Noirvember: The Edgar Wallace Films Of The 1930s And 1940s

Continuing our crime month with a look at a trio of early British films based on the novels by the master of the genre.

Perhaps the greatest Edgar Wallace mystery is why the prolific and once-popular author has more or less completely vanished from the public consciousness. Yes, much of his work is class-ridden and a challenge to political correctness, but the same could be said of Agatha Christie, who remains in print and a popular subject for TV adaptations. Perhaps it’s the lack of an established ongoing character like Miss Marple that puts off the TV producers. Perhaps it’s just laziness and cultural ignorance – had Christie and her work not maintained a constant cultural presence since the 1970s, perhaps she too would be unknown to TV executives too.

The massive popularity that Wallace enjoyed in the first half of the 20th century (and beyond in Germany) led to numerous films that range from a series of increasingly outrageous and sleazy German slashers to more the staid but always fascinating British series from the 1960s. But before any of those, there were a handful of British-made low-budget programmers that were based on Wallace’s novels. These films have tended to wallow in obscurity – rarely shown on TV since the 1970s – until recent DVD releases gave them a new life.

The Gaunt Stranger, made in 1938,  is based on what is arguably Wallace’s best-known story (if we leave aside King Kong), The Ringer. The ‘Ringer’ in question is one Arthur Milton, a mysterious murderer and master of disguise who the police initially believe to have been killed in Australia. But when shifty lawyer Maurice Meister (Wilfred Lawson) receives a wreath from the supposedly dead man, announcing that he will be killed in two days, Inspector Wembury (Patrick Barr) of Scotland Yard is forced to think again. Teaming with police doctor Lomond (Alexander Knox), he places a guard on the lawyer, even though this is not appreciated by the man who is both up to his neck in criminal activities and a thoroughgoing cad to boot. Having seemingly driven Milton’s sister to suicide a year earlier, he now seems to have designs on Mary Lenley (Patricia Roc), an upper-crust sort who has fallen on hard times. This doesn’t go down well with her brother Johnny (Peter Croft), fresh out of prison, and suddenly Meister has two threats to worry about.

As no one knows exactly what The Ringer looks like, the film tries to keep us guessing, though in reality there are few suspects to choose from. The obvious choice is Inspector Bliss (John Longdon), newly arrived from Australia, supposedly trailing Cora (Louise Henry), the Ringer’s ‘widow’. Not only does he behave in a somewhat suspicious manner, but he’s just about the only cast member who could seriously be described as either ‘gaunt’ or ‘a stranger’. Could he be the ruthless killer, or is he just a red herring? Regular viewers of whodunnits won’t be surprised at the answer.

The first film produced by Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios, The Gaunt Stranger – aka The Phantom Strikes – is directed with efficiency, if not enthusiasm, by Walter Forde – who had already tackled the same story seven years earlier – from a screenplay by Sidney Gilliat. Like most of the Wallace films of the period, it’s cheap, cheerful and crude, but not uninteresting. In its eagerness to get on with the drama, it does rather gloss over the Ringer’s back story – everyone talks about the character as if we, the viewer, should be completely aware of his history, making this feel like a sequel to a non-existent film. Of course, the widespread familiarity with Wallace’s work at the time probably meant that more viewers at the time would be on a nodding acquaintance with the story to begin with.

Once events start to unfold, the movie has enough going on to keep you watching, even if nothing very gripping actually happens. With comedy cockney criminal Sam Hackett (Sonny Hale) brought in to try and identify the Ringer and provide light relief, the film jumps – sometimes rather awkwardly – from fluffy comedy to melodrama and back again, as Meister puts the moves on the frightfully posh Mary, sets her brother up and generally behaves with such pantomime villainy that it rather puts a dampener on efforts to create tension as the hour of his pre-ordained murder approaches. His mental collapse under the pressure is not only inadvertently amusing, but it’s something we don’t really care about, given that he is a cad of Tod Slaughter proportions.

In fact, the film rather interestingly seems to set him up as the real villain of the piece, eventually treating the unmasked Ringer – who is out for retribution in this case – with some sympathy. Seeming to forget that he is an apparent multiple murderer, the film – unusually for the time and in a move that must’ve baited the censor’s sense of propriety – allows crime to pay and the villain to escape for adventures new.

The Gaunt Stranger doesn’t attempt to be anything more than a passing amusement – although the opening titles, displayed as posters on street walls, display some imagination, the film is otherwise shot with the minimum of flair – and as such, it succeeds well. These rarely seen early British thrillers tend to be more interesting for what they represent – a hidden side of commercial British cinema that is usually ignored by historians – than what they actually are, and this is no exception. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining.

Already filmed twice, Wallace’s story The Terror must have already seemed rather old hat by the time the 1938 version came along, especially as this interpretation is, effectively, just another ‘old dark house’ story of the sort that was staggeringly popular at the time (just look at how many versions of The Cat and the Canary and Seven Keys to Baldpate – not to mention countless imitators and spoofs – were made in the 1920s and 1930s). Having not seen the other versions of the story or read the source material, I can’t really compare them to this creaky British movie, but you have to think they must be better. For years, this was one of the most obscure genre films made in the UK, entirely unmentioned in reference books and it’s easy to see why, as the film never quite finds its direction until the very end.

The story involves mysterious criminal Mad O’Shea (who we might think was doomed from the get-go with that name), who masterminds a gold robbery and then informs on his partners, sending them to prison for ten years. When the pair, ‘Soapy’ Marx (Alastair Sim) and Joe Connor (Henry Oscar) are released, they swear vengeance, and somehow or other connect their betrayer to a guest house run by Colonel Redmayne (Arthur Wontner). There’s only one problem – they don’t know what O’Shea looks like.

Staying at the guest house are Mary Redmayne (Linden Travers), the Colonel’s daughter, would-be psychic and crime enthusiast Mrs Elvery (Iris Hoey) and her daughter (Veronica), Mr Goodman (Wilfred Lawson) and new arrival, the perpetually drunk – or is he? – Ferdy Fane (Bernard Lee). One of these people is the infamous O’Shea, but who? Well, given that we know he’s male and has been at the house for some time, once again there is no real mystery, even for viewers unfamiliar with Wallace’s story.

The Terror is not altogether unentertaining, but it does feel like it’s taking a very long time to get to where it needs to be. A couple of ineffectual murders don’t do much to keep excitement levels up and much of the film takes a comic edge, which would be fine if it was actually funny. But characters like Mrs Elvery (whose mix of cut-glass accent and high-speed delivery often renders her dialogue near-incomprehensible), comedy policemen and stereotypical servants (naturally, the lower orders all know and remain in their place in this film) are more irritating than entertaining. Lee is better – years before becoming James Bond’s M, it’s interesting to see him showing his comic chops as a romantic lead. Sim is as solid as ever, but he really doesn’t convince as a hard man villain.

Admittedly, the film does build to a fairly frenetic and gothic finale, as the organ-playing madman holds captives in his dungeon lair – none of it makes any real sense, but there is at least a certain urgency about the closing moments, and the return of one seemingly dead character is impressively creepy. But it’s really too little, too late.

Nevertheless, The Terror is certainly worth a look for fans of British horror and anyone who admires the ‘old dark house’ mystery style (and that includes me – I’ll forgive a lot of cliché and padding in these stories).

The Missing Million, made in 1942, is a somewhat convoluted mystery that opens on the eve of a society wedding between millionaire Rex Walton (Ivan Brandt) and Dora Coleman (Patricia Hilliard). Rex is the latest victim of serial blackmailer The Panda – a name that hardly instils the same sense of mystery as The Ringer or The Terror, it must be said – and when he suddenly disappears mid-party, it’s down to his feisty sister Joan (Linden Travers) to investigate, along with Inspector Dicker (John Stuart) of the Yard.

This investigation involves a token cockney safecracker and misogynist Nobby Knowles (Charles Victor), various red herrings and misdirections and the eventual revelation that few of the main protagonists are really what they seem – and that the mystery might not be quite as straightforward as it seemed. The Panda is after Rex’s million-pound fortune, but who is after The Panda?

The eventual revelations rarely make much sense and the final identification of The Panda is a bit of a damp squib – but this is, nevertheless, thoroughly entertaining fluff once you get into it, as long as you keep your expectations to a realistic level. As with most British films of the time, everyone is either frightfully posh or cheerfully working class, and the social pecking order is scrupulously maintained. The performances are amusingly stilted – the opening scenes with Travers having to spit out as much exposition as possible with zero emotional connection are especially entertaining for all the wrong reasons – and the film is full of awkward pauses and misplaced soundtrack music as if it was a production from the early days of the Talkies rather than the 1940s. But you could make the same accusation about pretty much any British B movie of the era (and quite a few ‘A’ Pictures too) where stiff upper lips were so stiff as to stifle any sort of emotional realism from the actors. In truth, none of this stops the film from being an enjoyable, if ultimately disposable thriller. But no matter how throwaway this – and the other Wallace films of the era – might be, I’ve very glad that they have finally become available for viewing again. If only Wallace’s novels could see a return to popular print editions…

DAVID FLINT

BUY THE GAUNT STRANGER
BUY THE TERROR
BUY THE MISSING MILLION

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