Tiger by the Tail

The last time I posted here I spoke about voiceover narration in movies and expressed some doubts about its efficacy. Now that was largely prompted by my experiencing what I felt was a fairly redundant example of the technique. That said, the fact is that this narrative device does serve a purpose and, as others have pointed out, is frequently an attractive feature in various films noir. Generally, I’d go along with that – although it has to be said that a recent viewing of Richard Fleischer’s Trapped had me drumming my fingers at what seemed like an interminable lecture at the beginning. And this, in my own meandering way, brings me to Tiger by the Tail (1955), a British film noir which I reckon uses its narration in the most effective way, that is as a means of conveying the thoughts, fears and regrets of the lead.

The opening is suitably evocative – nighttime, a sparse urban setting and a lone figure stumbling along a pavement before collapsing. As a patrol car pulls up and a policeman goes to attend to the fallen man the credits roll. Thereafter the story unfolds in flashback, with intermittent narration provided by the protagonist. He is John Desmond (Larry Parks), an American journalist somewhat reluctantly handed the assignment of taking over the London office of his organization. He’d been expecting the Paris job and the last minute decision to switch him to Britain hasn’t done much for his mood. The combination of post-war austerity and the less than enchanting weather is picking at him and a decision to go out for a drink alone proves to  be a fateful one. This is what brings him into contact with Anna Ray (Lisa Daniely), and he embarks on a relationship that will see him embroiled in a killing and left to the mercy of a group of ruthless counterfeiters. His only way out is to try to unravel the meaning of a cipher in a notebook, and thus hopefully bring down the gangsters. As is often the case in the world of film noir, Desmond has first to be led up the garden path by a femme fatale in the shape of Ms Ray before being bailed out by a loyal Girl Friday figure – in this case Jane Claymore (Constance Smith), the secretary who proves herself considerably more resourceful than her ill-fated boss.

As films noir go, the plot here is pretty standard fare. There’s a protagonist who’s not exactly a chump but nor is he any brighter than he needs to be. The villains are twisty and mean, and the women, both good and bad, are arguably sharper than anyone. The script adapts a John Mair novel and comes via Willis Goldbeck. Generally a writer and occasional director (I keep meaning to do something catching up with Ten Tall Men, the Foreign Legion picture he made with Burt Lancaster), Goldbeck penned a number of Dr Kildare programmers as well as a couple of Stuart Palmer adaptations , not to mention the deeply unpleasant Freaks for Tod Browning. Tiger by the Tail is a smoothly written piece, albeit a seemingly unusual one for a man close to the end of his career and due to go out on a relative high with a brace of John Ford movies – Sergeant Rutledge and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The movie looks attractive throughout and is set up nicely by that generic but stylish and effective opening. The cinematography is by Eric Cross (who also shot the visually interesting The Dark Man) and the always reliable John Gilling occupies the director’s chair. Gilling had an eye for a good-looking setup and even if he was as abrasive as his reputation suggests he did, as a rule, manage to get solid or better performances from the actors he worked with. He remains something of an underrated filmmaker although, interestingly, the upcoming Hammer box set from Indicator/Powerhouse is as near a John Gilling collection as we’re  likely to see.

And so to the actors. Neither Larry Parks nor Constance Smith will be household names these days, and indeed I’d be amazed if anyone aside from the most dedicated film buffs are at all familiar with them. Nevertheless, back when Tiger by the Tail went into production both would have enjoyed a considerably higher profile. For different reasons these two people dropped virtually out of sight after having tasted success. One would have though a Best Actor nomination in a big budget movie would ensure a more lasting fame, but such was the power of the blacklist that someone like Parks could see his career grind to a halt almost immediately. I’ll have to confess that I’ve not seen much of his work and can only recall The Swordsman, a fairly entertaining Joseph H Lewis swashbuckler.

Constance Smith fell from grace for entirely different reasons, although her troubles are not unprecedented in Hollywood. Coming from a poor Irish background, Smith quite literally shot to fame and found herself rapidly moving from Rank in Britain to Fox in Hollywood and making star appearances alongside some major names. However, as fast as her fame arrived, it evaporated at a similarly giddy pace. Out of contract, with a personal life descending into chaos, she left the US but the years ahead were to be even more tumultuous. Not that any of this is apparent when watching Tiger by the Tail, where her performance is just fine.

Recent years have been good to fans of British crime and noir. There was a time when these kinds of movies were sprinkled throughout the TV listings, albeit as filler material. Then they seemed to disappear, leaving many wondering if they’d ever be seen again. Small independent labels such as Renown, along with Network and Simply, have done some terrific work in making so many of these forgotten titles available once again. The Renown DVD of Tiger by the Tail has the movie looking quite good; the contrast might be a touch harsh here and there and there are a few damaged frames, but it’s not at all a bad presentation. All in all, I found it a solid little film noir with some highly competent talent behind the camera, and a couple of very interesting stars in the leading roles. In short, an enjoyable movie.

13 thoughts on “Tiger by the Tail

  1. Colin

    Nice write up always. While I know of this film, I have yet to view it. I had a copy which went the way of the dodo when the big flood hit town several years ago. Off your review, I’ll be adding this to the find a copy list.
    Thanks, Gord

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A good choice of film for your fine write-up, Colin. I have the Network DVD and find the film enjoyable and satisfying generally. Larry Parks appeared for Columbia in a number of swashbucklers and thrillers before his crashing downfall. I thought he was just fine here.

    Constance Smith seems like a good actress and a very beautiful woman who just couldn’t cope with success (or failure). Tragic end!

    I can certainly endorse your recommendation of this neat little film.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll definitely be catching up with this one. For the most part it sounds like it has the comfort of familiarity going for it, plus I’m fond of Larry Parks. His pre-Jolson roles pop up now and again on TCM in programmers mostly, and it makes me happy/sad to see him at this early point in his career.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Cannot disagree with anything that you say here Colin,
    a stellar review of a minor but interesting film.
    John Gilling’s career seemed to have basically three phases,
    the British B Movies for Tempean and the like,the bigger budget
    Warwick pictures (INTERPOL,HIGH FLIGHT…) and the Hammer
    films for which he is best known,nowadays.
    I understand that FLESH AND THE FIENDS is said to be on
    Kino’s release schedule which was one of Berman & Baker’s (Tempean)
    cheeky ventures into Hammer territory poaching key Hammer talent
    as well.
    I don’t know if Gilling was offered the first James Bond film from ex boss
    Cubby Broccoli (Warwick) it would have made sense considering the
    efficient way he worked, ‘though around that time Gilling was involved
    with his own pet project FURY AT SMUGGLERS BAY a Swashbuckling
    romp with Peter Cushing.
    It’s interesting Colin,that the Hammer set you mention from Indicator
    has as extras, a couple of features on Gilling which should only add
    to his reputation.
    Regarding Larry Parks I too enjoyed THE SWORDSMAN and also
    the earlier Technicolor Western George Sherman’s RENEGADES
    where he was pretty good,I thought ,as a doomed member of an
    outlaw clan.
    It’s rather sad watching TIGER BY THE TAIL seeing both
    Parks and Smith with their careers in tatters.
    Constance Smith’s story is very sad indeed-so much so,for
    me it makes her few films tough to watch.
    I have not seen the Irish TV hour long documentary on Constance
    but her sad story is pretty much available on line if one cares to
    look.
    Certainly her star crossed relationship with esteemed documentary
    film maker Paul Rotha did not help due to their combined drink problems.
    Constance served time for stabbing Rotha twice yet still their troubled
    relationship endured.
    At one time they were charging £50 for interviews with the
    proviso said party provided a bottle of vodka for her and a bottle of
    Scotch for him.
    Constance’s downward spiral saw that she ended up homeless,
    getting occasional cleaning work when able.
    Considering the hardship Constance endured during the final
    years of her life,she passed away aged 75 in 2003.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, John, the story of Smith’s decline makes for painful and desperately sad reading. Somehow it just feels wrong that a person’s life can unravel like that.

      And I agree that the upcoming Hammer box and associated supplements can only serve to raise Gilling’s profile, which rather pleases me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • John

      I have seen a few of Gilling’s low-rent crime-noir titles like,
      The Embezzler
      1954
      Double Exposure
      1953
      Deadly Nightshade
      1953
      The Frightened Man
      1951
      Plus the various swashbuckling titles that always hit the spot. As for Larry Parks, I think I mentioned several years ago a neat little programmer of his from 1944 called, THE BLACK PARACHUTE. Well worth a look if you can find it. John Carradine is the villain of the piece. . Now that i’m back posting i’ll try to keep with you guys.

      Cheers, Gord

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Gordon,
    I too have seen several of the British B’s that
    you mention I’ve also seen ESCAPE BY NIGHT which
    is pretty good too.
    I thought the best two from that period were TIGER
    BY THE TAIL and THREE STEPS TO THE GALLOWS.
    Gilling directed seven films for Warwick Films including
    THE GAMMA PEOPLE Warwick’s only venture into Sci Fi
    territory. THE GAMMA PEOPLE was Gilling’s first fantasy type
    picture,unless of course you count OLD MOTHER RILEY
    MEETS THE VAMPIRE but hey,everyone’s got to start
    somewhere.
    FLESH AND THE FIENDS is great with Donald Pleasence and
    George Rose a wonderful Burke & Hare.
    I’ve no doubt that the Kino Lorber release will include the stronger
    scenes from the Continental version with lots of “naughty bits”

    Liked by 1 person

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