned their top man to the case. Their top man is of course the famous Dick Barton, although you might well wonder how a secret agent comes to be a celebrity.

There is only one option open to Volkoff - Dick Barton must die! Luckily Volkoff has the ideal man for the job - the sinister assassin Chang (Yoshihide Yanai). Volkoff’s other main henchman is the taciturn Fingers (Paddy Ryan). Fingers has one finger missing, a bit of a problem for a spy since it makes him distressingly easy to identify!

Don Stannard is not the most dynamic of actors but he conforms to the early 1950s idea of what a daring British secret agent would look like. Barton is assisted, as usual, by the faithful Snowey White (George Ford). In the first film in the series Barton’s pals were there mainly to provide excruciatingly unfunny comic relief. Fortunately the second film largely dispenses with the comic relief. Meinhart Maur makes Volkoff suitably fiendish and menacing. Some of the supporting players are alas rather wooden, although Tamara Desni gets into the spirit of things as the obligatory glamorous but dangerous female spy. Look out for a young Patrick Macnee in a bit part. 

Godfrey Grayson was a prolific director for Hammer at this period when the company specialised in cheap crime thrillers. He handles matters competently enough. Despite the very tight budget the film does have a certain amount of atmosphere. The pacing is quite satisfactory (pacing being an absolutely essential ingredient for low-budget thrillers). The sets are very basic indeed and the secret weapon that foreign powers are prepared to kill for looks slightly less sophisticated than the average radio set. The professor’s laboratory must surely be one of the cheapest and shabbiest ever seen on film.

The special effects budget must have been miniscule indeed but while they’re definitely on the shoddy side of shoddy they don’t detract from the enjoyment too much. Rather wisely Grayson elected to keep them to an absolute minimum. The music is often wildly (if amusingly) inappropriate.

All three movies are included in Icon Home Entertainment’s Dick Barton boxed set, which actually comprises a single disc. The transfer is acceptable but image quality is very grainy and a bit muddy. Sound quality is OK but not great. Dick Barton at Bay is sadly in much poorer shape than the other two films.

Dick Barton at Bay is a moderately entertaining very low-budget thriller but it’s light years ahead of the first Dick Barton film. Dick Barton, Special Agent had been played mostly (and with a resounding lack of success) for laughs. Dick Barton at Bay tries to be a relatively serious spy adventure but with a definite Boys’ Own Paper feel to it. It’s enjoyable as long as you don’t go into it with unrealistically high expectations. Worth a look.

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