An ex-Scotland Yard police inspector tussles with the criminal arch-enemy he’s been trying to put behind bars for more than 20 years…
Minor British black and white crime thriller of the early 1950s, hamstrung by a shoestring budget but boasting one of the last big-screen appearances by Tod Slaughter, the nation’s first horror star. He may have been in his sixties by this point, but he was still plying his trade as an utter cad and total bounder, even if lusting after young maidens seems to be off the table at last.
Lady Sylvia Gray (Katharine Blake) is desperate; some compromising letters of hers are in the hands of blackmailer Terence Rigby (Slaughter), and he’s turning the screw. Her husband is about to be named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list (a somewhat dubious distinction in this writer’s opinion), and a scandal now will finish his diplomatic career. The only solution? The river. Ex-Inspector Morley of Scotland Yard (Patrick Barr) reads about it in the newspaper and tells his girl Friday Elane Trotter (Tucker McGuire) all abut the time Blake came to see him and asked for his help. This flashback is so poorly handled that it takes a minute to realise that it is a flashback. After all, his office at the Yard looks almost identical and director Victor M Gower fails to present anything visually different.
Blake wants to keep the whole business quiet and wants Barr to obtain the letters by burgling Slaughter’s office. He refuses, naturally, and that’s that. As she doesn’t want to prosecute, he’s not going to lift a finger. Was that really how being a policeman in the 1950s worked? Anyway, now he’s no longer on the force, he’s free to investigate, and this brings us to one of the drama’s main problems. What is Morley’s official status? Presumably, he’s a private detective, but he never takes any money from his clients, or even discusses payment. Also, he seems to have all his old official police files in his office. There’s also a wonderful moment where he hails a passing police car like a taxi and speeds off in pursuit of a suspect.
After Barr foils Slaughter’s nefarious extortion scheme, he runs across the villain again, this time as the result of a kidnapping. Barr breaks up the plot, of course, aided by a fake beard and a sailor’s cap, a disguise so brilliant that Slaughter is completely fooled. This turns out to be the criminal mastermind’s Achilles Heel as Barr tricks him again later on with another beard and hat combo. The best example of this, though, is when Slaughter hands over all the blackmail letters to Barr’s assistant, McGuire. Apparently, a stripey t-shirt, big round glasses, a flowery hat and the strangest mixture of a Cockney and a Brooklyn accent you’ve ever heard make for a very convincing career criminal. Especially one who Slaughter thought was going to be a man!
When the kidnapping scheme bites the dust, Slaughter falls in with enemy spies who are after some kind of secret weapon/formula called XYQ. It’s the brainchild of old boffin Professor Harrison, who has been working independently, of course, so no government agencies are involved. His assistant has disappeared after ‘being approached by enemy agents’, and he wants Barr to investigate. Not surprisingly, the ex-Scotland Yard man suggests the police of MI5 might be a better bet, but the old geezer insists that Barr is the only man for the job. Why I have no idea. The uncredited actor also gives an interesting performance. He stumbles through his lines, which may have been intentional, but he spends an awful lot of time staring down into his hat. As the scene has few edits and the hamfisted script gives him an awful lot of exposition to get through, it’s not unreasonable to suppose he had a few prompts hidden there.
Now if you think that this all sounds a bit episodic, well, there’s an excellent reason for that. Ambassador Pictures and producer Gilbert Church had rescued Slaughter from the big screen wilderness with ‘The Curse of the Wraydons’ (1946) and ‘The Greed of William Hart’ (1948), but now they were moving into television. This film is actually the first three episodes of a small screen show called ‘Inspector Morley, Late of Scotland Yard, Investigates.’ Unfortunately, Church had failed to pre-sell it to the BBC, which was the only domestic market at the time. Not surprisingly, the Corporation passed, and so it was sold to a regional channel in America, and half a dozen episodes cut into two films, of which this was the first.
It’s quite clear that the main inspiration for the show was the famous battle of wits between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, but that doesn’t really work in the format of a television show with a self-contained story every week. Screenwriter John Gilling can’t overcome the cut-price production budget, which forces him to base each story on the same sets. Indeed, the film is often little more than a series of conversations between men in grey suits in small rooms. There is some location filming, but it’s limited to a few street scenes and a short chase across some wasteground between bombed outbuildings. There’s little action, just the occasional bout of laboured fisticuffs and various parties waving guns about a little.
We do get a strong hint as to why Slaughter’s been able to evade Barr for so long, though. After killing off the Professor while he is on the phone to Barr, Slaughter pulls on some gloves to search for an incriminating photograph and puts the telephone receiver back. Later on, when Barr discovers the body, he just picks up the phone to call Scotland Yard and leaves his fingerprints all over it! Perhaps that’s why he’s an ex-Inspector. His detective skills also somewhat questionable, relying an awful lot on coincidence. At one point, he follows a known criminal he randomly sees on the street and, of course, it turns out the villain is involved in Barr’s current investigation. How convenient!
The two ‘Inspector Morley’ adventures were Slaughter’s final appearances in feature films on the big screen, although his last that was specifically made for the cinema was ‘The Greed of William Hart’ (1948). He is showing his age a little, looking rather tired and slightly overweight. The old energy is mostly absent, although there are flashes of it from time to to time and he does throw himself into the few physical confrontations that the script demands.
Of course, as a film, this is mighty poor stuff with the structure all too obviously compromised by the original format. Barr delivers a brave turn as ‘Voiceover Man’ to try and paper over some of the cracks, but it’s a painfully contrived device. Of course, the film has no real climax either, just the ending of the third show when Slaughter escapes justice…again. But, not to worry, Barr pops up with a quick direct to camera bit before the credits roll to tell us that Slaughter was caught and is due to be hanged because crime doesn’t pay. Not on the big screen in 1952 anyway!
Barr began his acting career on the big screen with uncredited bits in films like the H.G. Wells science-fiction epic ‘Things To Come’ (1936), but progressed to supporting roles in more notable productions. These included appearances in ‘The Dambusters’ (1955), Otto Preminger’s ‘St Joan’ (1957), ‘The Longest Day’ (1962), ‘Billy Liar’ (1963) and ‘Octopussy’ (1983). He also played Lord Carradine in ‘The Satanic Rites of Dracula’ (1973). But it was on television that he found his groove with many notable credits; everything from ‘Dr Who’ and ‘The Avengers’ to ‘The Wednesday Play’ and ‘Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)’.
Surprisingly, two of the men behind the camera went onto many notable projects. Gilling may have directed the infamous ‘Old Mother Riley Meets The Vampire’ (1952), which paid for star Bela Lugosi’s ticket home after his disastrous U.K. tour of the provinces as ‘Dracula’, but the quality of his work improved considerably after that. Twin writing and directing duties on several minor second features followed, including science-fiction conspiracy picture ‘The Gamma People’ (1955), but he struck gold with ‘The Flesh and the Fiends’ (1960). It’s arguably still the definitive film version of the ‘Burke and Hare’ story and boasts excellent performances from Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance. After that, Gilling went to Hammer and delivered a trio of noteworthy pictures; the atmospheric chills of ‘The Plague of the Zombies’ (1965), the distinctly creepy encounter with ‘The Reptile’ (1966) and the somewhat less distinguished Egyptian horror ‘The Mummy’s Shroud’ (1967).
Art director Don Chaffey also took his place behind the megaphone in the early 1950s, although mostly on television. Almost a decade later, he finally hit the jackpot on the big screen with the family-friendly ‘Greyfriars Bobby: The Story of A Dog’ (1961) and, after that, with Disney’s big-budget version of ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ (1962). But better work was to come. Cult cinema fans still rightly celebrate the classic mythological epic ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1962) and Hammer’s prehistoric adventure ‘One Million Years B.C.’ (1966) with Raquel Welch. Chaffey also directed episodes of classic T.V. shows such as ‘Danger Man’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’ before moving to America. Stateside, he took repeat gigs on many network T.V. shows like ‘Charlie’s Angels’, ‘Fantasy Island’, ‘Vega$’,’ T J Hooker’ and the late 1980s reboot of ‘Mission: Impossible.’
A dreary, low-grade example of a British crime thriller from the early 1950s. It is enlivened by a few moments of Slaughter doing what he did best, but it’s certainly not recommended.
Tod Slaughter would return in ‘Murder At Scotland Yard’ (1954).