Rynox is writer-director Michael Powell’s earliest surviving film and a fine adaptation of Philip MacDonald’s eponymous novel (also known as ‘The Rynox Murder’). In 1928 the out-of-work Powell arrived in London to find the British film industry in a state of great flux as it tried to get to grips with the coming of sound and the strictures of the ‘1927 Cinematograph Act’. Powell’s output for the next few years would be dominated by the effects of the Act as he became a purveyor of what was scornfully referred to as ‘quota quickies’, low-budget movies made to fulfill the legal obligation required to get bigger budget (and usually American) films on British screens. Rynox however was rather better than that and was given a bigger budget than the norm for that kind of movie (usually one pound per finished foot of film!). It is an ingenious murder story set in the slippery world of high finance (how topical) and which really helped raise Powell’s profile, not least because it seemed to be commenting obliquely, but with impish good humour, on the parlous state of both British industry and film financing …
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
In 1970, Michael Powell called MacDonald “the best thriller writer in those days and he still is, as far as I am concerned, one of the best.” Powell’s qualification “as far as I am concerned” can probably be attributed to the fact that by then MacDonald was largely forgotten. His last published novel The List of Adrian Messenger came out in 1959. In the previous two decades he had written two other novels and two collections of short stories. This was in large part due to the fact that since 1931 he had mainly concentrated on screen writing. Rynox, his first screenplay, was written in conjunction with Powell, the film’s producer, Jerome ‘Jerry’ Jackson and (uncredited) J. Jefferson Farjeon, who had written the previous two Powell/Jackson films and would also subsequently contribute to Powell’s The Phantom Light, which I previously reviewed here).
The original novel had been published in 1930 to some acclaim (the Spectator called it “An excellent detective story … unusual both in its form and in its plot!”) and the film rights were quickly snapped up. At the time MacDonald was at the height of his powers and popular success. In fact in 1931 alone he published eight novels (under three different names). This was the period when the detective story was at its most popular and although exact figures are impossible to come by, Julian Symons has estimated that “if 1914 is taken as a basis, the number of crime stories published had multiplied by five in 1926 and by ten in 1939.” MacDonald’s novel The Noose was the first selection of the Crime Club created by the publishers Collins in 1930. The Evening Standard bought the serial rights, and in Symons’ words, “MacDonald’s sales quadrupled, and within a year the Crime Club had 200,000 members.” There are a lot of references to movie techniques in the novel (Macdonald would soon become a full-time screenwriter). Roy Armes has pointed to the fact that the rise of the detective novel in many ways mirrors the attitudes that infused British film-making in the late twenties and throughout the 1930s. They both offered the same “pleasurable mixture of excitement and reassurance” while ignoring “the changes occurring in the society around them.” The release of Rynox at the time was greeted with some remarkable critical acclaim:
‘There is a young man called Michael Powell, a director of “quickies” to whom I should like to draw the attention of the British Industry. I should like to point out, too, the conditions under which he works, and modestly to suggest a moral. Powell’s Rynox shows what a good movie brain can do within the strictest limits of economy. This is the sort of workman we need for the new British cinema; this is the sort of pressure under which a real talent is shot red-hot into the world.’ – C.A. Lejeune (The Observer, 13 December 1931)
The Cinematograph Act imposed a minimum quota of British films to be bought and shown every year in the UK. The ‘quota quickies’ sprang up as films that were made to exploit the protected market, or, in the case of the American producers, to fulfill their legal obligation in order to continue exporting their films to Britain. Rachael Low has estimated that half of all British films made at that time were made under these conditions, so that in the early thirties, “… British film production was either quality or quota.” The conception of these as merely films made to order and not considered highly even by those who made them, remained a pervasive one until very recently; Powell himself expressed an equal mixture of pride and disdain for them. Of the first nine films Michael Powell made as solo director, only three are known to survive: Rynox, His Lordship and Hotel Splendide, the latter two starring the comedian Jerry Verno, who appeared in four of Powell’s early films (as well as making a cameo as the Covent Garden stage doorman in The Red Shoes). These films were all made at breakneck speed, and in quick succession. In ‘that incredible year’ as Powell put it in his autobiography, he was constantly working, so that by the end of 1932 a grand total of seven films had been released. Sometimes within one week of each other, so that My Friend the King was released on 4 April, The Rasp (from the Philip MacDonald novel) on 11 April; and once within two days of each other (Rynox was released on 7 May and another Macdonald story, The Star Reporter, on 9 May). Powell has said that ‘they couldn’t all of them be good and they weren’t’, but nevertheless, the first two films made by Powell and his team were, to everyone’s surprise, extremely successful with the critics.
Rynox is a very faithful rendition of the novel, although certain structural modifications had to be made due to the budgetary and time constraints. In his autobiography, Powell states that the film cost £8,000 rather more than for a standard ‘quota quickie’. In the 1970 Kevin Gough-Yates interview, he gave the cost as £4,500, which seems more likely. Either way, it runs a scant 48 minutes (average length though for a ‘quickie’), making it the shortest of his surviving films. The plot deals with the murder of F.X. Benedik, the director of the Rynox company, by a mysterious and violent man with a grudge known only as B. Marsh. It eventually turns out to be an insurance scam to help the ailing finances of the company. It is the treatment of the story, as well as the real identity of Marsh, that are the crux of both the book and the film.
Powell has said that it “could just as easily have been a stage play”, which is true enough in the sense that most of the plot is relayed verbally and there is very little action in terms of chases or fight scenes. More to the point, it all takes place on only six main sets, with a few location shots added. The main sets are for the outer and inner office of Rynox, the vestibule and living room of Benedik’s home, the booking office and the gun shop. However, in view of the film’s running time, this is not really noticeable. Despite the emphasis on dialogue (usually the main feature of any ‘quota quickie’) and the small number of sets (there are also a few location shots), there are some distinctive visual touches in the film. When we first go up to the Rynox office, there is a montage of skyscraper shots, edited with a variety of different wipe effects over static and shots panning upwards. To show Benedik’s arrival at his offices, and his dialogue with the lift attendant, the shot is taken from inside the lift, with the figures in silhouette in the foreground. When the metal grate is folded back, Benedik speaks (following the novel’s dialogue) and then steps out, with the camera tracking behind him. In this way, we don’t see the lift arrive and we only hear it leave. Some fairly discreet tracking shots can be noted: one is for the scene when policeman go to the Benedik house on hearing two gunshots; another is an interesting shot near the beginning of the film, where the camera is positioned outside the window that dominates the Rynox office and then tracks forward until it enters the room, crossing about half of it. This is achieved with a quick dissolve (as in Murnau’s The Last Laugh) rather than with a breakaway set.
The film ends with the novel’s prologue and the killer’s confession and while this is straightforwardly presented, it is also very effective and gives the film a powerful finish. The flashback begins at the exact moment when we previously saw Marsh for the last time, left by Prout, in Benedik’s home on his own. To say more would be to spoil the surprise on which the whole story hangs, though I hope that mentionign that involves an obliging tree branch is enough of a tease to interest potential viewers. Considering the budgetary and time limitations under which the film was produced (there is one scene for instance in which the boom mike is clearly visible throughout), the film remains thoroughly entertaining even today. At the time of the film’s original release it was, as mentioned previously, very well-received in many quarters. Picturegoer’s reviewer was qualifiedly positive:
This unpretentious mystery picture has some claim to originality in conception … Rather complicated, but nevertheless quite clearly told. Moreover it is not too easy to foresee the ending. Camerawork is good and the action quite brisk’. Picturegoer, 5 March 1932
Documentary figurehead John Grierson, in a review entitled ‘As Good as Hollywood’ (Everyman, 10 December 1931), gave it what can only be described as a ‘rave’ review:
‘… there never was an English film so well made … here is a film which in beautiful settings, in superb photography, in dressing, in angle, in movement, in direction generally, achieves all the neatness and finish one has come to regard as the exclusive possession of the Americans.’
The novel, with its wit, breathless pace and the paradoxical relationship between murderer and victim, have remained among MacDonald’s most popular, which led to it being remade by Maurice Elvey as Who Killed John Savage? (a lost film). The trade journal Kine Weekly, on the film’s release in 1937, raved that “Just as a successful thriller of fiction compels the reader to keep his nose glued to every page, so will this, his kinematic counterpart, keep the average patron continually on tenterhooks.” (25 November 1937). The story was “unofficially” filmed again in 1961 by the producer/director team of Michael Relph and Basil Dearden from a script by the team of Jack Seddon and David Pursall (just prior to their Miss Marple adaptations starring Margaret Rutherford for director George Pollock, who was the assistant director on this production) under the title The Secret Partner. The screenplay was credited as being an original one by Seddon and Pursall, but it is clearly an adaptation of the MacDonald novel. Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself – it’s all on YouTube, right here. No-one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever commented on the similarity of the plot to Rynox and it was certainly never acknowledged by the filmmakers themselves.
DVD Availability: None so far, though it is available on YouTube.
Director: Michael Powell
Producer: Jerry Jackson
Screenplay: Jerry Jackson, Michael Powell, Phillip MacDonald and (uncredited) J. Jefferson Farjeon (from the novel by Phillip MacDonald)
Cinematography: Geoffrey Faithfull and Arthur Grant
Art Direction: C.C. Waygrove
Cast: Stewart Rome (F.X. Benedik), John Longden (Anthony X. ‘Tony’ Benedik), Dorothy Boyd (Peter), Charles Paton (Samuel Richforth), Leslie Mitchell (Woolrich), Sybil Grove (Secretary), Cecil Clayton, Fletcher Lightfoot (Prout), Edmund Willard (Captain James)