A pre-gothic Hammer Films crime melodrama that is better than you might expect.
When I was a Hammer Films-fixated youth pouring over horror movie books and magazines, there seemed to be a universal truth amongst writers and fans alike that, prior to The Quatermass Xperiment, everything that Hammer (or ‘Exclusive’, the parent company) did was a disposable programmer of no worth whatsoever. That was, of course, nonsense – at least in terms of their value. Yes, most of Hammer’s output had been in the form of supporting features and would-be populist comedy and drama, but to suggest that there were no hidden gems in that selection is a bit silly.
Luckily, in recent years, the popularity of the Hammer name has seen DVD labels digging further into the back catalogue, going beyond the horror and into the murky past. You can buy box sets of ‘Hammer Noir’ these days if you are so inclined. And now and again, one of those movies makes its way back to the mother country. 1952 melodrama Stolen Face popped up as a welcome extra on the blu-ray of The Mummy recently, and now The House Across the Lake emerges as part of Network’s continually essential and extensive British Film series.
Made in 1954, the film is somewhat typical of Hammer’s crime dramas of the time. It’s a short second-feature programmer (just over an hour long), has a couple of faded American names included in the cast to help with US sales and wastes no time in telling its story. It is also a pretty solid noir thriller – perhaps not remarkable, but certainly a satisfying tale well told by director Ken Hughes, who – like Hammer – would go on to bigger things within a few years.
American author Mark Kenrick (Alex Nicol) has rented a house where he plans to write his latest book in peace and quiet. Unfortunately for him, the neighbours on the other side of the lake are party animals, and the noise is a regular distraction. Not that he seems to need a distraction, as his work ethic even at this stage is rather lax. When he is asked to help rescue some stranded guests one night, Kendrick finds himself an initially reluctant party guest and is slowly drawn into the strange world of his hosts. There’s Beverley Forrest (Sid James), a wealthy man who takes Kendrick under his wing – you suspect that he has few friends at these parties, which are thrown by and for his thoroughly unpleasant wife Carol (Hillary Brooke), an ex-model in a marriage of convenience to Forrest. She blatantly flaunts her lovers in front of him and is impatiently waiting for him to die so she can inherit his millions. There’s just one problem – he intends to write her out of his will.
Carol is nothing if not scheming though, and while Kendrick initially seems repulsed by her, he’s also shallow enough to fall for her charms, and before long, she’s stringing him along as a lover too. His career soon falls apart – the early chapters of his book are so shoddy that his publisher cancels the contract and his agent dumps him – and desperate for money, he finds himself drawn into a murderous scheme with the film’s femme fatale.
The House Across the Lake (also known as Heatwave) has a classic noir structure – it’s even told in flashback, with Kendrick narrating his inevitable fall from grace. In this case, the presence of an American lead actually makes a sort of sense – this might not really work with an English middle-class voice-over telling the story. As it is, it looks and feels magnificently atmospheric and moody – the fateful murder (I don’t think the revelation of a murder in a noir is really a spoiler, is it?) taking place on the fog-shrouded lake in a scene that has quite a lot of the feel of the later Hammer horror movies – and the narrative has a nice touch of ambiguity. Kendrick, like many a noir hero, is a man who finds himself almost accidentally caught up in a situation that rapidly spirals out of control, his life falling apart as things happen that he has no control over but which will affect him deeply. He makes the wrong choices all the time, and so is ultimately responsible for his own downfall, but nothing is planned – he’s the ultimate hapless character being strung along by smarter, more cunning manipulators. Carol, on the other hand, is a grand schemer – you can’t imagine anything happening in her life without her having planned it precisely. Brooke is impressively cold and calculating as the spider woman, pulling Kendrick into her web of deceit – it’s no surprise when she ultimately double-crosses him because he’s obviously been used from the start.
It’s always unusual and enjoyable to see Sid James in a straight role – it’s easy to forget what a great dramatic actor he could be. Inevitably, the long cultural reach of the Carry On films might colour how you see him here (you always expect a lecherous laugh to emerge from his mouth), but he gives a solid and convincing performance in a role that is unfortunately rather underdeveloped. His character gets a lot of screen time, but we never really get to know him except on a superficial level – he’s there to set the plot in motion, essentially.
In many ways, this film resembles the Edgar Wallace programmers from a few years later – short enough to be a supporting feature (and more significantly from a modern viewer’s point of view, short enough not to overstay its welcome) and with a no-nonsense, lean and mean, gritty crime drama feel, it’s a lot more entertaining than you would expect. The low-budget British crime drama of the 1950s and 1960s is a fantastic, inventive and always-entertaining genre that doesn’t get anything like the attention it deserves (someone should really write a book..) and like many of those films, The House Across the Lake proves to be a great deal better than you might expect and is definitely one of the gems from the pre-gothic Hammer era.
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