The last year or so has seen the release on DVD of a number of British crime pictures that I had almost given up hope of ever seeing again. Tread Softly Stranger (1958) falls into film noir territory courtesy of the shadowy photography and the focus on a three way releationship between the good-for-nothing characters.
Johnny Mansell (George Baker) is a small time gambler who, after a run of bad luck at the racetrack, goes on the lam to save his hide. He heads back to the town in the north of England where he grew up, and where his brother still lives. The brother, Dave (Terence Morgan), works as a bookkeeper in the local foundry and has got himself involved with a night club hostess called Calico (Diana Dors). Right from the beginning Johnny takes an interest in Calico – not that anyone could blame the man for that – but holds off doing anything about it. It’s abundantly clear that Calico is more attracted to this flashier London-based brother than to the dull, bespectacled Dave. It’s also abundantly clear (Calico sports a diamond watch) that Dave’s infatuation is leading to him living beyond his means. Matters come to a head when the foundry faces an audit and Dave reveals that he’s been borrowing from the company accounts to finance his lifestyle. With only a week to make good the deficit on the books Johnny hopes to win enough at the track while Calico, still smarting from Johnny’s rejection of her advances, suggests breaking into the foundry and cleaning out the payroll. From here everything starts to go badly wrong, leading to murder, suspicion and psychological breakdown.
Diana Dors’ femme fatale is easily the best thing in this movie, oozing sex appeal as she wiggles and pouts her way round the sets, driving both the brothers up the walls with desire. The two male leads are just about adequate, but never completely convincing. George Baker can’t quite nail the charming scoundrel bit, while Terence Morgan overdoes it as the nervy brother with the cork too tight in the bottle. One of the pleasures of British films of this period is the selection of support players available. This is especially important here, given the shortcomings of both Baker and Morgan. Joseph Tomelty brings a paternal warmth to his role as a doomed watchman. And Patrick Allen is fine as Tomelty’s son, and the brothers’ childhood friend, whose suspicions and snooping create the tension of the latter half of the film. There’s also a nice, offbeat little cameo from Wilfrid Lawson, whose distinctive voice makes his affection for his pet rabbits all the more startlingly macabre. Gordon Parry does a competent job of directing and moves the camera nicely to set up some interesting shots. He is ably supported by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s atmospheric shooting of the shadows and smog enveloping the northern town.
Tread Softly Stranger is available on DVD in R2 from Odeon in a fair enough transfer. For the most part the print used is in reasonable condition, although there is a significant scratch which shows up around the half way mark and lingers for a few minutes. I don’t feel the need to be too critical of Odeon for not cleaning this print up more as the film is a pretty obscure title, and I can’t imagine it shifting enough copies to justify costly restoration. These kinds of titles are purely niche material and I’m just happy to see the likes of it available at all. There’s also a version out in R1 from VCI in a box of British B titles. I have only seen a few small screencaps of the R1 so can’t really comment other than to say it looked a bit hazy and with a greenish tint compared to Odeon’s release. I’d recommend this release to anyone who enjoys British crime/noir pictures of the period – not a great movie but a highly enjoyable one nonetheless.