British attempts at producing noir thrillers have tended to be a hit and miss affair, the greatest stumbling block generally being an inability to strike the right tone. The nuts and bolts are easy enough to put in place: the city setting, the night, the shadows and key lights, some criminal enterprise to provide a framework. However, British movies of the classic noir period (the 40s and 50s) struggle to escape the rigid class structures that remained firmly in place at the time. American films benefited enormously from the more flexible social structure of the country, which allowed filmmakers to blend in characters from a variety of backgrounds. Despite its best efforts, British noir tends to be forever trapped in a middle-class world and, consequently, loses something of the edge of danger that helped elevate pictures from across the Atlantic.

Eyewitness (1956) opens in these typically middle-class surroundings, with a minor domestic spat involving a young couple.  Jay (Michael Craig) and Lucy (Muriel Pavlow) are two young suburbanites who have run into a bit of a crisis in their marriage. Jay is a guy who wants to live better than his income allows and has been accumulating a bit of debt buying stuff on credit. His latest acquisition, a brand new TV set, proves to be the straw that breaks the camels back though. Lucy is not at all impressed, such apparent profligacy failure to think of tomorrow going against the grain with her. In a foul temper, and threatening to leave for good, Lucy stalks out of the house to try to cool off.

While Jay sits home, toying with his new purchase and reflecting on the injustices of married life, Lucy’s wanderings take her to a movie theater. And it’s at this point the story starts to take shape. Jay’s feelings of frustration drive him out in search of a drink and some sympathetic male company, just at the moment Lucy’s conscience pricks at her and she decides to call him up. Getting no answer on the phone, Lucy is making her way through the theater when she chances upon a robbery in progress.

It’s Lucy’s misfortune to witness two men, Wade (Donald Sinden) & Barney (Nigel Stock), in the process of cracking the safe and roughing up the manager. Barney sets off in pursuit of the panic-stricken woman as Wade goes about settling matters with the ill-fated manager. Lucy’s terrified flight takes her out of the cinema, onto the street, and straight into the path of an oncoming bus. The situation leaves Wade and Barney in a quandary; is the unexpected witness going to live? And if she does, how much will she recall?

Wade reveals himself to be not only a cool customer, but a nasty piece of work to boot. His primary concern is his own self-preservation, and he coerces the meek Barney into falling in with his schemes. Wade has no intention of leaving any loose strands that may, in time, weave themselves into a noose to hang him. Following the ambulance that carries the comatose Lucy to a local hospital, Wade has in mind to dispose of this potential threat. Despite Barney’s protests, Wade takes it upon himself to stalk the now helpless Lucy and ensure nothing can be traced back to him. And so the bulk of the movie involves Wade’s attempts to gain entry to the communal ward where Lucy is taken. The suspense of the film derives from Wade’s determination, and increasing frustration, to silence this inconvenient witness. All the while, the net draws closer, time is running short and the opportunities grow fewer. Everything builds relentlessly towards a dramatic finale in a deserted and vaguely sinister operating theater.

Muriel Box was one of those rarities in classic era cinema, a female director. After writing some strong British movies – The Seventh Veil (1945) and The Brothers (1947) – she began directing in 1949. However, her career was closely linked to her husband, producer Sydney Box, and the break up of their marriage also signaled an end to her time behind the camera. Eyewitness sees Box making good use of the inherent suspense generated by the setting. A hospital at night is full of dramatic potential, the random comings and goings, the relative anonymity, that sense of disquiet aroused by the sight of mask-wearing professionals silently padding along starkly lit corridors. As the story progresses, Box ensures the tension grows in increments and the visuals reflect the increasing darkness of what we’re watching.

I think the biggest weakness stems from a basic flaw in the script. The success of pretty much any film, and especially a thriller, depends on having if not a hero then a recognizable figure that the viewer can identify with or root for. Eyewitness suffers in this respect; since it’s clearly intended that we should side with Lucy. However, she spends the bulk of the running time either unconscious or semi-conscious, effectively taking her out of the equation. There’s a similar problem with Barney, another whose presence ought to draw sympathy, but who ends up sidelined much of the time. In the end, we see things predominantly from Wade’s point of view, and he’s such a thoroughly bad lot, without a single redeeming feature, that it’s impossible to view him even in an anti-heroic light When it comes to the performances, Donald Sinden is pretty good as the twitchy killer with a slightly manic air. Still, the best work is probably done by Nigel Stock as the deaf safe-cracker whose dream of moving to New Zealand has seen him roped into a scheme that’s a whole lot more than he bargained for. Pavlow and Craig are so-so as the young couple whose marital tiff pitches them into a perilous situation, but there’s no great depth to their characterization.

In the final analysis, Eyewitness is a mid-range British crime thriller. The story is gripping enough but the lack of a sympathetic central character does damage it somewhat. The movie is available on DVD in the UK as part of a Donald Sinden box set from ITV. It’s a reasonably good transfer, presented in the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio, though without anamorphic enhancement for widescreen TVs.

Note: I originally published an edited version of this piece as a Noir of the Week for The Blackboard.

24 thoughts on “Eyewitness

  1. Never seen this one Colin but it would be great to Sinden in such an atypical role (another British great who is thankfully still very much around), The ICON box is available at a slightly more reasonable than usual price on Amazon so I might just take a punt – cheers mate!


  2. Middle class or not, I love British thrillers from this era and this certainly sounds like my kind of picture! I’ve never seen it to my knowledge. Thanks for another intriguing review Colin.
    I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the whole idea of describing non-American films as ‘Noir’. So few of them, as you say, have the correct tone. For example, I have the box sets of the so-called ‘Hammer Noirs’ from the early 50s, that were released a few years ago. Although most of them are entertaining little thrillers; few, if any, can be described as film noir in my opinion. I also tend to get annoyed that the term is overused generally these days.


    • I like British thrillers of this period too and own a fair few. I guess I don’t feel all that comfortable with the noir label that’s used as a marketing tool when it’s not always accurate. Mind you, I can be flexible when it comes to defining noir, but sometimes a thriller is just that. And there’s nothing wrong with a movie being a thriller. Of the Hammer Noir, I’m convinced Heat Wave comes closest to meeting the criteria.


    • Thanks Chris. It is quite enjoyable overall but the lack of a character for the viewer to truly get behind hurts it as it goes along. Still, the hospital setting is nice it’s well photographed.


  3. I enjoyed Eyewitness,but not as much as an earlier Muriel Box picture STREET CORNER
    (aka BOTH SIDES OF THE LAW) a film that is in dire need of a DVD release.
    STREET CORNER has more of what we expect from Fifties British thrillers,good location
    work (Fulham,Chelsea) and a crackerjack supporting cast of character actors.
    Box seems to be wrongly overlooked when people mention female directors;possibly because
    she made good mainstream movies.
    Colin,speaking of great British thrillers there is a really good one; HIGH TREASON about to
    be released in the UK.Directed by Roy Boulting HIGH TREASON is a tremendous thriller
    with a top-notch cast and good location shots as well.
    Having said all that it was great fun to see Donald Sinden show his nasty side in EYEWITNESS.


    • Thanks John. I’ve never seen Street Corner so I’ll keep your recommendation in mind.

      I was aware of the forthcoming release of High Treason. Again, I’ve never seen it but I understand it’s a sequel of sorts to Seven Days to Noon so I’m keen to pick it up.
      While we’re on the subject of good British thrillers, I’d love it if State Secret were to get a release some time.


  4. A sequel of sorts to SEVEN DAYS TO NOON;interesting……well both films feature
    a London in peril.I would rate HIGH TREASON as the equal to SEVEN DAYS TO NOON
    but will not spoil your enjoyment by giving too much away;except to say politically its
    a very complex film.There is a vein of (very) dark humor in the mix as well.
    I do hope STREET CORNER finally makes it to DVD as its yet another lost treasure as
    far as Fifties Britflicks go.I agree with what you and others have said about labeling virtually
    any black & white thriller as “Noir”. I suppose HIGH TREASON and STREET CORNER would
    now be called “Brit Noir” but if it means more people will want to see them,then I for one am
    happy with the term being applied. “Noir” is pretty sexy at the moment and the DVD companies
    are well aware of this.
    The only thing “Noir” about STREET CORNER are the opening shots:Army deserter Eleanor
    Summerfield and her lover (Ronald Howard) lurk in the shadows as two policewomen,
    cross Chelsea Bridge at midnight.”Coppers in skirts!…you would think they would find
    better things to do with their time” snarls Summerfield……..this sets the tone for the film.
    From then on its a superior British crime thriller with a social message subtext.
    Still; if someone calls it a “lost” classic of Brit Noir and that gets it a DVD release, who am I
    to complain.
    By the way Colin that fine character actor Liam Redmond takes center stage in HIGH
    TREASON and thats certainly no bad thing!


    • John, Street Corner sounds fascinating. Thanks.

      As for High Treason, I know very little about the film apart from a vague plot outline. I’ve heard it referred to as a loose sequel to Seven Days to Noon due to the involvement of Roy Boulting and also the fact that Andre Morell once again plays the character of Superintendent Folland.

      Also, I guess I agree that if misused labels mean that certain neglected or forgotten movies gain a wider audience, then it’s ultimately beneficial.


    • Chris, the Boulting brothers (Roy and John) were responsible for some very fine British movies. Run for the Sun is certainly exciting and well shot & Richard Widmark, Jane Greer and Trevor Howard all give good performances. Based on Richard Connell’s story, it makes an interesting companion/comparison piece with The Most Dangerous Game. I see there’s a MOD disc of the movie available in the US but Amazon states it’s 1.77:1 while the UK DVD, which I have, presents the film in the 2:1 ratio.


  5. Colin, thanks for a fine review of EYEWITNESS. I’ll go with Dafydd Jones’ view on British noir thrillers, or any noir films for that matter — I do like them this way. I admit not being savvy about early American and British noir films, middle class or otherwise, but I enjoy watching them nonetheless. I am, of course, not familiar with British actors of that period unlike their counterparts on the other side.


    • Thanks Prashant. There are so many British thrillers of this period that have slipped between the cracks. Whatever labels we use to describe them don’t really matter I suppose. Not all are classics by any means, and some are inevitably humdrum, but most remain highly watchable and entertaining.

      I can see how some of these stars wouldn’t be familiar to those, like yourself, not used to British television. To anyone round my age, Donald Sinden was a well known guy, both form reruns of old movies on TV, and a couple of long-running sitcoms (Two’s Company and Never the Twain) of which he was the star throughout the 70s and 80s. To those who didn’t grow up in the UK, he might be most recognizable as Grace Kelly’s husband in John Ford’s Mogambo.


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