Town on Trial (1957) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

John Mills is the hardboiled Superintendent of Police with a serious chip on his shoulder trying to crack a series of stranglings in this highly entertaining whodunnit made for Columbia at Shepperton Studios in the UK. It imported two Hollywood co-stars to help sell it to audiences back home with octogenarian Charles Coburn, as a Canadian emigree, and Barbara Bates as his niece and also the detective’s potential love interest, both sharing above the title billing with Mills. As a mystery it breaks no new ground but this movie deservedly saw emerging tyro director John (Death on the Nile, The Towering Inferno) Guillermin finally move up the ranks of low-budget B pictures.

This 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.

The town in question is Oakley Park, a sleepy village in the Shires that frankly should be on the banks of a Loch given the number of red herrings that abound! We begin in pretty spectacular fashion with some very eye-catching camerawork as we track rapidly across an empty street to stop barely in time to miss colliding with the arrival of a police car. The unidentified occupants, only seen from the chest down, include a man in handcuffs who we follow into the inside of a police station for questioning. Then another man arrives, and from his voice which, with its clipped, slightly Americanised soft vowels, we recognise as belonging to John Mills – he begins to read the statement that has taken from the killer. Reading the first person narration, at this point we switch to a flashback that is even more strikingly filmed in a series of handheld point of view shots.  This is all pretty unusual for a standard little murder mystery and it tells us that we had better pay attention. If truth be told, the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to its stylish opening, though there is plenty to keep one interested throughout.

Through a series of overlapping POV shots we eventually arrive at the tennis club where the local blonde bombshell Molly Stevens (Magda Miller), in a highly revealing and fairly ridiculous outfit, is being  ogled predictably by what turn out to be the main cast of suspects: club secretary and all round womaniser and scoundrel Mark Roper (Derek Farr); the aging Doctor Fenner with something to hide (Charles Coburn); the ‘sensitive’ youth Peter Crowley (the great Alec McCowen) who loves motorbikes and is henpecked by his mother; and pillar of the community (and all round stuffed shirt) Charles Dixon (ultra dependable character actor Geoffrey Keen), who is going to be having lots of trouble with his wild and wayward daughter Fiona (played by elfin newcomer Elizabeth Seal). Stevens, seemingly tired of showing off at the club climbs into her even more figure-hugging swim suit and goes for a dip in the lake before heading home via the woods – which unsurprisingly leads us to a POV chase through the darkened lakeside where she is eventually strangled with a pair of nylons the killer stole from her room. All the while, Mills has been reading out the confession of the killer, who appears also to be in the sway of some sort of religious mania, quoting from Ezekiel:

Mills now actually appears on screen, his Mike Halloran sporting the regulation Trilby and trench coat like any other 50s Scotland Yard detective worth his salt. Right away, like the film, it is clear that he is aggressive and no-nonsense, unimpressed by the sleepy gentility of the town and its people. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, he finds himself drawn to the only other outsiders, the local doctor (Coburn, in fine form by the way) and his niece (played by tragic Hollywood starlet Barbara Bates in one of her very last roles). After ‘meeting cute’ at the hospital, where she looks after children (allowing Mills to show he knows how to connect with kids), they begin a somewhat halting relationship – well, not much of a surprise when it becomes clear that her uncle is hiding a major secret and is involved in some sort of dirty deeds with Derek Farr, who by the way is excellent as the rogue club secretary who makes his wife despair with his regular dalliances and who lies about his war record in the RAF. But she also sees how angry and pugnacious Mills is – it turns out he lost a wife and child during the war and seems to be continually fighting back. Will she be able to give him some peace of mind?

Coburn like all the characters in the movie is presented very equivocally but it is very nice to see him playing a darker, more serious role than the slightly cuddly comedy parts he had recently been known for. The sequence in which he basically hounds poor McCowen in his sickbed is downright creepy. McCowen was in love with Molly but she threw him over. Mills discovers that she was pregnant and this appears to have been the motive for her killing. No DNA testing of course to ascertain paternity, so Mills just about accuses everybody he can think of. The least likeable character is played well by Keen, who to protect his family from scandal seems happy to overlook the antics (including the odd car crash or two) of his teenage daughter Fiona, and does everything he can to shut down the investigation. Ultimately he gets a very cruel comeuppance, which rightly the film doesn’t dwell on too much.

The unwelcome investigation reveals a hotbed of sex and blackmail and there is a memorable meltdown from Farr when his petty chicanery is exposed in front everyone at a local dance, which he had insisted go ahead despite the recent murder. At the dance Fiona engages in what was meant to be a fairly scandalous mambo (with ‘dance music by Paul Broussé’ as the credits inform us) – it’s all pretty tame today and vaguely risible though there is something deliberately disturbing about the way sexually provocative women are encouraged to act out and then reprimanded for it, usually by getting killed. It’s the same formula we would later recognise from nother slasher movie from the 70s onwards so it is quite intriguing to see it here in this seemingly very different historical, cultural and stylistic context.

All the sexual hubbub ultimately leads to another strangling. Mills is sure who the killer is by this point but just can’t prove it and puts his prey through an intensive third degree, which for the time was probably considered pretty unpleasant. The solution to the crime is the film’s weak spot sadly (the solution I was rooting for was way cleverer …), as is so often the case, with the murderer climbing to the top of the local church (courtesy of some decent special effects courtesy of Hammer supremo Les Bowie) and just saying that he ‘had to do it’ – and not much else really. There’s plenty of subtext regarding the character’s inadequacies, not all of it very PC frankly, and this isn’t really the ‘Peyton Place’ style expose it pretends to be. It’s a solid, workmanlike whodunit with a great cast (there’s even a nice cameo as a landlady from Dandy Nichols pre Alf Garnett ) and a director out to prove himself – well worth a look.

There is a fascinating little interview with the up and coming Magda Miller, who really does get bumpred off too early in the film, available at the Pathe website (after a musical intro) here.

DVD Availability: Just released by Sony in the US as a MOD (Manufactured on Demand) DVD in a solid widescreen transfer.

Town on Trial (1957)
Director: John Guillermin
Producer: Maxwell Setton
Screenplay: Ken Hughes and Robert Westerby
Cinematography: Basil Emmott
Art Direction: John Elphick
Music: Tristram Cary (Dance music by Paul Broussé)
Special Effects: Les Bowie
Cast: John Mills, Charles Coburn, Barbara Bates, Derek Farr, Alec McCowen, Dandy Nichols, Geoffrey Keen, Elizabeth Seal

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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20 Responses to Town on Trial (1957) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Colin says:

    Frankly, I’d never even heard of this one Sergio. Still, it sounds like a lot of fun, and I’m a sucker for Mills in thrillers of the 50s. I think I’ll have to try and track this down.

    • Hi Colin, I suspect I may well have chose a film that is truly ‘forgotten’ … though it does turn up fairly frequently on telly here in the UK (usually on Channel 4 in a very clean but open matte version). I’ll send you an email about it. According to some sources it was based on a series of magazine pieces by Francis Durbridge but if it is, then he gets no on-screen credit!

      • Colin says:

        It’s no bad thing to feature a sleeper like this – it’s always good to hear about something new or unfamiliar.

        Mills really did great work in thriller of the time; I love The October Man (ok, I know it’s late 40s, but you know what I mean), and The Long Memory, The Gentle Gunman and The Vicious Circle all have a lot to offer.

        • great choices Colin, those are all very decent films and I couldn’t agree more about the excellent The October Man (but then it’s an amnesia story … in fact, it just occurred to me that it has some similarities with Graham Greene Ministry of Fear, also about a man with mental illness newly out in the world). I just hadn’t realised how basically obscure the film was – to me it seemed like it was on TV all the time …

  2. Very good review. I first saw this film as a teenager and really liked it. Saw it again a few years ago and still enjoyed it.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words Martin, much appreciated. Very much a slick entertainment in the American style but unmistakably British in its sensibility.

  3. Roger says:

    ‘the ‘sensitive’ youth Peter Crowley who loves motorbikes and is henpecked by his mother (the great Alec McCowen); ‘
    Alec McCowen in drag? I can’t wait…

    • When you put it like that, I may have ended up with a bracket in the wrong place … Thanks for pointing that out. Mr McCowen is wonderful in the film, but does not play the role of the mother (that honour falls to the great Fay Compton)

  4. idawson says:

    Too bad about the 2.5 stars. But I am enjoying taking a look at these great British noir titles. Keep them coming!

    • Thanks for reading! It has a good cast and looks great – on the other hand, I didn;t want to overrate it or oversell it as it is a pretty conventional mystery in other respects. Definitely above average and well worth a look if you like this kind of film.

  5. Yvette says:

    I’m still getting over John Mills playing a nasty Nazi spy in a recent movie, Sergio, so I’m not sure I’m ready for this one even if he is the hero. But eventually I’ll get over the shock. I like John Mills. Terrific review as always. I like learning bits and pieces about interesting films I’ve never seen, especially if they are mysteries.

    • Thanks Yvette – What, Sir John Mills, the father of Hayley Mills, playing a villain? That paragon of British stiff upper lip rectitude? I’m surprised that didn’t put you in a coma! He was a pretty varied actor of course and in films such as Ice Cold in Alex, in which he plays a recovering alcoholic with a lousy private life who still manages to beat the odds, he is just superb. Amazing career, starting off as a hoofer and light lead and then like Dick Powell became a tough guy. Broke my little heart when I saw him in Ryan’s Daughter as a kid – I know the role is probably the epitome of ‘Oscar-bait’ with all the makeup and physical quirks belowed of actoes, but he is absolutely wonderful in it.

  6. Watching it now on TV – quite a treat! You can see how much John Mills uses his eyes like lasers to fix your attention – this shows even on the stills you’ve used here. The stereotyping is pretty relentless, but the lighting camerawork is excellent and I must say I enjoyed reading your review.

  7. Steve says:

    I’m watching this film now as I write – its on Ch4 (UK).

    Never heard of it before, (so googled and here I am) but am thoroughly enjoying it.

    Great review. Thanks.

  8. Matthew Illsley says:

    Hello. You say, ‘the solution I was rooting for was way cleverer’. What would you have preferred to happen? All the best, Matthew

  9. Matthew Illsley says:

    I recorded it last week – having seen it a few years ago – as I remembered what a good film it was. Would you have had the doctor secretly getting away with it then, having perhaps overdosed the schizophrenic in order to get him to confess, or have him undergoing some form of hypnotherapy so he really believes he’s the killer, or something even better…?

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