Continuing our crime movie series with a look at a pre-Hammer Horror Terence Fisher lightweight crime romp that fails to thrill.
Widely dismissed by critics – even genre critics – during his lifetime, Terence Fisher’s reputation is rather better today than it used to be. I might even suggest that it’s a little too good. Now, I’m not denying the importance of Fisher’s work directing all of the early Hammer gothic horror films, and I’m certainly not dismissing the films – you’ll find glowing reviews of Dracula, The Mummy and The Devil Rides Out on this very website. But when people call Fisher an auteur, it’s hard not to raise your eyebrows, because he was anything but that. Fisher was, essentially, a director for hire, not a creator. Certainly, he seemed to find a particular affinity with gothic horror, but this was hardly through choice, and it can be argued that his films succeed as a collaboration, rather than as one man’s vision. Without Hammer’s production team and film crews giving the films their visual style, the music of James Bernard, the solid casts and, most importantly, the screenplays of Jimmy Sangster, would these films have been as impressive. Surely the sign of an auteur is that you can recognise their style as uniquely their own – be they a Kubrick or a Franco. Yet you only have to look at Fisher’s non-Hammer films in the 1960s or his pre-gothic work of the 1950s to see that it isn’t the case with him. Regardless of how much fun Island of Terror or The Earth Dies Screaming is, there is nothing in them to suggest that they are not the product of a workmanlike director who has simply been hired to do a job and is doing so in an efficient but unfussy manner. There’s nothing wrong with being a workmanlike director – in fact, it’s rather admirable. But let’s not kid ourselves that they are auteurs.
This preamble leads me to Stolen Assignment, which Fisher made for British Lion just one year before The Curse of Frankenstein, and yet feels a million miles away in style. There are no directorial flourishes or recognisable touches here to hint at what was to come. Instead, this is an entirely generic programmer that manages to be plodding even though it clocks in at just 60 minutes.
Artist Henry Crossley’s (Patrick Holt) wife is missing, a fact that seems not to concern him as he paints depressingly bad crime pictures that are presumably for the covers of pulp novels (though no one would pick something up if it had one of these ugly pictures on the cover). Has he murdered her in order to spend her money on model/mistress Stella (Kay Callard)? Police inspector Corcoran (Eddie Byrne) is investigating, but continually getting in the way is the genuinely dreadful journalist couple Jenny Drew (Hy Hazell) and Mike Billings (John Bentley). He’s the chief crime reporter and she’s the women’s page editor keen to get her teeth into some real reporting, and the pair of them are in competition to solve the case and get the scoop because women’s page editors are absolutely allowed to muscle in on crime reporting if they feel like it. Don’t you oppress them!. This rivalry involves a great deal of talk, some awkward flirtation (Hazell and Bentley have zero chemistry together) and lots of dialogue that has the sharpness of a pair of safety scissors.
I’m afraid I have little patience for films in which plucky newspaper reporters solve crimes, especially when even the film makes it obvious that they are simply getting in the way of the actual investigation by the police. Years of exposure to British tabloids make it rather hard to swallow the idea of their hacks being remotely heroic figures (though it’s very easy to believe that they are ego-driven narcissists who will cheerfully interfere in police investigations for their own gain), and this film doesn’t even seem to be trying to make them likeable. Yet I’m sure it is doing just that and simply failing miserably. Having two awful people as the central characters of the film only works if they are supposed to be horrible, and I don’t think we are supposed to find this couple unpleasant, but instead be enamoured of their supposedly witty exchanges and the non-existent sexual tension. When they face mild peril, I assume the idea is that we’ll be rooting for them. In fact, I just didn’t care what happened. The Thin Man this isn’t.
There’s a mild curiosity about whether Crossley is guilty or not, admittedly, as various characters with personal axes to grind spread malicious rumours about him. Yet there is little doubt throughout the film what the conclusion will be, and when it finally arrives, it’s a bit of a damp squib. Fisher brings no sense of style or substance to the film, which feels very much like what it is – a bit of filler knocked out quickly and dispassionately. Some of these British B-movies of the time can be fascinating, exciting, weird and wonderful. But I’m sorry to say that this one is simply very, very forgettable.
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