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.

Three Steps to the Gallows

Last summer I spent a long time trawling through a range of British crime movies, and had a most enjoyable time in the process. I can’t promise to devote the same time this year but I do want to look at a few more examples of these B pictures. Additionally, it’s an opportunity to fit in some  cast and crew who have earned passing mentions on this site, and who I do want to draw a little attention to. So with that in mind, I’d like to begin with Three Steps to the Gallows (1953), a pacy and hugely entertaining film noir.

Alfred Hitchcock famously spoke of the “MacGuffin” as a plot device, namely something which is of inordinate and perhaps life-threatening importance to the protagonists of a drama, which motivates them and drives the narrative yet is of little real concern to the viewers. In Three Steps to the Gallows this applies to the diamonds, and I’d be amazed if anyone who watches this movie has the part played by these gemstones in mind by the time the film has come to a close. Nevertheless, diamonds, or should we say the smuggling of diamonds, is vital to the characters on screen. Gregor Stevens (Scott Brady) is an American seaman on shore leave in London, first seen happily disembarking from his ship and off to pay a visit to his brother who is resident in the capital. He’s checked out of his accommodation and a stop at the travel agency where he was employed as a courier reveals he has moved on from there, although a customer (Mary Castle) appears to recognize the name before seeing something that makes her reconsider. To cut to the chase, a few more inquiries lead Stevens to the shocking realization that his brother has not only been arrested for murder but has subsequently been tired, convicted and has a date with the hangman in three days time. And that’s where the diamonds come in; the condemned man seems to have been involved with a smuggling outfit and been framed for a killing as a result. Where does this leave the brother? Well, he has 72 hours to blunder and bludgeon his way around the criminal underworld in an attempt to clear his sibling’s name and, hopefully, nail the true culprits.

As was so often the case, Three Steps to the Gallows imported Hollywood talent to add some more box-office appeal. Both Scott Brady and Mary Castle were the transatlantic stars used, and they do add a touch of noir authenticity, in my opinion. Brady was a reasonably big name at the time, although he has probably been overshadowed somewhat by his more notorious older brother Lawrence Tierney since then. Brady had a few brushes with the law himself and had a tough demeanor too. It’s this aspect, the physicality of the man, that is highlighted most in the movie. His character crashes around London like an impatient and short-tempered bouncer, finding himself framed for a killing even as he tries to clear his brother and frequently resorting to his fists before his brain has had a chance to catch up. On paper, this possibly sounds off-putting but Brady manages to make this bruising lead sympathetic. Rita Hayworth lookalike Mary Castle, whose life took a series of noir turns itself, is fine as the girl who offers him his first opening and moves from potential femme fatale to Girl Friday. The supporting cast is typical of these B features and includes such welcome and well-known faces as Ballard Berkeley, Colin Tapley, Ronan O’Casey, John Blythe and Ferdy Mayne.

Three Steps to the Gallows was a Tempean Films production, meaning that it came from producers Monty Berman and Robert S Baker, the former also taking on the cinematography duties here. These two played a significant role in British film and television in the post-war years. Tempean Films was responsible for a number of spare and entertaining crime movies and the Baker-Berman partnership was then instrumental bringing about many of the best ITC TV series, including The Saint with Rober Moore. The direction was handled by the ever reliable and generally stylish John Gilling, who started out as a prolific writer and director of B noir before moving on to bigger budgets, Hammer Films and television work. Here, Gilling moves everything along very snappily and the film perfectly captures the slightly seedy and decaying post-war milieu.

It’s easy to track down a copy of Three Steps to the Gallows, in the UK at least. The film has been released on DVD by Renown Films, that rich source of British B movies. The quality of the print is variable, looking crisp in some shots but dupey and with overdone contrast in others. There is also some print damage or dirt to be seen here and there, but the movie remains perfectly watchable at all times, and I doubt whether better versions are ever likely to surface. Anyone who enjoys British crime and noir movies of the era should find plenty to satisfy them in this one.