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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – King of the Underworld (1952)

My notes on King of the Underworld (1952)

In the early 1950s, Tod Slaughter, whose barnstorming melodrama style was deliberately out of date even in his 1930s heyday, teamed with longtime character actor Patrick Barr, who racked up a screen career as policemen and dignitaries from the 1930s (The Gaunt Stranger) to the 1980s (Octopussy), in a low-budget TV series Inspector Morley, Late of Scotland Yard, Investigates.  The show was scripted by John Gilling, who had written a Slaughter vehicle (The Greed of William Hart) and would go on to be a notable British writer-director (The Flesh and the Fiends, The Shadow of the Cat, The Reptile, The Plague of the Zombies, etc) and directed by Victor M. Gover, who had ringmastered Slaughter’s The Curse of the Wraydons.  TV sales, even in the medium’s bonanza era, were poor to non-existent, so the series was repackaged for theatrical release.

This feature – not to be confused with the 1939 Humphrey Bogart gangster film of the same title – glues together three episodes.  Morley (Barr), an ex-policeman working as a well-heeled private detective, is a Holmesian master of disguise (Barr is quite good under false beards, underplaying as a French tourist or sinister seaman) continuing a lifelong feud with crooked Terence Reilly (Slaughter), an ex-butler who runs an ostensibly London respectable jewel exchange but dabbles in a Moriartian range of crimes, including blackmail, kidnapping, fencing stolen goods, theft and murder.  The star gets opportunities to indulge in the kind of eye-rolling that was his stock in trade – filling a bath with acid while explaining to a tied-up victim that they’ll be going down the drain.  In brisk, if clumsy episodes, Reilly hatches schemes which Morley thwarts – but the crook isn’t caught until the end of the third adventure.  The middle story, which has a mystery element, is the strongest, but it’s not up to the average Colonel March Investigates or Fabian of the Yard.

Slaughter seems out of place in a contemporary London setting – a quaint Dickensian villain in a world of cosh boys, spivs and gang wars (cf: It Always Rains of Sunday, Night and the City, They Made Me a Fugitive).  Pasting the shows together raises continuity problems: Morley’s spunky secretary Eileen (Tucker McGuire) dupes the crook with a disguise in episode one, can’t go undercover in episode two because Reilly will recognise her but does meet him again for the first time in episode three.  Various stooges are involved in the crimes, and fall by the wayside – including Ingeborg von Kusserow as a treacherous maid who seems to be the elderly crook’s mistress and Len Sharp as a cockney weasel.  At the height of his powers, no one could match Slaughter for relish in screen villainy and he still occasionally flashes his old leer – when a blackmail victim protests that he’s demanding she hand over a diamond that has been in her husband’s family for three hundred years, he snarls ‘well, it’s about time it was in my family’ – but he’s seriously out of shape, and the several fight scenes (including one in which he’s trussed up and has to roll about on the floor) make the hero look like a bully.

A tacked-on ending economically establishes that the villain has been hanged to give the narrative some closure.  Two episodes were left over and issued as standalone shorts – in Murder at Scotland Yard, Reilly escapes from prison to continue his vendetta by delivering exploding wireless sets to his enemies, but is caught again.  Murder at the Grange completes the set.  Oddly, it’s a) the best episode of the series, with a twisty psycho-drama plot b) brings on Reilly’s twin brother Cuthbert (another crooked butler) as a red herring, and c) doesn’t even credit Slaughter, reducing a supposed co-star to non-entity status.  Two more episodes have popped up – The Red Flame and Reilly at Bay.  The device of killing off the apparent lead and introducing his twin brother to reboot a series was later used in the interesting James Garner one-season Western Nicholls.

Discussion

One thought on “Film review – King of the Underworld (1952)

  1. Terence Reilly’s twin brother is named Patrick, not “Cuthbert” ! And he appears for the first time in “Reilly at Bay” (when his brother Terence is in jail). Since, other episodes, never seen in UK in any form, but broadcast on US TV in 1953, have surfaced. To date, only four episodes (from thirteenth) are still “lost”.

    Posted by ferocias | July 26, 2020, 11:00 am

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