Continuing our crime movie month with a look at a flawed but interesting film adaptation of a BBC serial from 1955.
Similar in feel and style to the Edgar Wallace programmers that Anglo-Amalgamated would produce en masse in the early 1960s, this 1955 British noir – based on a BBC series of the same name that was shown earlier that year – is a very entertaining, if ultimately insubstantial little thriller, directed with a certain verve by Guy Green and co-written by Ken Hughes, who was then fresh from the Hammer Films noir The House Across the Lake. Like that film, Portrait of Alison (known as Postmark for Danger in the USA) features a leading cast that is made up of American actors in the hope of securing those all-important international sales, and as a result, it ends up feeling like a curious hybrid of British and American crime movies.
The film opens with a car driving off the side of a cliff in Italy and exploding in spectacular fashion – a dramatic pre-credits scene by any standards. The driver was fast living newspaper reporter Lewis Forrester, and with him – apparently – was new girlfriend Alison Ford (Terry Moore). While it seems to be an accident, the police in London are unconvinced, and their suspicions settle – for no good reason – on Forrester’s artist brother Tim (Robert Beatty). Soon, the evidence against Tim starts to mount up – his model is found dead in his apartment, wearing Alison’s dress, for a start. As Tim tries to clear his name, it soon becomes clear that Lewis had discovered information on a smuggling ring, and had sent the details coded within a postcard. But to who? Things take an even stranger turn when the supposedly dead Alison turns up one night at Tim’s place, only to vanish before the police arrive.
As with many a noir thriller, Portrait of Alison has plot holes that you could drive a truck through if you care to look for them. It’s very obvious early on, for instance, that Tim is being set up by the criminal syndicate, but not so clear why – after all, the police are not yet onto them, and at this point, Tim does not even suspect that his brother’s death might have been murder. Trying to frame someone for a crime that no one even knows has occurred seems a curious way of drawing attention away from yourself. But if we ignore the plot inconsistencies, the film also has some good twists, involving William Sylvester as Tim’s other brother Dave, Terence Alexander as a crooked newspaper editor, Allan Cuthbertson as a foppish rich chap and William Lucas as a shady used car dealer. All these characters play a more substantial part in the unfolding narrative than seems likely to begin with, and these characters and their involvement in events allow the film to have a few decent plot swerves along the way.
It has to be said that while the supporting cast is all impressive, the two leads are a bit insubstantial. Beatty is less stoic than wooden, and his character is remarkably naïve, continually trusting the wrong people even when they have already shown themselves to be rather shifty. Maybe he’s just stupid. He’s also pretty bad when it comes to fisticuffs – his two big fights in the film are both rather clumsy affairs that he doesn’t come out of well. Like many an ‘American’ star of British B-Movies, Beatty was actually Canadian and had a long career that ranged from low key crime dramas like this to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Where Eagles Dare as well as hosting BBC magazine series Saturday Night Out. Moore, who had a long career stretching into the 2000s and is perhaps best known as the human star of Mighty Joe Young, is, unfortunately, a bit too bland to be a convincing femme fatale (though to be fair, the film only toys with making her this sort of character before finally reducing her to a standard heroine in distress with little to do) and the two of them have no chemistry – their burgeoning romance is ham-fisted and unconvincing. Again, we have to wonder why the presence of Americans – any Americans, even actors that no one had heard of – was seen as so important in films of this era. There’s absolutely no evidence that it made any difference to the ultimate success of the movie either domestically or internationally, yet it was such a constant that you have to assume that at some point, somewhere, it had proven a lucrative move. In any case, there were better American actors working extensively in the UK at the time and it’s a shame that the film finds itself bogged down with two ineffectual leads.
Luckily, the narrative of the film is intriguing enough to survive a bad bit of casting and underwritten main characters. Movie versions of TV serials and one-off dramas were not uncommon at the time – Hammer Films were churning them out with the likes of The Quatermass Xperiment and The Abominable Snowman – and invariably, in reducing a story to around half its original length, something has to give. Unlike the dramas that hammer adapted, Portrait of Alison has not developed a reputation as a classic serial and may well be lost, so we can’t really compare the two versions. It’s possible that the full-length story allows more character and plot development to take place but seen as a stand-alone film, this narrative holds together pretty well, the suspense building nicely and the dramatic developments coming frequently enough to stop anyone from being bored. It’s only once the film is over that you realise not very much has actually happened – and the ability to make you think that a story has more substance and incident than is actually the case is always the sign of a well-crafted thriller, where suspense more than compensates for a thin storyline. It also has a tough and mildly sexy edge that you don’t tend to associate with British cinema of the time – though of course, exploitation movies of this sort have long been overlooked in the official history of British film. Former cinematographer Green ensures that the film looks impressively moody when it needs to and while his direction is essentially workmanlike, he nevertheless ensures that the film is never less than eminently watchable – this was his second film as director and he would go on to have a solid, if not especially remarkable career during the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes making provocative and controversial films such as early Hammer psychodrama The Snorkel, The Mark, House of Secrets and The Angry Silence.
Naturally, the presence of the imported Americans are never explained (Moore’s father in the film, played by Henry Oscar, has a British accent just to confuse things) but they don’t seem as crudely bolted onto the story as in some similar films of the time, and it’s good to see Sylvester – who a decade later was still popping up as a solid (if already old-fashioned) lead in interesting British horror films like Devils of Darkness, Devil Doll and The Hand of Night – in an early supporting role.
Like many a British crime film of the era, Portrait of Alison is more interesting than you might have been led to believe – British programmers and crime movies from the 1950s and 1960s have yet to have the sort of critical reassessment that other genre films have enjoyed and often remain mysteries to be uncovered through increasingly rare TV broadcasts on nostalgia-themed channels (if you are not doing so already, we very much recommend any British Reprobates to check the schedules of channels like Talking Pictures TV and London Live for this sort of thing). These films are always enjoyable, sometimes brilliant; you could do a lot worse than to seek them all out, and Portrait of Alison is as good a place as any to begin.
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