Thursday, December 10, 2015

Circle of Danger (1951)

Circle of Danger is a low-key British mystery thriller about a man trying to learn the truth about his brother’s death.

Clay Douglas (Ray Milland) is a diver who has made a lot of money in the salvage business. Now he’s sold his share of the business and he sets off for Britain to find out what really happened to his brother. His brother had joined the British Army in 1940 and had ended up in the Commandos. He had been killed during an operation behind enemy lines in 1944. During the war Clay, who was then serving in the US Navy, had had a chance encounter with a man named Smithers who had served alongside his brother. Smithers had told Clay something very disturbing - the bullet that killed his brother may not have been a German bullet. His brother may have been murdered.

Clay’s quest to discover the truth takes him from London to a mining town in Wales and from thence to the Highlands of Scotland. Smithers is now dead and in fact most of the men in Clay’s brother’s Commando unit are now dead as well. Finding the few survivors proves to be a frustrating business.

He eventually tracks down his brother’s commanding officer in the Scottish Highlands. Like everyone else he has managed to contact Major McArran (Hugh Sinclair) seems to be curiously reluctant to discuss the matter.

At McArran’s house Clay meets Elspeth Graham (Patricia Roc), a young writer of children’s books. There’s an obvious attraction between them but it’s a romance that runs into an extraordinary number of obstacles, not the least of them being that Major McArran is clearly very interested in Elspeth as well. Clay is certainly keen on Elspeth but his obsession with uncovering the truth about his brother’s death proves to be another obstacle in the path of true love.

Philip Macdonald wrote the screenplay, based on his novel White Heather. The story relies more on suspense and the unravelling of a murder mystery than on conventional thriller elements. It’s very light on action but it is definitely nicely suspenseful. There’s some clever misdirection and some good plot twists as Clay follows up clues that don’t mean what he thinks they mean and don’t lead where he thinks they’re going to lead. The ending is unexpected and at the same time it seems like the only possible ending, which is always  the mark of a well-constructed story.

The love story has no real connection with the main plot but it does serve to lighten the mood and it slows down the plot. This is actually an advantage. This is a slow-burning suspense film and the pacing is deliberately somewhat leisurely.

Jacques Tourneur directed the film and while it’s a lesser effort from a man who is one of the most underrated American directors of his era it’s still a very fine and very well-crafted movie with some very effective use of locations.

Clay Douglas is a man who is dogged in pursuit of anything he decides to go after but Ray Milland plays him as a sympathetic character albeit with just the slightest touch of disturbing obsessiveness. Patricia Roc makes an engaging leading lady. Hugh Sinclair is solid as McArran and the supporting performances are all effective. Marius Goring pretty much steals the picture as Sholto Lewis, a ballet dancer who gives the impression of being the last person you would expect to be a very tough ex-Commando officer but appearances can be deceptive. 

Network’s DVD is typical of the company - it offers virtually nothing in the way of extras but it offers an extremely good transfer at a very reasonable price.

Circle of Danger is a subtle movie that offers few thrills but does offer effective suspense and a good mystery story. It’s a well-made well-acted film that achieves what it sets out to achieve. The location shooting and Marius Goring’s performance are major bonuses. The result is excellent entertainment. Not quite in the same league as Tourneur’s best films but still highly recommended.

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