Continuing our crime cinema series with an unexpectedly gritty and twisted British B-movie thriller from the 1960s.
One of the joys of watching obscure British programmers of the 1950s and 60s is the possibility of stumbling upon something that, through design or accident, proves to be rather more interesting than it has any right to be. Walk a Tightrope, made in 1965, is a great case in point. I have no doubt that this film was intended as nothing more than a spot filler for double bills, and when taken on face value, it’s a remarkably artless affair – director Frank Nesbitt – whose directorial career was brief, with just two other features and a handful of second unit/assistant director credits apart from this – handles the film like a man with one eye on the clock, and the film has a flat, one-dimensional feel as a result. The film ought to be completely throwaway – yet there is much to enjoy here and it’s not just the twisting plot that holds your interest; it’s the fascinating character studies, topped by Dan Duryea.
Duryea was an American tough-guy actor who was nearing the end of his career – and, indeed, his life – and was the seemingly obligatory US ‘name’ that films like this tended to include in the cast in the hope of securing overseas sales (how much the presence of usually washed-up, often alcoholic former stars actually helped secure American distribution is unknown, but presumably it must’ve worked to a degree because producers kept casting them). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Duryea wasn’t a washed-up boozehound at the time – he’d never made it beyond supporting roles as a heavy to begin with and so his latter career in Europe can’t be seen as a last-ditch career move like Brian Donlevy’s appearances as Quatermass, for instance. What’s more, his performance here is pretty astonishing as Carl Lutcher, a morally bankrupt hired killer who nevertheless has a strange personal code of ethics and, rather oddly, a well-constructed relationship with partner Maisie (Shirley Cameron). In fact, when the film opens, it’s this couple we first meet – the idealistic young woman and the older, beaten down seaman making an odd couple in their cramped bedsit. The immediate impression we get is that terrible things will befall them both, and in a sense, we are right. But not in the way we suspect.
As the opening credits play out, Lutcher heads out to his new job – a job we suspect will not be entirely legal. And indeed it isn’t, as he follows Ellen Sheppard (Patricia Owens), another American. When she starts to panic about the mysterious man following her, she tries to flee and runs into her husband Jason (Terence Cooper) and his friend Doug Randle (Richard Leech) before fainting. The pair take her home, only for a knock on the door to reveal Lutcher, who has followed them back. He demands to know if Jason is Ellen’s husband, and when he confirms that he is, shoots him dead, knocking out Randle as he rushes to help. But as Ellen collapses in hysterics, the film takes a curiously turn, with Lutcher insisting to her that she had hired him to carry out the killing and demanding the rest of his £1000 fee.
He then begins to call her, insisting on his money even as she insists that she has no idea what he is talking about. When he arranges a meeting in the Hawks Head Tavern, across the road from where he lives, Ellen calls the police and a trap is laid. But in court, while he admits to the murder, Lutcher insists that Ellen is equally involved, telling a story that seems dubious, given the fact that he’s shown to be something of a drunk and so not the most reliable of eyewitnesses. But the film continues to offer twists along the way, leading to a satisfyingly bleak ending.
Walk a Tightrope suffers from being an obviously rushed affair. Chunks of the narrative don’t really hang together and rely on the audience forgetting what they had previously seen as secrets are revealed. Ellen’s panicked reaction to being followed doesn’t make a great deal of sense in the context of later revelations, and even her hysterical reaction to the shooting seems a bit misplaced – it perhaps lifts the drama and sets us up for plot twists, but plot twists only really work if they don’t cheat the audience and here, they come rather close to doing so thanks to Ellen’s behaviour in this opening moments. But thanks to the overarching narrative and the films steady pace, you don’t really become aware of this until later, when you realise that it has all been a part of throwing the viewer off the scent. By the time that you realise that you’ve been cheated, the film has you hooked in enough to forgive the sleight of hand.
In any case, it’s the little moments that make this film such a fascinating tale despite the plot inconsistencies. It’s a shame that the relationship between Lutcher and Maisie is allowed to fizzle out in the latter part of the film (we last see her weeping, alone, in the courtroom) because it’s the most interesting part of the film, a genuine slice of kitchen sink drama that leaves us full of questions. Are they man and wife? Does she know of his criminal past? How did she end up in love with this worn down older man? How, indeed, did a washed-up American hitman end up in England to begin with? It’s rare, even now, for a killer to be given such an interesting and sympathetic character in a movie, and for it to happen in a low rent affair like this is astonishing. Both the actors do a great job of making this couple seem unexpectedly real – even when we think that Lutcher is a cold-blooded killer and a delusional alcoholic, he seems oddly sympathetic, as much a victim as anyone else, and certainly more human and more interesting than Ellen and her friends (Leech is the closest the film gets to a heroic male lead, though he does fawn over Ellen in a rather creepy fashion (given that his best friend and her husband has just been murdered) and ultimately has little to do other than stand around looking confused.
Production-wise, this is crude stuff, and there’s little attempt to give the film any real style. This is rough ‘n’ ready British Sixties cinema at its most basic in many ways. But the bed-sit, the fantastically old-fashioned pub and other grotty little touches that would not have seemed remarkable at the time now add another layer of period authenticity and gritty realism to the film – the movie’s limitations lend it an unexpected realism and somehow it becomes something more than the sum of its parts, a movie that is a lot more interesting than it has any right to be. A lot of the British programmers of the era – from the Edgar Wallace Mysteries to various cheap and supposedly disposable B-movies – have turned out to be more substantial than anyone might have expected at the time and this is certainly one of the most interesting.
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