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From the Vault: Postwar Brit Noir at the Quad

Typically, formulated definitions of what constitutes film noir, a movement of morally ambiguous cinematic tendencies which took place in glorious black and white throughout the 1940s to late 1950s, concern American cinematic tropes. However, such moral degradations in a post-WWII landscape were hardly owned solely by the capitalistic tendencies of those living in the United States. Unearthing four obscured gems from Britain in the darkness following WWII, the Cohen Media Group celebrates some lesser known titles from their library for a limited theatrical release at the Quad in New York.

Wanted for Murder (1946)

Emeric Pressburger notably co-adapted the screenplay for this 1946 by-the-numbers effort from director Lawrence Huntington, Wanted for Murder (aka A Voice in the Night). Noted Shakespearean thesp Eric Portman (who shares some brittle similarities with Olivier) stars as a strangler of women who inherited his penchant for murderous misogyny from his deceased father, a noted Victorian hangman who reveled in his legal profession. Supposedly, he falls in love with a random shop girl (Dulcie Gray), who thanks to being pursued by another admirer (Derek Farr) manages to escape the killer’s confused amorousness. While this has some interesting commentaries about inherited hereditary behaviors (and would make an interesting counterpoint to the similar intergenerational profession of father and son in Luis Garcia Berlanga’s 1963 title The Executioner), besides a droll performance from Roland Culver as the Chief Inspector, Wanted for Murder is a bit dry.

Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)

The jewel of this series is this Dirk Bogarde headlining title Cast a Dark Shadow as a gold digger who inherits his older wife’s (Mona Washbourne) fortune after he kills her and then sets himself up in a complicated love triangle by marrying a woman (Margaret Lockwood) of his own class who rather understands his intentions while trying to fend off the suspicious sister of his dead wife (Kay Walsh) who wheedles her way into their lives searching for clues of foul play. Bogarde’s sexuality always seems a bit ambiguous, thanks to his insincerity with the three female stars as well as some questionable reading material suggesting perhaps he’s more fascinated by his own gender. Dark and menacing, Cast a Dark Shadow is on par with its heinous American counterparts from the earlier filmography of Brit director Lewis Gilbert, who would helm classics like Alfie (1964), a couple Bond titles (Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice), as well as the camp train wreck adaptation of Harold Robbins’ The Adventurers (1969).

Jigsaw (1962)

Val Guest’s Jigsaw has the misfortune of a recycled title, which would be used for the latest installment of the D-grade Saw franchise, as well as a so-so Franchot Tone noir from 1949 (which featured a cameo from Dietrich). When a beautiful woman is dismembered in the cold opening by an off-screen killer, we’re left to follow this rather long-in-the-tooth police procedural through the eyes of the lead detective (a stuffy Jack Warner). As they circle around their prime suspect, they piece together the motive and wherewithal, a process which takes us right up to the end credits for one final clue. Technically, Jigsaw arrives after the deadline of what modernists consider to be the classic period of noir, and to be fair, it’s a film which seems to be aching to morph into something else, and feels more like a prologue to the explosion of counter culture aesthetics which would define a chapter of British cinema by the end of the decade.

Dancing with Crime (1947)

Director John Paddy Carstairs, perhaps better known for several B-grade comedies of the 1950s, was the son of actor Nelson Keyes, star of several British silent films. He tried his hand at noir with this late 40s effort, Dancing with Crime, which rather sounds like the name of a pop album. Notably, this stars real-life couple Sheila Sim and Richard Attenborough, appearing impossibly fresh-faced as a London cab driver who gets wrapped up with a gang when he tries to expose those responsible for murdering his old friend. The performance is a long way off from Attenborough’s unforgettably villainous turns in items like 1948’s Brighton Rock (or 1971’s 10 Rillington Place), and the film’s uneven tone slides between Attenborough’s good guy and a handful of villains who want to silence the taxi driver before he can divulge useful information to the authorities. Blink and you’ll miss an uncredited Dirk Bogarde as a policeman.

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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