A transitional British gangster movie, influenced by American film noir – you can see Robert Mitchum or Bogart in the sort of role Trevor Howard takes here – but rooted in a specific post-war British milieu. In condemning the nasty little creep villain, a showgirl whines that he’s ‘not even a decent criminal’, hinting at nostalgia for some (illusory) pre-war world of honour among thieves and playing the game. Narcy (Griffith Jones), which is aptly short for Narcissus, is a Soho-based spiv who runs black marketeering rackets from the Valhalla Funeral Home (with a big RIP sign on the roof where the final fight takes place), shifting contraband or stolen booze, nylons and off-ration meat, though he’s moving into drug-peddling (a bone of contention in the gang) and is low enough to punch and kick a woman, steer a car into a policeman and let a subordinate take the manslaughter rap and fix it so jaded ex-RAF type Clem Morgan (Howard) goes to prison so he can move in on the mug’s posh girlfriend (who oddly disappears from the film).
Morgan, who escaped from a POW camp, finds getting out of Dartmoor prison easy, though he blunders into an isolated farm (in a pointed contrast to the crofter scene from The 39 Steps) and finds a middle-aged neurotic (Vida Hope) who wants him to murder her drunken husband (Maurice Denham) and lets him take the blame (again) for the killing when he refuses and she hysterically but effectively empties a revolver into the old soak. Back in Soho, there’s an odd development as the cop in charge of the manhunt (Ballard Berkeley) catches Morgan but lets him go, having tumbled to the real villain and assuming the rogue ex-serviceman will be effective in doing away with the slick, cowardly creep the cops can’t be bothered to make a case against. There’s more than a touch of Bulldog Drummond or Edgar Wallace to this unlikely turn, pointing out that for all its realist details and snapshot-of-postwar-anomie/corruption, this is still a rattling yarn rather than a true-to-life drama (cf: the contemporary It Always Rains on Sunday or Night and the City). The finale, with Morgan up against a whole gang – some hiding in coffins with guns or knives, ready to burst out at him – in the undertaker’s, is almost like a sketch of the 1980s action film in which Sly, Arnie or Bruce emerge bloody but victorious after taking on a whole crew of ruthless baddies single-handed.
Sally Gray is top-billed as Narcy’s ex, who helps the hero, and there’s a prominent role for Rene Ray as the girlfriend of Elisha Cook Jr-type fall guy Soapy (Jack McNaughton) – though it also seems odd that these peripheral women, who have showbiz careers that allows for scenes in variety dressing rooms and a crook pub, get such prominence when the real heat is hatred between down-in-the-world Morgan, who only sobers up when his for-the-kicks criminal venture turns out to be nastier than he thought, and aspirant, would-be classy Narcy. Morgan reminisces coldly about killing a German guard (‘with swastikas up to his neck’) with a beer bottle, and a flung milk-bottle features in the climax – Cavalcanti staged shockingly violent scenes in Went the Day Well? and does again here, though there’s an occasional reticence about the frequent brutalities which suggests censor attention. Narcy’s gang runs to a knife-wielding psycho thug (Michael Brennan) and a fastidious professional crook (Charles Farrell) – part of the film’s transgression is that these are the sorts of cockney chancers usually treated comically in films, even down to 1960s stuff like The Wrong Arm of the Law, but are here rotten to the core. At the end, the dying Narcy has a chance to exonerate Morgan but opts instead to use his last breath to hang more crimes on him – with an unromantic fade-out as the policeman admits he’ll have to fill in ‘millions of forms’ to start the process of getting Morgan’s innocence officially recognised.
Peter Bull has a nice little bit as ‘Fidgety Phil’, a prissy, slightly camp coppers’ nark who hangs around in low pubs with his ear out and his hands busy in his pockets. Cavalcanti stages much of the action in expressionist, almost grotesque style – when he’s giving the heroine a beating, Narcy’s face is reflected in a warped dressing room mirror that makes him look deformed. It’s not subtle, but packs a wallop. Scripted by Noel Langley (The Wizard of Oz), from Jackson Budd’s novel A Convict Has Escaped.