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Case Number 14761

Buy British Cinema: Classic "B" Film Collection, Volume 1 at Amazon

British Cinema: Classic "B" Film Collection, Volume 1

The Hooded Terror
1938 // 68 Minutes // Not Rated
Crimes Of The Dark House
1940 // 67 Minutes // Not Rated
The Girl In The News
1940 // 76 Minutes // Not Rated
The Frightened Man
1952 // 66 Minutes // Not Rated
Tread Softly Stranger
1958 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
The Siege Of Sidney Street
1960 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by VCI Home Video
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // October 17th, 2008

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge James A. Stewart's favorite letter of the alphabet is "B."

The Charge

"Sudden death is always so terrible."
"Yes, but in our kind of business, one seems to get used to it."
—an exchange from The Hooded Terror

Opening Statement

Before television came along, short, cheap second features known as B movies were a big part of the moviegoing experience. In Britain, they were required by law. "Quota quickies" were the result of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, according to the British Pictures site; the act set a target for British movie production. British Pictures argues that quotas gave a generation in the British film industry a chance to polish its craft. From the TV distributor cards that flash on screen in a couple of these movies, it could be inferred that they also provided fodder for early television in the United States.

The six crime movies in British Cinema: Classic "B" Film Collection, Volume 1 span more than 20 years—from 1938 to 1960. Girl in the News is directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man). Other names in the collection are less familiar to Yanks, but one film includes the voice of a current TV personality.

Facts of the Case

British Cinema: Classic "B" Film Collection, Volume 1 features six movies on three discs:

Disc One
The Frightened Man (1952)
Antique dealer Roselli (Charles Victor, The Saint's Return) gets bad news from his son: Julius (Dermot Walsh, Sea Fury) has been "sent down" from Oxford for a drunken fight. Julius promptly marries boarder Amanda (Barbara Murray, Tales from the Crypt), but he doesn't want to settle down and get a job. Instead, Julius becomes a getaway driver for a gang of robbers and plots a diamond heist. Could Julius' caper bring down his father the fence?

The Siege of Sidney Street (1960)
"The main characters and incidents in the film are true." These incidents of 1911 even involved Winston Churchill, who was British home secretary at the time. Sara's in love with anarchist Peter the Painter (Peter Wyngarde, Flash Gordon), but the undercover copper who's watching Peter is in love with Sara (Nicole Berger).

Disc Two
Crimes at the Dark House (1940)
Based on Wilkie Collins' Woman in White, the melodrama centers on Sir Percival (Tod Slaughter, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), newly arrived from Australia to take over the family estate. Trouble is, this bounder murdered the real Sir Percival and is planning to marry Laura Fairleigh for her fortune. Could the Woman in White who keeps popping up at his estate foil his plans?

The Hooded Terror (1938)
Philatelist sleuth Sexton Blake (George Curzon, Q Planes) meets French agent Julie (Greta Gynt, The Ringer) at a stamp auction. When he gets home, a messenger dies in Blake's room, the victim of a South American blowpipe arrow. It turns out they're both on the trail of the Snake, the masked baddie at the head of the Black Quorum, an evil secret organization.

Disc Three
Tread Softly Stranger (1958)
To escape angry bookmakers, layabout Johnny (George Baker, Ruth Rendell Mysteries) heads for his hometown to stay with his brother David (Terence Morgan, The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb). It turns out David's in trouble, too: he stole three hundred pounds from the office till to romance Calico (Diana Dors, The Unholy Wife). Johnny jokingly suggests they rob the place to cover up the embezzlement, but Calico and David like the idea too much. Based on Jack Popplewell's play; Jim Dale (Pushing Daisies) performs the title song.

The Girl in the News (1940)
Nurse Anne (Margaret Lockwood) is cleared of murder after her patient's suicide, but she's still having trouble finding a job. It seems like a godsend when wheelchair-bound Lord Bentley needs a nurse and isn't checking references. It's more like a curse when Bentley turns up dead.

The Evidence

The Frightened Man, directed by John Gilling, starts out slowly, but picks up when Julius begins planning his caper. Julius could be the Frightened Man of the title, because he's shaky when driving a getaway truck for a gang of robbers. The Frightened Man could also be Roselli, who becomes scared for Julio when he learns what his son is up to. The characters are rather one-dimensional, with Roselli as the self-sacrificing father and Julius resentful of his father's efforts to mold him. Still, Charles Victor brings humanity to the conclusion as Roselli sees where his actions have led.

Despite restoration efforts, the film's not in good shape, with shadows that are too deep, fading, scratches, and some old flashes. Halos follow characters as they move about. The sound has some odd hisses at times.

The Siege of Sidney Street moves briskly, punctuated by the anarchists' violent robberies. One factory robbery gets an extra dramatic boost from a stray dog which attaches itself to one of the anarchists, a surprisingly arty touch from directors Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman. Peter Wyngarde as wanted anarchist Peter the Painter seems particularly menacing as he sings to a captured copper played by Donald Sinden (The Day of the Jackal). The story taken from reality has some good twists, but doesn't resolve itself as neatly as fiction.

There's still some poor lighting and flecks in the picture, but this 1960 entry isn't in bad shape. The score, which is both exciting and romantic, comes across well, too. A photo gallery features posters and stills from the film, moving at their own pace. Sidney Street wasn't full frame originally; you'll notice the credits falling off the sides of the picture.

When I call Crimes at the Dark House a bad movie, I say it with a smile. You'll be thinking Snidely Whiplash or some similar caricature when you watch Tod Slaughter ham it up as the fake Sir Percival, a greedy, lustful, and murderous villain. He looks the part in top hat and big mustache and sounds the part with a sinister laugh, transparently calculating dialogue, and his gratuitous use of the word "Curses!" The situations drip with melodrama throughout, and the actors comply under George King's direction. If you're a fan of movies that are so bad they're good, put this one in your essentials collection. The picture has the shadows and flickers common to this set.

"As you yourself pointed out, I'm a very busy man," Sexton Blake tells Julie when they first meet in The Hooded Terror. "I may not always have the chance to come to your rescue." As it turns out, it cuts both ways, with Julie rescuing Blake at one point and Blake returning the favor later on. Terror is a routine B-movie series entry, with an observant detective who even lives on Baker Street. As played by George Curzon, he reminds me more of George Sanders' suave Simon Templar than Basil Rathbone's eccentric Sherlock Holmes, though. Greta Gynt holds her own as Julie, even managing to scream at snakes without coming across too silly. It's silly stuff from George King, with a villainous turn by Tod Slaughter; their work isn't subtle, but you'll find it positively restrained after the excesses of Dark House.

The action's typical cliffhanger stuff, with Blake falling through a trapdoor and later rescuing Julie from a room full of snakes, punctuated by predictable humor. While he's attending that stamp auction, Blake runs into Inspector Bramley, who's on the lookout for pickpockets. While they're chatting, Blake catches one lifting Bramley's watch. I especially liked a surreal scene that saw Blake walking through a nightclub room to discover that the revelers are all waxworks. The shadows creep into the picture too much at times, but the transfer's otherwise good.

Tread Softly Stranger splits into three distinct acts, each with its own personality. The first act puts viewers in the steamy love triangle that's developing between David, Johnny, and Calico, played out on a rooftop against the backdrop of a drab mill town made even grayer by the black-and-white cinematography. The second act is the caper gone wrong, with Johnny racing to stop his brother from making a terrible mistake. The third act deals with the aftermath, as Johnny tries to keep himself and David out of trouble. That third act, which even pits brother against brother as the trio tries to sweat it out, is what gives Tread Softly Stranger its shot at noir immortality.

Diana Dors' Calico at first seems like a one-note sultry beauty with legs that "weren't made just to stand on," but she proves to be an adept manipulator and, even when scared as the plot unravels, plays both David and Johnny. Terence Morgan's transition from meek would-be lover to violent man of action to terrified criminal is masterful. At times, George Baker seems a bit too cool as Johnny, but he mostly handles the role well as the levelheaded loafer who deals steadily with trouble because he's seen a lot of it. There's also a good turn by Patrick Allen (The Traitors) as a coworker who suspects David of the robbery.

Throughout the movie, director Gordon Parry uses the drabness of industrial England to set the mood, stumbling only with a trick ending that's a little too obvious. Sometimes the shadows on the transfer get too heavy, but the picture otherwise shows off the setting well. There are a few flecks, but not enough to hurt things. The moody jazz score comes across strongly.

Director Carol Reed, famed for The Third Man and Oliver!, draws dramatic tension from the stirring of medicine into water and the way a cat tugs at his mistress' nightgown in this moody courtroom drama. Margaret Lockwood (Pygmalion) makes a noble victim caught up in circumstances as nurse Anne, but Barry K. Barnes (Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel) steals the show as an outrageous defender cast from the same mold as Horace Rumpole.

There's a freeze at one point, but the picture otherwise isn't too bad, despite the occasional lines or flecks.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

You know that trick ending in Tread Softly Stranger? The same trick ending turns up in The Girl in the News, on the same disc. It fits the tone of the standard-issue mystery a lot better.

Note that while the DVD blurb calls these movies forgotten gems from the 1940s and 1950s, the range goes from 1938 to 1960.

The trailers included aren't for the movies featured, instead promoting other British classics. Carol Reed's The Third Man is among them, though. While there's some extra material with The Siege on Sidney Street, VCI could have done better in this department.

Closing Statement

If you've got even a little soft spot for B movies, you'll love the ones presented here. There are two prizes buried under the caramel popcorn in this big box of Bs: Tread Softly Stranger really is a lost noir classic, while Crimes of the Dark House heads in a different direction, defining "so bad it's good" (although I suspect Tod Slaughter knew what he was doing with his hammy villainy). Moreover, VCI's caramel popcorn consists of two solid dramas (The Girl in the News and The Siege on Sidney Street) and a fun filler (The Hooded Terror). The Frightened Man plods, but it's still got a few good moments. The cost works out to about $4.50 a movie if you buy on Amazon.

Although the case says VCI did some digital restoration, the images are far from perfect. I have a feeling they didn't have great copies to start with, though. Curses!

The Verdict

Not guilty. I've got to go now; my stamp collection awaits.

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Genres

• Classic
• Crime
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• Foreign
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Scales of Justice, The Hooded Terror

Video: 80
Audio: 85
Extras: 0
Acting: 85
Story: 75
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile, The Hooded Terror

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 68 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Hooded Terror

• None

Scales of Justice, Crimes Of The Dark House

Video: 80
Audio: 80
Extras: 0
Acting: 80
Story: 80
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile, Crimes Of The Dark House

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 67 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Crimes Of The Dark House

• None

Scales of Justice, The Girl In The News

Video: 80
Audio: 85
Extras: 0
Acting: 88
Story: 85
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, The Girl In The News

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 76 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Girl In The News

• None

Scales of Justice, The Frightened Man

Video: 80
Audio: 85
Extras: 0
Acting: 75
Story: 75
Judgment: 75

Perp Profile, The Frightened Man

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 66 Minutes
Release Year: 1952
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Frightened Man

• None

Scales of Justice, Tread Softly Stranger

Video: 85
Audio: 88
Extras: 0
Acting: 95
Story: 90
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile, Tread Softly Stranger

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Tread Softly Stranger

• None

Scales of Justice, The Siege Of Sidney Street

Video: 80
Audio: 85
Extras: 50
Acting: 88
Story: 88
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, The Siege Of Sidney Street

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Siege Of Sidney Street

• Photo Gallery
• Trailers








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