Private detective Sexton Blake receives a coded message from Hong Kong. The courier is killed before he can speak, but the crime ﬁghter identifies the culprits as the secret criminal organisation known as the Black Quorum. He determines to smash the organisation, but ﬁnds his efforts complicated by the presence of a glamorous French agent…
The adventures of Sexton Blake featured in a wide variety of British and international publications from 1893 to 1978, comprising more than 4,000 stories by some 200 different authors. The first was by Harry Blyth (writing as Hal Meredeth) who cast Blake as a generic 19th Century sleuth, but it was not long before other scribes turned him into a cut-price Sherlock Holmes, even giving him lodgings at Baker Street! His ﬁrst big-screen appearance was in a 12-minute short film in 1909, and there were more than a dozen further appearances in the silent days, all of which appear to be lost.
British producer George King acquired the ﬁlm rights in the 1930s with the plan of making a series of pictures around the character. He’d gained notoriety, and a measure of wealth, through the efficient delivery of low-budget films and was mainly known for the melodramas starring theatrical actor Tod Slaughter, most notably ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ (1935). However, this particular project was cut from a distinctly different cloth, having only a little in common with the theatrical ‘barnstormers’ that had been the stock in trade of the director and star.
Englishman in Hong Kong, Granite Grant (David Farrar), has a problem. His activities have come to the attention of the Black Quorum, the ‘greatest crime organisation of the century’. It’s a puzzle how they managed to identify a top agent like Farrar when his undercover methods include sitting in a hotel lobby behind a raised newspaper and talking out of the corner of his mouth. But identify him they do, and an assassination attempt leaves him forced to entrust a vital communique to associate Duvall (Billy Watts). This coded message is directed (for some reason never adequately explained) to a private detective in London, Sexton Blake (George Curzon).
Meanwhile, back in old Blighty, Curzon is taking a break from his crime-fighting activities to attend a sale of postage stamps at a local auction house. Somewhat bizarrely, this gathering of seemingly harmless philatelists proves to be a cauldron of intrigue and villainy and the place where the hierarchy of the Black Quorum meet. Calling the shots is the fabulously wealthy Michael Larron (Slaughter) who only has eyes for the pretty Mademoiselle Julie (Greta Gynt); the plus one of his lieutenant and all-around ‘bad hat’ Max Fleming (Charles Oliver). Coincidentally, Gynt and Curzon have crossed paths in the past, and he immediately suspects she is on an assignment of some kind. How a private detective happens to know all these secret agents is something that A R Rawlinson’s screenplay completely fails to explain.
Curzon and Gynt proceed to discuss Watts’ imminent arrival in London with his important message, Curzon even providing the details of when the spy is expected at his rooms. Carrying out this conversation openly in the middle of a crowded auction room exhibits some of the finest traits of discretion and spy-craft I’ve ever witnessed, but somehow they are overheard. As a result, Watts is assassinated by blow dart within moments of his arrival, leaving behind the coded message from Farrar. The murder allows us to get acquainted with the local plod: Inspector Bramley (Norman Pierce), whose investigations make Dennis Hoey’s Inspector Lestrade from the Rathbone-Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series look like a positive Einstein. Still, Curzon’s not much better; setting fire to the coded message to light his pipe!
Decoding the message due to a brilliantly contrived (and completely ridiculous) coincidence, Curzon is off to the Quorum’s secret headquarters in Caversham Square, along with tiresome sidekick Tiinker (Tony Sympson). He functions as comedy relief and feeds stupidly obvious to questions to Curzon so he can answer them in a suitably dramatic manner. At Quorum Central, Curzon falls into the most elaborate, and strangely specific, trap in cinema history; a hidden hatch in the floor of a room full of waxworks posed as if they were gamblers in a casino. I have no clue as to what other function this room could serve. From there, it’s the usual heroic struggle against the machinations of the Quorum’s head man ‘The Snake’ (just who could he be?) and a race against time to save Gynt from a roomful of lazy slithering reptiles.
Regarded as part of the cinematic journey of Slaughter and producer-director King, this film is certainly the odd one out, and the reason was probably economic. The duo’s first collaboration, ‘Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn’ (1934) had been made at a time when investment wasn’t hard to ﬁnd. The British government had introduced a ‘quota’ system to stimulate the homegrown industry and ﬁlms such as Alexander Korda’s ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ (1933) had enjoyed great success on other shores. Unfortunately, that kind of popularity proved to be the exception rather than the rule and, by 1937, the money was starting to dry up.
It was in these conditions that the partnership chose to abandon their usual (and very British) melodramas in favour of something with more of an American ﬂavour. The finished article shares some DNA with the Hollywood serials of the time, even if the feature format doesn’t allow for a lot of cliff-hangers. Still, there is an attempt to present the villain as a masked criminal with a secret identity, decking him out in robes with a silver reptile emblazoned on the front. His co-conspirators also have their faces hidden under black hoods, TV screens keep track of the street outside the secret HQ, and there’s a ‘death chamber’ of deadly snakes. Yes, it is all a bit half-hearted, but I guess it’s the thought that counts.
Slaughter’s performance is also interesting. Gone is the gibbering madman and the histrionics of his previous villainous portrayals. Instead, he favours a sly, creepy efficiency that is far more business-like than usual, even if flashes of his old excesses do peek out from time to time. This was probably Slaughter tailoring his performance to ﬁt the material; after all, he returned to his cackling ways in his subsequent films. However, during the break after his last collaboration with King, ‘The Ticket of Leave Man’ (1937), Slaughter had acted for two other directors. Although ‘Darby and Joan’ (1937) is a lost film, John Baxter’s ‘Song of the Road’ (1937) has survived. Unfortunately, Slaughter’s typically over the top performance as a lecherous gypsy stands out like a sore thumb in what is otherwise a low-key celebration of the simplicity of rural life. That experience may have played on his mind.
Despite the general restraint and an absence of serious action, there are still some wonderful (and often very British) anachronisms to enjoy. The Quorum all wear hoods at their meetings, which you might reasonably assume is to keep their identities hidden from each other, until they just remove them about half a minute into the scene! Their disguises serve absolutely no purpose, other than to justify the film’s title, and provide some suitable dramatic ‘unmasking’ moments.
Curzon warns Gynt that she needs to be very careful taking on an international crime syndicate; explaining that he’s ‘a very busy man’ and ‘may not always have the chance to come to your rescue.’ How very 1930s you might say, but, in one of the story’s few surprising developments, it’s actually Gynt who saves Curzon, and ribs him about it afterwards! Although he does return the favour later on, of course. Sympson’s sidekick is written as an eager, overenthusiastic youngster who tries hard but often gets things wrong due to his painful inexperience. Shame the actor was more than 30 years old at the time of ﬁlming!
King’s plans to turn ‘Sexton Blake’ into a series never materialised, and he and Slaughter returned to their melodramatic roots. The character featured in further movies and appeared on British TV in the 1960s and 1970s. The most notable projects were probably the films ‘Meet Sexton Blake!’ (1945) and ‘The Echo Murders’ (1945) if only because the title role was taken by Farrar, who appears here in the first act as wounded spy Granite Grant.
Farrar went from strength to strength after that, and he’s best remembered these days for his work with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on the classic ‘Black Narcissus’ (1946) and as the lead in their low-key bomb disposal drama ‘The Small Back Room’ (1949). Norwegian actress Gynt also had a long and successful career, her most notable appearance to fans of cult cinema being opposite horror icon Bela Lugosi in ‘Dark Eyes of London’ (1939).
An old-fashioned and mildly enjoyable criminal enterprise, but without Slaughter at full throttle, it feels more than a little muted.