Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Scarlet Thread (1951)

My notes on Scarlet Thread

This British character-based crime thriller has ‘based on a play’ written all over it. Moie Charles and A.R. Rawlinson adapted their own West End drama as a tidy little B picture script – it’s much more cinematic in the first reel, which is all set-up, than when it gets shut into the confines of a claustrophobic Cambridge college for all the ‘enter stage left’ and ‘declaims to the gallery’ business.

Freddie (Laurence Harvey, unsteady in an early role) is a shifty, shirty cockney pickpocket with an eye for the ‘dames’ who uses a bogus Yank accent to cop off with the likes of tartlet Dora Bryan. He becomes the protégé of Marcon (Sydney Tafler), a well-mannered crook with one useless arm which signals sexual dysfunction, and smartens up a bit, dreaming of becoming a big shot and opening a night-club. They go on a smash-and-grab jewel raid in Cambridge, which gets complicated when Freddie guns down an old bloke who gets in the way (as in The Blue Lamp, giving a wideboy coward a gun is a bad idea) and then unbelievable as Marcon takes refuge in what turns out to be his old college. Josephine (Kathleen Byron), the dean’s daughter, offers tea and croquet and takes a shine to Freddie’s mock American act, which ticks off her donnish suitor (Arthur Hill). Class and sexual issues seethe in the library where the jewels are stashed behind a volume about wildlife of the Hebrides – Josephine feels stifled in the college, having given up her job in publishing to look after her widowed father, and Freddie makes a serious play for her. Marcon is given to pettish displays of jealousy either because he fancies Josephine himself, thinks Freddie isn’t good enough for her or has a crush that dare not speak its name on his wavy-haired sidekick. This leads to a falling-out among crooks as the contrivances pile up (it turns out the bloke Freddie shot was Josephine’s father) and there’s an overly-brusque wind-up (the print which aired on the BBC ends so abruptly it might have been truncated by some seconds).

Byron, best known as the smouldering nun in Black Narcissus, has a showcase role as the sensual spinster, eager to get hot with Harvey and with a capriciously cruel streak that makes her interestingly nasty for a supposed heroine. Tafler, smoother than usual, is a dilapidated college man who succumbs to nostalgia even as he remembers the scrapes which got him sent down and probably put him on the road to ruin. Harvey plays it too broad – his panicky spiv act is no more believable than Freddie’s Spillane knock-off tough talk – but he does strike sparks with Byron. Harry Fowler, far better cast as a spiv, is the getaway driver who bottles it and drives off, leaving his comrades to wander around town in distinctive raincoats with pockets full of stolen sparklers. Director Lewis Gilbert just gets it over with.


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