Sunday, August 21, 2016

Wide Boy (1952)

Wide Boy is a 1952 British crime melodrama with some marked affinities to film noir. Merton Park Studios specialised in cheap B-movies that often turned out to be quite decent little movies.

Benny Mercer (Sydney Tafler) is a wide boy - he’s a petty crook whose criminal activities are very trivial indeed. Things like hawking without a licence. Or selling items that may have fallen off the back of a lorry. These heinous crimes usually result in a small fine. He has never been to prison. The truth is that Benny has neither the nerve nor the imagination  to get mixed up in any kind of serious crime.

Things are not going well for Benny at the moment and then suddenly an opportunity presents itself. It’s still a fairly minor crime but it in turn offers him an opportunity to get his hands on some real money for the first time in his life.

It’s too much of a temptation to resist but the truth is that Benny is badly out of his depth. He has no experience in such matters. He certainly has no experience in crime on such a scale and he makes a very serious error of judgment. He thinks he’s buying insurance but he could be putting a noose around his neck.

It all goes terribly wrong, as tends to happen when amateurs think they can play in the big time. In a single evening Benny goes from aspiring big shot to hunted animal. Chief Inspector Carson (Ronald Howard) is a rather gentle and amiable policeman but he knows his job and time is running out for Benny. 

All Benny really wanted to do was to have enough money to buy a few nice things for himself and for his girlfriend Molly (Susan Shaw). He’s not really such a bad guy, merely weak and prone to the temptation of easy money. In normal circumstances he would have gone through life without doing any great harm to anybody. What seemed like a lucky break turned out to be very unlucky indeed. In this sense Wide Boy probably just about qualifies as film noir. Benny discovers that one mistake can be enough to damn a man. His downfall is certainly brought about by his own character flaws, combined with lousy luck.

Sydney Tafler was an actor who never made it stardom. Lead roles in very low-budget movies such as this one were as far as he got. In fact he was a fine actor and when well cast (as he is here) he could deliver some pretty impressive performances. 

Susan Shaw is effective as Molly. She does at times give Benny a hard time about his lack of money, and to some extent she is therefore to blame for tempting him into serious crime, but she’s not calculating enough or ruthless enough (or heartless enough) to be a femme fatale.

Ronald Howard gives a characteristically easy-going performance as Chief Inspector Carson. 

There are some definite film noir visual moments and the climactic bridge sequence is wonderfully atmospheric and doom-laden. This was the first feature film directed by Ken Hughes who went on to have an interesting if up-and-down career. Wide Boy qualifies as an impressive debut.
Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers an extremely good transfer. As usual there’s pretty much nothing in the way of extras (in fact nothing beyond a somewhat threadbare image gallery).

Despite its low budget Wide Boy is an entertaining, well-crafted and visually impressive little gem of a movie. Sydney Tafler’s superb performance is a major asset. This is an excellent low-key British film noir. Highly recommended.

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