My notes on the British thriller.
‘Now, listen worms, my friends and I don’t like your type. You meet in secret places and your slimy minds concoct foul schemes which – incredible to relate – meet with a fair measure of success …’
Though ‘Sapper’ published a book called The Return of Bull-Dog Drummond (1932), this 1934 British picture is based on The Black Gang (1922), the immediate sequel to his franchise-launching Bulldog Drummond (1920). By this time, the first novel had already been filmed a couple of times, and Sapper’s thick-ear brute of a hero Hugh Drummond had acquired a certain dandyish polish first in a successful stage play and then in the screen person of a slick-moustached Ronald Colman. This isn’t actually a sequel to any earlier film version, bringing in a lumpy Ralph Richardson for an unlikely action hero turn, but it includes back-references to Drummond’s earlier bout with arch-villain Carl Petersen and retains Claud Allister as silly-ass, monocled sidekick Algy Longworth, whom he’d played in the 1929 Colman film and would essay again in the 1937 Bulldog Drummond at Bay.
Written and directed by Walter Summers (Dark Eyes of London), it’s a fast-paced ripping yarn which stumbles interestingly as it tries not to be quite as politically embarrassing as the novel. As in the book, apparently diffident ex-officer Drummond has formed a vigilante group (the Black Gang in the novel become the Black Clan in the film) who dash about the countryside on motorbikes or in ‘expensive cars’, wearing tight black shirts and motorcycle goggles, giving evil (and often foreign) conspirators sound biffings and tossing rotten politicians into streams. By 1932, there were enough real-life anti-leftist factions making black fashion statements to render Drummond’s leather lads suspect. Summers evens things up by having the baddies, who Sapper wrote as anarchists in the employ of international Bolshevism, include a sham patriotic ‘Up England’ movement and a cartel ruthlessly capitalist arms profiteers who try to foment war to stay in business (there are even snarling Yank gangsters in the rotten crew of ‘specimens’ Drummond breaks up). It opens with a pacifist League of Nations leader being assassinated after unwisely accepting a lift to his next engagement from a woman who is clearly up to no good – she runs out of petrol in the middle of nowhere, and legs it to the nearest garage as a car cruises by and pulls off a Chicago-style tommy-gun-riddling of the pacifist (surprisingly gruesome). This atrocity prompts Drummond’s Black Clan – scarcely a less fascist-sounding name than the Black Gang – to take action against Up England’s top-hatted boss (Wallace Geoffrey) and barging into an operation run by foreign nasties whose names begin with Z.
The script has Carl Peterson (Drummond’s Moriarty-like arch-enemy) doing his Master of Disguise act as a bearded foreigner and a mild clergyman, but casting the tubby, instantly-recognisable Francis L. Sullivan in the role scuppers a whole sequence where we assume the hero has seen through the imposture but actually he doesn’t until a distinctive gesture gives the villain away (in the books, Drummond never told Peterson what his ‘tell’ was, but Richardson smugly blurts it out). However, Sullivan is a welcome, slimy villain, relishing every chance for perfidy and finally zapped to death by his own electric fence. Ann Todd manages to add extra syllables to her dialogue as Drummond’s wife Phyllis, who exists only to be kidnapped and threatened with drowning in the bath, and Joyce Kennedy is a little subdued as Peterson’s femme fatale sidekick Irma, who also gets a couple of disguises. A little of Claud Allister’s drawled slang goes a long, long way, but Richardson at least tries hard in an unusual role, speechifying to baddies, escaping from a car that has been driven into the river, thumping many people and defending Britain without making a fuss about it.
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