Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Assassin for Hire (1951)

Assassin for Hire, released in 1951, is yet another cheap but surprisingly good crime B-feature from Britain’s Merton Park Studios.

Antonio Riccardi (Sydney Tafler) is a dealer in rare stamps but he actually makes his living as a hitman. He’s also devoted to his family. He loves his wife Maria (Katharine Blake) but most of all he’s devoted to his younger brother Giuseppe (John Hewer). Giuseppe is a promising violinist. To honour a promise to their dying mother six years earlier Antonio is determined to make sure that Giuseppe has a glittering musical career. That’s something that will cost a lot of cash but Antonio makes plenty of money as a professional assassin so that’s no problem.

Antonio has carried out a series of daring and successful hits. Detective Inspector Carson of Scotland Yard (Ronald Howard) knows all about Antonio but so far it has been impossible to build a case against him. Antonio always has a watertight alibi. Carson knows the alibis are phony but he has been unable to break them - Antonio has loyal friends and their loyalty is further encouraged by generous cash payments.

All Inspector Carson can do is wait and hope that Antonio will make a mistake (and Carson is a very patient man). Antonio does make a mistake, and it’s a particularly tragic mistake. It might be the break that Carson has been waiting for.

The screenplay (by Rex Rienits) is not overly complicated but it does have a powerful and effective twist to it (well actually more than one twist). Michael McCarthy’s career as a director was not exactly glittering but he proves himself to be more than capable of making a taut and emotionally satisfying crime thriller on a very low budget.

There’s a definite hint of film noir to this movie. There are some good noirish night scenes and the overall look of the production is quite noirish (lots of trench-coats and similar touches). Maybe Antonio is not a typical noir protagonist - he is after all a cold-blooded killer. On the other hand he has a human and sensitive side. The story does have the element of fate leading a man remorselessly towards his doom.

This movie is an object lesson in low-budget movie-making. If you have a good story and good actors you really don’t need much else. You can get all the atmosphere you need without expensive sets or elaborate visual set-pieces. The very short running time (67 minutes) means there’s no time for unnecessary sub-plots - you have to get on with the story and that’s the approach taken here and it works.

Leading roles in cheap B-movies was as far as Sydney Tafler’s career ever progressed but  he was a fine actor who has never received his due. He’s very impressive here. Tafler would give another excellent performance a year later in the very underrated Wide Boy.

Ronald Howard gives another variation on his standard likeable police inspector performance. Inspector Carson is a quiet, gentle, unassuming man but he’s a deceptively good cop. He has patience and he has doggedness and he knows his job.

The supporting players all give solid effective performances with Ian Wallace being especially good as Antonio’s buddy Charlie.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is absolutely barebones but it’s inexpensive and the transfer is flawless.

Assassin for Hire is a fine low-key very British crime thriller with strong film noir affinities and a superb central performance by Sydney Tafler. It’s no masterpiece but if you’re a fan of B-movies you should plenty here to enjoy. Highly recommended.

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