I seem to be on a bit of a Robert Hamer kick at the moment. Having recently enjoyed Pink String and Sealing Wax, I decided to give The Long Memory (1952) a spin. While the former is a Gothic/Victorian noir which may stretch the definition for purists, the latter is the real deal. It has the contemporary setting, stark photography and relentlessly downbeat moodiness that should satisfy all who have a penchant for dark cinema. The story is classic noir wherein an innocent man is persecuted for a crime he has not committed and subsequently finds himself consumed by his thirst for revenge on those responsible for his plight.
Phillip Davidson (John Mills) has just been released from prison, having served twelve years for murder. An early flashback establishes that he had been wrongfully convicted, and that the false testimony of his then fiancee (Elizabeth Sellars) played a significant part in securing that conviction. In a neat twist, it also transpires that the treacherous fiancee has, in the intervening years, married the policeman originally in charge of Davidson’s case (John McCallum). Aware of the fact that Davidson still bears a grudge, the authorities track him Kent where he takes up residence in an abandoned barge along the desolate Thames estuary. As Davidson grimly sets about the task of seeking out his former tormentors the action alternates between his search and the slow unravelling of the idyllic domesticity of the policeman’s life. Running parallel to this is the development of a relationship between Davidson and a refugee girl (Eva Bergh) working as a waitress in a dingy cafe. This plot thread is not mere romantic padding but an essential element that clearly demonstrates just how deep Davidson’s scars run. By the end of the movie the quest for revenge has transformed into more of a journey towards spiritual redemption.
The acting is out of the top drawer all round with the only weak link in the chain being Elizabeth Sellars. Her performance comes across as even more wooden given the emotional depth shown by almost everyone else around her. John Mills does a fine understated turn in the lead role. The scenes he plays in the old barge with Eva Bergh have such a touching and heartrending quality. These are two people who have spent so long living within themselves that the effort of reaching out to another is close to physically painful. John McCallum is also fine as the decent cop who gradually comes to realise that the woman he married is not all she seems, and who must resign himself to the fact that his career cannot continue if he’s to come out of it all with any sense of honour intact. There’s plenty of good support from a selection of familiar British character actors; special mention going to Michael Martin Harvey as Mills’ slightly kooky neighbour.
Where Pink String and Sealing Wax suffered from an undisciplined and unfocused script, The Long Memory can boast tighter writing and pacing. Hamer moves his camera around effectively and makes maximum use of the barren Kent coastline. He also controls the flow of the story very well, and cuts tellingly between the gradual flowering of the Mills/Bergh relationship and the simultaneous disintegration of Sellars and McCallum’s. All of this is backed up by the excellent cinematography of Harry Waxman who manages to throw in some welcome deep focus shots.
The Long Memory is currently only available on DVD as part of the John Mills Centenary Collection II from ITV DVD in R2. The set is a bit pricey but it does offer a good selection of Mills films and is worth checking out. This movie comes on its own disc and, while not perfect, gets a pretty good transfer. There’s optional subs, production notes and a gallery included. I hadn’t seen this film for a number of years and had forgotten what an underrated little gem it is. I give it a big thumbs up and recommend it wholeheartedly.