The Small Voice

It’s always nice to come upon a film one had previously been unfamiliar with and realize it’s actually a little gem. British crime and noir movies can be more of a mixed bag than their US counterparts, or at least it sometimes feels that way. Nevertheless, there are plenty of high quality examples to be found and The Small Voice (1948) is one of those. Tight, compact dramas, those which maintain a sharp pace and ensure the plot remains focused, appeal to me and I’m forever on the lookout for a new one. This ticks the boxes for me, featuring enough depth and emotional complexity to hold the attention without slowing down the development of the story.

Murray Byrne (James Donald) is a writer, and an apparently successful one. However, this success doesn’t seem to bring much joy as our first view of him as he’s riding a train back home indicates. He is gruff and brusque with an old school friend he happens to encounter and then continues in a similar vein with his wife Eleanor (Valerie Hobson), who is also the leading lady in his latest play. In short, Byrne is an embittered man, carrying the physical scars of his wartime experiences,, and clearly suffering from a sense of inadequacy which has spilled over into his private life. The marriage is teetering on the brink with Eleanor having essentially decided she can no longer continue, and then they come upon the scene of car accident. Three court-martialed soldiers have escaped from Dartmoor, their violent break for freedom having claimed a number of victims, and it’s this  unhappy couple’s misfortune to cross their path.

The Small Voice, the title referring to the human conscience, is all about a gradual heightening of suspense, the tension growing as the character’s room for both physical and emotional maneuver is increasingly restricted. The meandering paths followed by the protagonists converge on a deserted rural road late at night, their various attempts to reach freedom (either real or imagined) in essence coming to an end as their immediate concern with safety draws them back to the Byrne home. And so begins the waiting game that will fray the nerves of all concerned, yet which will also hold out the eventual hope of redemption, albeit of the backhanded variety in one case, and perhaps the beginning of a kind of personal rapprochement.

The film was the debut of Howard Keel (billed as Harold Keel) and he makes a strong impression as the leader of the fugitive trio, playing it tough and dominant throughout. Now that’s fine in itself, but Keel had something more about him – one can’t have a career which lasted as long as his without that of course – and imbued his role with an extra dimension, lifting it above that of  the standard heavy. James Donald’s character refers to Keel on a number of occasions as “interesting”, which is an apt enough description of the role and the performance. Donald too is solid as the writer uncomfortable with himself and insecure in his marriage and masculinity. His buttoned up quality works well in this situation and his character’s  journey is again an absorbing one. Valerie Hobson will probably always be remembered for her role in James Whale’s impish horror Bride of Frankenstein, but she was a class act in whatever part she played. She gets ample opportunity to show off her strength of character and also her depth and range as she tries to hold both her marriage and her very existence together.

The Small Voice is the type of film which tended to get shown on TV in afternoon filler slots in the past, and then often drifted into obscurity in subsequent years. There was a time when these one-time staples of the schedules appeared more or less lost but have gained a most welcome new lease of life due to DVD releases by the likes of Network and Renown in the UK. The Network disc of the movie is a typically stripped down affair but has the film itself looking particularly well, and that’s surely the most important consideration. Personally, I had a very good time with this film can see myself returning to it periodically.  It’s well made, atmospheric and brisk – I recommend giving it a look.

17 thoughts on “The Small Voice

  1. I will surely go along with you fairly wholeheartedly on this film, Colin. It is a very nice transfer (I have found that to be the case generally with Network releases) and a well-written and acted thriller. It is considerably more than a ‘B’ movie.
    Valerie Hobson was a good actress in any film she appeared in. She was, at the time this film was made, married to the film’s producer Anthony Havelock-Allan. That marriage ended within a few years and she re-married to the politician, John Profumo, and was his wife during the infamous ‘Profumo Scandal’ of 1963. They remained married for the rest of their lives.

    I always like it when you decide to review a British film from this era. Actually, there were lots of good ones from which to choose.


    • Jerry, I felt Hobson, Donald and Keel all did excellent work on this film and contribute a very strong core to the whole thing.
      Yes, there are quite a few very good British crime films from this era – and some pretty routine fare too if I’m honest – and I like to feature some here as they don’t always get a lot of exposure or as much attention as their quality warrants.


  2. Hi, Colin – your review makes this a must have for me. I love a lot of these British crime dramas from the 40s and 50s and have had good experiences with the quality of the Network and Renown releases, so I’m heading off to buy this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s great that I managed to stimulate your appetite for this movie, Steve. I hope it lives up to the build-up and you enjoy it, although I feel reasonably confident you will.


  3. Never even remotely heard of this one – thanks Colin. It all sounds like perfect Sunday afternoon viewing to me. Just been making some purchases from Network in fact (you can get their Blu of HELL DRIVERS for under £6 at the mo).


    • Yes, it’s well worth a look, Sergio. I won’t say it’s doing anything very new, but it does it very well.
      Network’s prices have been very tempting for a while now. It used to be the case where it was usually advisable to wait around for sales but the regular price point these days is such that there is great value to be had all the time.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well, in that case, I do hope you get the chance to view it. If you’re able to play UK DVDs, the Network release should be easy to find and very cheap too.


  4. Pingback: Floods of Fear | Riding the High Country

  5. I’ve been looking everywhere for this film. I’m a big fan of James Donald. Films of that period were short and crisp, I guess that’s what makes them so watchable. Wonder if it’s available in India. Would be great if someone could upload it on YouTube. Or is it available on Netflix?


  6. Colin
    Excellent do up on a rather unseen film. This is one of the better ones that seemed to have slipped through the cracks. Fine work by all involved on both sides of the camera.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are so many of these British crime movies that have been neglected, and gone largely unseen for years, so it’s a pleasure to note how many have been “rescued” by smaller labels and put out on disc.


  7. A terrific little movie. I’m a huge fan of British crime thrillers from the period 1945-1965. They made them in vast numbers and it’s amazing how good most of them are.

    And if you have a multi-region DVD player they’re now becoming very easy to get hold of.


  8. Hello, Colin – I recently received my copy of this movie from Network and, so good is it, have now watched it three times. It is indeed a gem.

    The pacing is terrific, keeping the tension steadily building and allowing no wasted minutes. The script provides good roles for several of the characters. The actors deliver strongly and I think Howard Keel and Valerie Hobson are outstanding.

    The early scenes which establish the crumbling state of the Hobson-Donald marriage are a lovely bit of film-making. It’s economical and driven by body language as much as dialogue. In another excellent scene, Keel accuses her of looking at him as if he was a piece of dirt. The camera then lingers on her face for several seconds while her expression powerfully conveys exactly that sentiment.

    Thank you for pointing me towards this excellent film, Colin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Firstly, I appreciate your digging back to find this piece and comment, Steve. It’s pleasing to me to hear the film proved enjoyable for you. Coming upon movies we were unaware of and having a good time with them is great, isn’t it? And my getting the opportunity to share some of that with visitors is especially rewarding.

      Liked by 1 person

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