Out of all of the arts, cinema is arguably one of the most susceptible to foreign infiltration. Mark Fraser revisits an English film from the 1950s which at times looks like it could have been made abroad.
Assuming it’s true, as German director Wim Wenders purported in his 1976 movie Kings of the Road, that the Americans “have colonised our subconscious”, there are moments when the collective “we” – the natives – don’t offer too much resistance.
Indeed, if history has revealed anything, it is how this kind of cultural brainwashing can sometimes be encouraged from within.
Take John Guillermin’s 1957 English whodunit Town on Trial for instance, which – in the opinion of one film scholar at least – represents the early Americanisation of British cinema.
Speaking during an interview that appears in the extras of Powerhouse Films’ recent Blu-ray issue of the black and white movie, UK author and broadcaster Barry Forshaw points to a number of factors at play within what he calls the work’s “US-style presentation”.
Set in the fictional county town of Oakley Park somewhere south of London, the film follows Scotland Yard detective Mike Halloran (John Mills) as he initially looks into the murder of blond siren Molly Stephens (Magda Miller), who is attacked and strangled with a stocking while walking home alone one night.
Early in his investigation the dogged copper discovers a few leading suspects, including Molly’s mentally ill ex-boyfriend Peter Crowley (Alec McCowen), who still lives at home with his mother (Fay Compton); married sports club secretary and liar extraordinaire Mark Roper (Derek Farr), with whom the victim was having an affair; as well as the bullying local physician Dr John Fenner (Charles Coburn), whose failure to report that she was pregnant when killed smells a bit ratty.
Meanwhile, members of the prominent Dixon family are also not above suspicion when patriarch Charles (Geoffrey Keen) – who shows an open hostility towards the late Ms Stephens – does not let Halloran question his daughter Fiona (Elizabeth Seal), a friend of the murdered woman.
In making his case that Town on Trial is an Americanised version of the classic British whodunit, Forshaw points to three key elements at work within the narrative.
First, there’s the setting and the fact that many of Oakley Park’s inhabitants have “a shady past”.
“Everyone has secrets and things which have damaged them, or blighted them, in some way (and) sex is usually at the heart of pretty well everything in it,” Forshaw explains.
“They (contemporary critics) kept saying there is nowhere in Britain like this town, absolutely nowhere.
“It is like – I don’t think anyone mentioned Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place – but that’s what they were hinting at.*
“The main thing this is about, rather like Peyton Place, is the thin veneer of respectability and how hypocritical most of the characters in the film are.”
The second aspect of Town on Trail’s Americanisation, Forshaw argues, stems from Mills’ performance, for which the actor employs a London dialect that contains “a slightly mid Atlantic quality … a pseudo American accent used to kind of sell the property abroad”.
“(He) is actually a version, despite the fact he is a British police inspector, of the hard boiled American private eye,” he notes.
“And the fact that you see him in a trench coat tells you that he is not just a British policeman, and his actual style is very much Philip Marlow as played by (Humphrey) Bogart (in Howard Hawks’ 1946 classic The Big Sleep).
“He’s not polite – he is ostensibly impolite to everyone that he meets, and that again is like the American private eye, who is always insolent.”
At the helm
Finally there’s the direction by Guillermin, a film maker who – later in his career – went on to direct quite a few Hollywood movies, including the bona fide blockbusters The Towering Inferno (1974) and 1976’s remake of King Kong. He was also behind the camera for another moderate studio success – the star studded Death on the Nile in 1978 – before his track record started to go pear shaped.
What’s important to note here is that Guillermin was not some Yank who arrived in the UK after World War II and started inflicting his American sensibilities upon an unsuspecting British movie-going public. Rather, he was a native Englishman. Born in London during November 1925, he became involved with the production of a number of lightweight homegrown features in the late 1940s around the same time he first briefly ventured to the United States, where he “studied the Hollywood studio system first-hand” (allmovie.com).
Not much is known about this visit – nor is it easy to unequivocally determine if the sojourn was conducted before or after he co-directed his first film, 1949’s High Jinx in Society, with business partner Robert Jordan Hill.
It seems likely, though, that the trip was definitely over by the time he made what is generally regarded his debut feature, the crime melodrama Torment, in 1950.
Guillermin then went on to direct eight more movies in the UK (with another shot in Spain and unofficially co-directed by Alfonso Acebal) before making Town on Trial.
Two films later the director got what was probably his first proper taste of Hollywood with Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959), which was released by Paramount Pictures Corporation. His eventual move to Tinseltown, though, didn’t occur until 1968 when he helmed a couple of movies (the George Peppard vehicles PJ and House of Cards) for Universal Pictures.
Given the trajectory of Guillermin’s career, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest his subconscious had already been well and truly colonised by the Americans when he directed Town on Trial.
Certainly Forshaw would probably agree with this, having pointed – during the course of his Powerhouse interview – to the editing of the film’s opening, with its Hollywoodesque “series of close ups” involving details like handcuffed hands, a speeding car screeching to a quick halt (during which the camera shutter speed is obviously under-cranked) and the outside front steps of the Oakley Park police station as the local constabulary lead a suspect into the building. (As an aside, Guillermin was to reuse the accelerated vehicle motif, which recurs regularly throughout Town on Trial, at the start of his 1969 WW II actioner The Bridge at Remagen when he shows a line of American tanks and auxiliary trucks – again shot at an adjusted shutter speed – hurtling towards the Oberkassel rail bridge on the Rhine as the allies try to prevent it from being destroyed by the retreating Germans.)
Not mentioned by Forshaw is another nifty montage technique the director utilises during the middle of his 1957 movie, the crash pan, to quickly transition from scene to scene – a visual device which, at the time, was not commonplace in English cinema.
But to what degree this form of Hollywood infiltration affected Guillermin’s overall vision remains an interesting question given there is still enough happening in Town on Trial to make it quintessentially British.
While Forshaw maintains Mills’ performance is complicit in helping Americanise the movie, it can alternatively be argued that his role also cements its place as an English one.
Had the film truly been a Hollywood imitator, the actor probably would have been replaced by someone like Richard Widmark as he appears in Elia Kazan’s noirish Panic in the Streets (1950), another detective story, albeit one in a very different vein.
In the Kazan movie, Widmark plays Lieutenant Commander Clinton Reed, a US government doctor who gets caught up in a chase to stop the spread of the pneumonic plague after it breaks out in New Orleans’ underworld.
At the start of the story, it’s quickly established that Reed is a pretty successful and content guy. Aside from being respected professionally, he is also happily married (with a son) and heads a household that reeks of wholesome domestic bliss.
Being associated with the military also means he is benefitting directly from the economic prosperity which America enjoyed – at pretty much the expense of everyone else – after the Second World War.
For Halloran, though, it is a different story. As revealed during a blossoming romance with Dr Fenner’s niece Elizabeth (Barbara Bates), his wife and seven year-old daughter were killed during the war and he never managed to fill this gap. Like the rest of England – and unlike the war profiteering Americans – he’s still paying the price for the conflict. Taking this into account, his underlying melancholy and stoic sense of loss is essentially British.
In relation to this, another point worth mentioning is despite some interesting night time shots and its credentials as a murder-mystery – plus Forshaw’s assertion that the Mills’ characterisation is a little Bogartesque – Town on Trial never really consolidates a place in the film noir canon.
Although Halloran’s manner may be a little jarring and his solitary disposition obvious, he’s not exactly an existentialist. Regardless of his Mr Unorthodox tough guy shtick, he’s fully aware that civil society serves a purpose – even though, at times, he is wary of the rules controlling it.
The fact he heroically risks his life at the end of the film to save the murderer from jumping from a church steeple is a testament to this.
After all, had Halloran been more like Bogart’s Marlowe and facing a similar set of circumstances, he probably would have just stood back and let the man plummet to his death.
*While the screenplay is attributed to Englishmen Ken Hughes and Robert Westerby, Forshaw points out it was based on a “piece” called The Nylon Murders by British radio and television scriptwriter Francis Durbridge, whose name does not appear in the film’s credits. And in relation to the locale, Oakley Park seems to be a bit too rustic to host a population of 50,000 (as suggested in a line of dialogue). Furthermore, the map of the town and its environs that is briefly shown at the very start of the movie indicates the place sits on a major railway line (which is never seen, but only heard) and doesn’t have a river running through it (when in fact one is used as the backdrop when the seeds of the eventual relationship between Halloran and Elizabeth are sown). For some reason, it reminded this critic of the fictional American Midwest town of Kings Row as depicted in the 1942 Sam Wood-directed movie of the same name.
Words by Mark Fraser
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