I guess it’s inevitable that cinema, like most any form of artistic expression, will be influenced by the body of work that already exists. Remakes, reimaginings and homages seem to have been with us forever, and one figure who’s arguably been imitated more than any other is Alfred Hitchcock. Both the stories he was drawn to and the filming techniques that he frequently employed have been referenced so many times that there’s a subgenre of “Hitchcock style” thrillers. The Naked Edge (1961) may not be all that well-known but it certainly belongs in that category. Of course, as with most (all?) imitations, it fails to live up to the standards of the movies it alludes to – once a filmmaker sets out on this path he necessarily sacrifices a lot of his own individuality. Still, that doesn’t mean that the movie in question can’t be entertaining in its own right; after all, half the fun for the viewer comes from recognizing the source of inspiration.
The pre-credits sequence opens proceedings in lurid fashion with a murder – a businessman taking a knife to the guts – and hurls the viewer right into the action. There follows a trial where the evidence of George Radcliffe (Gary Cooper), an American resident in London, appears instrumental in securing the conviction of Donald Heath (Ray McAnally) for the murder of their boss and the accompanying theft of the firm’s money. Heath, naturally perhaps, protests his innocence and Radcliffe hastily exits the emotive atmosphere of Old Bailey with his former colleague’s accusations of treachery ringing in his ears. Even at this early stage, the clouds of suspicion are gathering around Radcliffe; the unrecovered loot, his talk of suddenly acquired wealth and an edgy encounter with a disbarred solicitor (Eric Portman) initially stir doubts. Jump forward six years and we find Radcliffe now heading a successful partnership and clearly wealthy. However, it’s only when a long-lost blackmail letter is delivered to his wife that we get to the nub of the matter. Radcliffe’s wife, Martha (Deborah Kerr), may have harboured a few mild suspicions before, but the letter that explicitly accuses her husband of murdering his employer and using the stolen money to finance his own business plants a particularly stubborn seed. A combination of apparent evasiveness by Radcliffe when asked any questions about the murder and subsequent trial and some downright suspicious behaviour on his part cause Martha’s doubts to grow. The deeper she delves into the past, the more convinced she becomes that the full truth may not have come out in court. With her marriage starting to crumble in this sea of distrust, it gradually dawns on Martha that her own life may be in jeopardy too.
A few years earlier, Michael Anderson had directed another “woman in peril” picture – Chase a Crooked Shadow – and in my review of that I commented on his tendency to indulge in some self-conscious effects. The Naked Edge was clearly trying to tap into a Hitchcock vibe (the poster prominently highlights the involvement of Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano), and Anderson’s direction makes use of countless low angle shots and zooms. Of course, this isn’t an especially bad thing as we’re treated to some nicely composed shots that accentuate the tension. The climax, where preparations are meticulously laid for an attempt on Martha’s life, consists of a whole series of well-judged shots cut together expertly. Where the film does become overly derivative, and indeed contrived, is in the poor handling of the dialogue. It reaches the point where I found myself imagining the writers sitting around and scratching their heads over how they could mangle the words a bit more to ensure the ambiguity of Radcliffe’s character was rammed home. I feel a lighter touch would have sufficed.
Cooper’s performance in the lead contains enough of the man’s own natural diffidence and reserve to get the job done satisfactorily. This was Coop’s last screen role and, even if he doesn’t look exactly ill, he does exude an air of age and weariness. In all honesty, I generally find it difficult to watch performances from actors when I know they hadn’t long to live afterwards – it’s even harder when the person is someone whose work I’ve grown to admire. Whenever Cooper talks about safeguarding his future I can’t help but get that hollow, sinking sensation. In the role of Martha, Deborah Kerr was handed what was really the pivotal role; she’s the one from whose perspective the unfolding events are seen. In order for the viewer to retain doubts it was necessary for Kerr to convincingly portray a woman who could never be quite sure of anything herself. I think she managed that, never allowing histrionics to overwhelm her character and thus alienate the audience. For the most part, the supporting roles are fairly small yet highly memorable. No-one possessing even a passing familiarity with British cinema of the period could fail to be impressed by a cast list that features: the aforementioned Eric Portman and Ray McAnally, Peter Cushing, Michael Wilding, Wilfrid Lawson, Diane Cilento, Hermione Gingold and Joyce Carey to name but a few.
The Naked Edge is out on DVD in the UK from Cornerstone/Palladium. The film is letterboxed (not anamorphic) at about 1.66:1, which would fit a film of this vintage. The transfer is generally good and fairly clean, although I did notice at least one cue blip. There is a certain softness to the image at times and the black levels are decidedly on the grey side. While I wouldn’t term it a displeasing transfer, it could stand some improvement too – even so, it’s never less than watchable. There are no subtitles offered and no extras. So, how do I rate it as a movie? As I’ve already said, the whole “woman coming to distrust a suspicious husband” storyline invites obvious comparisons with Hitchcock; Anderson’s direction throughout only compounds that, and there’s a short sequence that replicates one of Hitch’s more heavily criticised ploys. On the whole though, I think the film is generally successful in keeping the atmosphere tense and the viewer guessing. Let’s call this a cautious recommendation.
22 thoughts on “The Naked Edge”
Very nice review Colin and it is only fair to pinpoint how derivative it is, though I love this kind of movie, especially when it;s full of great actors, on a decent budget and as technically proficient as this one is
Coop was generally thought to have been slightly miscast and I dare say it’s a valid point – he could play taciturn and restrained with no difficulty, but a murderer and embezzler who is happy to let an innocent man rot in jail, all rolled into one? Probably asking too much of audiences to really swallow that. It’s quite similar to the role he had just played in Anderson’s THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE, which Hitchcock was briefly attached to, where again he holds his own counsel and leads many to believe him guilty of a crime though we assume he will ultimately be proved innocent because, while occasionally a bit of a rascal, was always basically honourable in his on-screen persona.
The main reason I really do have a certain fondness for this one – apart from the lovely Deborah Kerr – is that I like the flamboyant touches that Anderson added to his direction with elaborate camera moves and extreme compositions. Erwin Hillier was a great DP and worked with Anderson on about 10 movies including that classic spy movie, THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM. Not in the same league as Sidney J. Furie perhaps, but his work here definitely pegs Anderson as part that emerging breed of more visually aggressive British directors like J. Lee Thompson and John Guillermin, who made visually distinctive movies even while working at the higher budget end of commercial movie-making. What I always found intriguing, from its pre-credit stabbing sequence to its expressionistic finale and the stretching of Hitchcock suspense sequences like the section in which Kerr runs endlessly round a housing estate, is the way that it seem to be a British equivalent of the over-the-top Krimis being made in Germany at around the same time and which, therefore, really look forward to the ‘Giallo; school already developing in Italy with the likes of Bava and ultimately Argento.
I think ‘cautious recommendation’ is absolutely spot on as an assessment. That’s another fine movie you’d made me want to go and watch again (Stanley!) – cheers.
Cooper’s screen persona does make him an odd choice for the role here, and it does colour reactions to the movie for anyone familiar with his work. Still, he almost pulls it off.
Anderson and Hillier do combine to create some very startling compositions – it’s highly unsettling in a way, but kind of derivative too in its aping of the Hitchcock style. I like Anderson’s movies though (well ok, Operation Crossbow is a bit of a slog) and I’m glad you mentioned Thompson and Guillermin; they’re all guys who often get passed over, probably since their more stylish work tends to be forgotten or displaced by some of the mundane and weak stuff they also produced.
I’ve got a lot of time for the films all these directors they made in the 50s and 60s especially but it is hard, as you say, to ignore some of the less impressive later films they also ended up making (especially Thompson).
Have you ever seen Guillermin’s private eye movie PJ (aka NEW FACE IN HELL?). Saw it decades ago (on Italian TV, dubbed) and found it quite startling in its own way but it seems to have vanished. There are clips online but it can’t convey they almost surreal quality it has.
No, I’ve never seen PJ – at least I don’t remember doing so.
Thompson is a bit of an odd case, isn’t he? He showed so much promise early on that the drop in quality is even more noticeable. Cape Fear is such a powerful and well-made movie – much as I admire Scorsese, I have to say his remake doesn’t measure up in comparison.
Scorsese’s version does seem to operate on a different level – as much an hommage to the genre and the film as a viable thriller, despite several fine sequences. In the end, it’s also just hard to make it work in colour. I think Thompson became quite disenchanted in the end and was aware of what an artistic rut he’d got himself stuck in by the 80s, though films like ST IVES, which is a kind of homage to 30s gangster movies, does stand out as one of his last really decent movies, and that was as late as 1976. 20 years after YIELD TO THE NIGHT, doesn’t seem to be a bad innings as a director in that sense – the rest hopefully was towards the pension plan!
I’d actually be even more generous to Thompson. The White Buffalo is a pretty good movie, and I regard Cabo Blanco as one of my guilty pleasures. After 1980 things really went downhill; it’s years since I’ve seen it and my memory may be playing tricks, but I seem to remember The Ambassador had a few moments to recommend it. For Bronson and Thompson, I think the 80s and the Cannon movies were just paychecks.
THE AMBASSADOR I remember as such an odd film, technically an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 52 PICK UP, and was Rock Hudson’s last movie I think. CAPO BLANCO does look and feel as though about 25 minutes are missing out of it though it probably does pass muster as a ‘guilty pleasure’ what with its great cast, thundering Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack and overblown set pieces. Haven’t seen that one in ages, though it seemed to turn up on Italian TV almost monthly at one point (well maybe it just felt that way) …
I’d never try to argue that Cabo Blanco is a good movie, but I still enjoy it. It feels like a throwback, a movie that ought to have been made before 1980.
Elmore Leonard’s work hasn’t always been a success on screen, has it? I think his western stories have generally seen the most successful adaptations.
HOMBRE, THE TALL T and (the original version of) 3.10 TO YUMA certainly stand out. Amongst the thrillers, I really rate John Frankenheimer’s version of 52 PICK UP, which is very faithful but also improves on the novel by beefing up the role of the wife, and Abel Ferrara’s unjustly neglected CAT CHASER. The TV series JUSTIFIED, adapted from a novella, is a a modern-day western so an interesting hybrid in Leonard’s work – his new novel “Raylan” is a sequel featuring the main character. I’m also a big fan of some of the better-known Leonard movies like OUT OF SIGHT, GET SHORTY and especially JACKIE BROWN, which I think work splendidly as adaptations and on their own terms.
I’ve never seen 52 Pick Up – must get round to it. I agree Jackie Brown is a top movie.
The DVD of 52 PICK UP can be had for next to nothign and offers a strong anamorphic transfer – well worth having!
Cheers – I’ll look into it.
I recall that, at the time, most critics of the day were not particularily kind to either “The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) or “The Naked Edge” (1961) – Coop’s penultimate and final motion pictures. He was very ill during production of both, although this was kept from the public .
Cooper had fine support in both films, from Charlton Heston and Deborah Kerr, respectively, aided by equally strong supporting casts, and this is perhaps why, to some, these movies promised more than what was delivered.
I must admit, I was a little disappointed with “The Naked Edge”. However, I am particularily fond of “The Mary Deare”, which, to my recollection, is a fine sea/courtroom drama.
Thanks Colin, for reviving memories of Coop.
Regarding the lukewarm reception for this movie and The Wreck of the Mary Deare, I think, as Sergio pointed out before, the reason may be that the public at the time had some difficulty accepting Cooper in those roles. Both movies can boast remarkably strong supporting casts though.
I haven’t watched The Wreck of the Mary Deare for ages, not since I got the Cooper boxset when it was first released. I’ll have to try to squeeze in another viewing though.
Nice review. I love later Cooper performances so this is on my list to watch. One of my favourites from the mid-50s is The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell in which he’s excellent, especially in the clash of acting styles with Rod Steiger
I can second the recommendation for “52 Pick-Up” – one of my top 10 of the 1980s and John Frankenheimer’s best later film, in my humble etc.
It’s interesting that you should cite The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell. Steiger’s larger than life style lifts the movie but otherwise I found it a bit flat, when it should have been much more involving. Preminger’s direction was so-so, but I felt that Cooper was restricted by the script’s need to have him play a character who was almost impossibly upright. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Cooper, just that the way the writers wanted Mitchell portrayed left him with little opportunity to be anything other than the straightest of straight arrows.
As you would be aware, “The Naked Edge” is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s 1941 suspense thriller, “Suspicion”, and this film featured Cary Grant as a suspected murderer, possibly contemplating the demise of his frightened wife.
Hitchcock cast Grant “against type”, as Gary Cooper was, in Anderson’s “The Naked Edge”.
Previously Cary’s successes had been predominately in comedy, (“Bringing Up Baby” -1937, “His Girl Friday” -1939; “The Philidelphia Story”- 1940 etc.) as well as the occasional adventure film (“Gunga Din” -1938), and, as a rule, he appeared as a “hero” rather than the “villian”. Cary Grant was considered at that time, to be a major and popular star.
Nevetheless Hitchcock was prepared to take Grant deeper into the “depths of darkness” than Anderson ever dared or attempted with Coop. The original “Hitchcock” ending of “Suspicion” exposed Grant’s character to be just as was feared – a murderer and worse.
RKO insisted that “Hitch” change his challenging conclusion, to one, they considered, to be more acceptable to the audience of the day. Accordingly, Hitchcock was persuaded to comply with this instruction, but, to my mind, he did so, “with tongue in cheek”. He provided an ending that failed to convince anyone of Grant’s innocence save the Studio executives and some of his adoring female fans.
Hitchcock succeeded where Anderson failed. He failed because of a weak and contrived script and “poor handling of dialogue”.
Bosley Crowther’s rather scathing review of “The Naked Edge” that appeared in the New York Times on July 1, 1961, condemed the film as -“…pure claptrap entertainment – a piece of cheese, as we say, full of holes”. He reserved his criticism to the film itself, and laments, “Old Coop deserved something better to ring down the curtain on his career”. Perhaps this review is rather harsh and many films, upon reflection at a later time, have been elevated to a higher status…. but not “The Naked Edge”.
I have little doubt that, as Sergio suggests, there were those fans, who would not, or could not, conceive Coop as other than an “honourable” man, as well as those, such as yourself, who, “…find it difficult to watch performances from actors, …when they haven’t long to live afterwards”. However I maintain, with all due respect to both yourself and Sertio, that the failure of “The Naked Edge “to attract audiences was primarily due to the fact that it was, and is, a less than impressive film and that the actors involved bear little responsibility for this.
Rod, on first watching the film, I was immediately struck by the allusions to Suspicion. There are fairly significant differences of course too but it’s hard not to see a connection, particularly given the “Hitchcockian” style of the whole picture. This kind of movie is incredibly difficult to do successfully; Suspicion has its own weaknesses, mainly due to the studio imposed ending that you referred to.
I certainly don’t think that The Naked Edge ought to be reassessed as some kind of overlooked or unfairly maligned treasure. On the other hand, I think that Crowther’s NYT review is too tough. I’ve seen a number of his reviews reprinted over the years and often thought that he was excessively critical and negative about films that didn’t deserve the kind of kicking he gave them. This movie does have a highly contrived plot and the dialogue is amazingly clunky at times, yet the performances and the cinematography help to paper over some of that.
Anyway, thanks for taking the time to post such a detailed and well argued response. I always appreciate the feedback, and it’s this kind of debate over the pros and cons of movies that makes writing about them so pleasurable.
Thank you for accepting my comments in the spirit in which they were intended, for I, too, believe, that open and serious debate, whether of diverse opinons, (provided that they can be substantiated and not frivilous), or otherwise, can only lead to a better understanding of “the liveliest of arts” .
Your attitude also promotes a stimulating and interesting web-site.
I’m always keen to hear the interpretations of others; I can only express how something affected or worked for me, so it’s useful to be made aware of the other guy’s alternate take. A good, healthy debate on movies with people who know what they’re talking about is both fun and enlightening.
Just realized that I have never seen this Coop film. Thanks for the heads up. On the must find list it goes.
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You should be able to find it on YouTube, Gord.