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. The climax has the murderer climbing to the top of the local church (courtesy of some decent special effects courtesy of Hammer supremo Les Bowie) and then, by way of explanation, 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, but this really isn’t the ‘Peyton Place’ style exposé it pretends to be. Instead what we have is 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 bumped 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