The Last Page (1952)

Released as Man Bait in the US, this story of blackmail and murder in the London book trade was adapted from a 1947 play by James Hadley Chase, a writer still best-known for the pulp shocker No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Unlikely as it may seem, this adaptation holds a small but important place in British cinema history. It was the first of a long-running series of co-productions between Hammer Films and Hollywood producer Robert L. Lippert; it helped launch the career of Diana Dors (she gets an ‘introducing’ credit though she’d had small roles in over a dozen films by that point); and it was also the first Hammer film by their soon-to-be resident Gothic director of choice, Terence Fisher.

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 other selected titles.

“Look if you like … but look out!”

From 1951 to 1955 Hammer Studios became one of the most industrious of UK film companies, cranking out tightly budgeted features at a prodigious rate. These thrillers and melodramas helped establish the production team that would largely be responsible for the studio’s its greater successes later on. While their later output would be dominated by garish colour and supernatural horror, their initial mainstays excursions into crime and Film Noir – this is certainly the case with The Last Page, a none the less highly entertaining little film that makes the most of its limited resources. It definitely feels like a film of two halves – the second is the more straightforward police procedural as an innocent man goes on the run and tries to clear himself. But the first half combines a warmly comic depiction of postwar life in a London bookstore in the (later) vein of 84 Charing Cross Road with the added oomph and allure of a delectable Diana Dors, who was only 19 at the time of filming and is quite a knockout here, by turns cheeky, petulant and funny too.

The ostensible star of the film is Hollywood import George Brent. In one of his last leading roles he plays John Harman,  a war veteran psychologically scarred by his experiences, a recurring character in films of the time and one that Hammer and director Fisher would return to shortly in Wings of Danger (1952) and then Mantrap (1953). Brent, who so often played opposite Bette Davis at Warner Bros in the 30s and 40s, was now in middle age and his career was winding down he would once again get upstaged by his female co-stars. The perception of his dwindling box office appeal was certainly highlighted by the punchier and more lurid US title that promoted the role played by a fresh-faced Diana Dors. More than any other, this is the film that really helped launch her brief career as Britain’s answer to the Hollywood’s blonde bombshells. Her role is really nothing like the sultry bathing-beauty depicted in the advertising but no matter, she is a real breath of fresh air here as the assistant in a bookshop who, dissatisfied with her lot in life, falls in with bad company with tragic consequences.

Indeed there is a really strong thematic underpinning to this film with the staid and old-fashioned bookshop representing that formality and rigidity of pre-war Britain contrasted with the flashy member’s club where Ruth (Dors) looks for escape from the daily drudgery she has come to loathe. Britain is represented as being in transition, not necessarily always comfortably or easily, but this is a process that si clearly underway. The ‘Blue Club’ might look pretty dreary and pokey to us now but to Ruth its an aspirational symbol, a vision of luxury and the abandonment of the privations of a bombed out country still under rationing. 1951 of course was the year that Britain said goodbye to its austerity Labour government and voted Churchill back in again in a last-ditch attempt to turn back the clock. It says a lot about Dors that we never lose sympathy with Ruth even after she stoops to blackmail. Always late for work, after being told off for the umpteenth time by stuffy office manager Clive (Raymond Huntley, perfectly cast) she decides not to raise the alarm when she catches Jeff (Peter Reynolds, inevitably playing a complete rascal) attempting to make off with a precious book in the shop. Instead of crying foul, Ruth makes a date to go see him at his club.

The next evening she has to work late but everyone notices that she is all dolled up for her next date with Jeff. While waiting for Brent in his office she spots the letter he has received from the insurance company to let him know that he will receive £350 now that his insurance premium has matured. This is great news as Brent’s wife is an invalid and in need of specialist care, which he will now be able to get as they will be able to afford to fly to Switzerland with the money. While doing the stock-taking Ruth tears her blouse on a filing cabinet – as the two consider this intimate detail they are both overcome by an erotic impulse and kiss. Brent immediately apologises but Ruth is not offended in the least, though he does end up paying for the repair to her blouse even though it wasn’t his fault. At the club Jeff is furious as she could have got much more money out of him – he then viciously punched her on the arm so there will be a bruise where the blouse tore. He sends her back to get more money.

The next day she insists he must pay her £100 or she will write to his wife and claim that he sexually assaulted her. Brent simply ignores this, knowing that she is essentially harmless but merely young and misguided – but he hasn’t counted on Jeff. He writes to Brent’s bedridden wife and she promptly dies while trying to burn the latter. Under Jeff’s spell she badgers Brent about the money until, deeply upset after his wife’s death, he simply gives her all the cash he had withdrawn for the now pointless trip to Switzerland. She goes downstairs to her locker, where Jeff spies on her through a basement window. She tries to keep some of the cash as she got more than the £100 she asked for but he takes it all, leading to a brief struggle. When John hears them he heads downstairs, but Jeff grips Ruth’s mouth so tightly that she is killed. John heads home thinking nothing has happened – and Jeff is left with a body and bundles of cash.

The next day a large shipment of books is taken out of the office – it proves to be unexpectedly heavy (cue ‘heavy lifting’ acting from Harry Fowler as the much put-upon office boy). When we hear the staff wonder just where the always late Ruth has got to, we immediately know where she is – this unexpected touch of black comedy really enlivens this part of the film and is highly reminiscent of screenwriter Frederick’s Knott’s later play, the classic thriller Dial M for Murder. The box of books is delivered to John’s house and when he sees Ruth’s body he panics and goes on the run.  Strictly speaking the actual leading lady is Hollywood actress Marguerite Chapman, who plays Stella, Brent’s secretary (and his nurse after the war during his convalescence), and her role finally comes into focus at the halfway mark after Dors’ sad exit as she becomes his only ally when he goes on the run, turning into a general ‘Girl Friday’.

After a first half that feels very stagey (albeit with lots of nice character parts for the various members of staff at the bookstore) the play is ‘opened up’ very nicely with lots of location shooting. This is seen at its best in a sequence where, as with the later Mantrap, our psychologically scarred protagonist finds refuge in a bombed out shell with religious connotation – there it was a ruin near St Paul’s, here it is a ruined church in the West London suburb of Ealing. John calls on Stella to try and help him prove his innocence. She foolishly confides in Clive (who is torn up with jealousy being secretly in love with her whereas she of course only has eyes for John), who sets his boss up to be arrested by the police at the scene of the crime in an atmospheric scene back int he basement of the bookshop late at night. I shan’t say too much of the plot beyond that though it goes along fairly traditional lines, working its way up to a fiery climax reminiscent of later Hammer movies, though ti does also introduce Meredith Edwards as a nicely understated performance as a basically very understanding police inspector, with Conrad Phillips cast as he would later in Mantrap as his sergeant. In this part of the story, as Stella, John and the police search for him, Jeff drops all semblance of charm and is depicted as an unmitigated and unrepentant scoundrel, happy to kill and burn anyone that gets in his way now that he has his hands on John’s money.

This is a smoothly made little potboiler, one that in a way feels like a successful cross between a Hitchcockian innocent man on the run thriller and 84 Charing Cross Road with its lively and humorous depiction of life in a postwar British bookshop. It is raised about the mundane by some unexpected flashes of black humour, a star-making performance from a young Diana Dors (she turned 20 shortly after the end of filming at Bray Studios in the Summer of 1951) and strong handling by director Terence Fisher. Well worth looking out for.

My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.

DVD Availability: The film is available in a no frills but perfectly acceptable version under its US title as part of the Hammer Noir box sets released by VCI. However, Hammer has now also made the film available online on its new dedicated YouTube page, though please note that it may not be available to view in all territories worldwide. It is the same as the US version on DVD, which has rather too much hiss and crackle on the soundtrack and has an annoying jump cut approximately 32 minutes in, due to some missing footage. Here’s the link (for those who can access it):

The Last Page (1952)
Director: Terence Fisher
Producer: Anthony Hinds
Screenplay: Frederick Knott (from the play by James Hadley Chase)
Cinematography: Walter J. Harvey
Art Direction: Andrew Mazzei
Music: Frank Spencer (played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)
Cast:  George Brent, Marguerite Chapman, Diana Dors, Peter Reynolds, Raymond Huntley, Harry Fowler, Meredith Edwards, Conrad Phillips

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

This entry was posted in Hammer Studios, James Hadley Chase, London, Terence Fisher, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to The Last Page (1952)

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – As ever, thanks for a detailed, thoughtful and insightful look at this film. I really do like that thread of black humour you refer to – just the mental picture of that very heavy shipment of ‘books’ is enough to get my attention. Interesting too how the two halves of this movie are quite different. Hammer Studies certainly made some intriguing little films….

    • Thanks Margot – until recently I would not have considered myself a Hammer enthusiast, not being much of a horror movie buff. But it turns out they made a lot of different film and I am a very big fan of Film Noir (as you just may have notced …). These are low budget B movies, no question, but many are much better than I anticipated, lets put it that way!

  2. Colin says:

    It’s quite a good little film, isn’t it? Nothing special but still pretty entertaining. The bookshop has a wonderfully musty feel that’s straight out of another era – an awful lot of people working there too for such a small place, the profits must have been huge!

    I always thought Brent was a bit bland, but that works well enough in a role where he is supposed to be a kind of everyman figure caught up in a scheme that’s not of his own making. I think the most enjoyable movie I’ve seen him in is Experiment Perilous, check that one out if you haven’t already seen it.

    I agree that Diana Dors is very good and she turned in some neat performances throughout the 50s. I’m very fond of Tread Softly Stranger, not a fantastic movie either but Dors is excellent and the whole thing has an interesting premise.

    • Cheers Colin – I throughly enjoyed it actually (I may even have scored it a little low come to think of it). I know exactly what you mean about the large staff – you almost feel like it could have been a weekly TV soap! Dors is lovely in it and you can absolutely see that persona that was so attractive (knowledge of all the seedy behind the scenes shenanigans later on tends to ruin that a bit really). The bit with the box of books was proseumably int he original play (couldn;t find a sensibly priced copy to check) but it must have resonated with Knott because it really recall some of the dynamic of Dial M for Murder. I quite like Brent in some of the Warner Bos. melodramas – I think I mainly deducted half a fedora tip (sic) just because it doesn’t really make enough of his character despite having set him up as a typical Noir protagonist with a psychological problem.

      • Colin says:

        I think, as you pointed out, that Brent was often overshadowed in the Warner melodramas, but they’re not really my type of film anyway.
        Yes, there could and probably should have been more emphasis on the psychological aspects, especially after the groundwork had been laid. Still, these movies were made fast and cheap so it may be a tad unfair to expect the kind of complexity that a bigger budget effort would likely feature.

        • Fair enough Colin – I think Mantrap certainly does a better job of trading on the scarred hero idea, but then it is is much more of a psychological suspense story anyway. Here the emphasis is very much on the haves and the have nots – definitely the kind of film that slowly but surely led to the ‘angry young man’ movement.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I always felt that the whole class issue played a far stronger part in British noir than was the case in the US variety. In the States, that aspect didn’t last much beyond the gangster cycle.

          • Certainly agree with ou thre. One of the things I like so much about NIGHT AND THE CITY, and it’s in the novel as much as the film even though the two don’t in fact resemble each other that much, is the aspirational side of Widmark’s character. In the book he only passes himself off as a Yank, believing this to be of course much more glamorous than just being a Brit, though we realise, even if he doesn’t, that most people are not fooled by his accent and attempts ay self-aggrandisement.

          • Colin says:

            I don’t know how you feel, but I can’t help thinking that the class aspect had a restrictive influence on the development of British noir. I mean that it diluted the potential menace in certain situations and forced a separation of characters and their respective worlds. The classic US variety allowed for the freer movement of characters of various social backgrounds and was a lot richer as a result.

          • I certainly agree – it is clearly a constricting element dramatically. The only upside is when it is the actual theme of the story (I mean, the US version of the Losey / Pinter The Servant would be a hoot). The nearest US equivalent would have to be, I suppose, the use of race as in Odds Against Tomorrow maybe?

          • Colin says:

            Yes, good call. I couldn’t see the race element having anywhere near as big an impact in a British movie of the time.

          • The Dearden films, especially SAPPHIRE, really are the only ones that springs to mind – have you ever seen THE WIND OF CHANGE with Donald Pleasence (and a very young David Hemmings)? Decent DVD from Odeon and a fascinating mixture of ‘problem’ film and youth exploitation.

          • Colin says:

            Never seen it. Another to look out for then! Cheers.

          • Definitely worth a look – it’s a double bill with a Robert Tronson spy movie, The Traitors, which has a less satisfying transfer though. Details here.
            Wind of Change

  3. PS Colin, I hope to do a post of TREAD SOFTLY STRANGER soon, if nothing else because it certainly generated some of the most iconic shots of la Dors.

    • Colin says:

      Indeed. I featured one on my site and I’m still taking a significant number of hits based on image search results alone.

      • Is it this one by chance …
        Tread Softly Stranger

      • Colin says:

        Actually I posted a comment in reply to your point about the class aspect of British noir but it seems to have disappeared into the ether. Anyway, the gist of it was that I feel the class thing had a slightly restrictive influence on the development of British noir. The potential menace was drained out of certain situations and there was an enforced separation of the characters’ worlds. The classic US variety was able to sidestep that and, by allowing for the freer movement of characters of differing social backgrounds, could tap into a richer vein.

        • Apologies for this – I don’t know why, and I don’t know if you get this as well, but about half your replies to my posts (for whuch mnay continued thanks) end up in my spam filter and i have to retrieve them from there – I now check this religiously for that reason. You’ll be imopressed to know that, so far, this only happens with your messages …

  4. I wish it was easier to get my hands on these old British films. TCM doesn’t show them enough.

  5. Rod Croft says:

    Ironically, whether by design or chance, the date of your post on this film was the date of Diana Dor’s birthday, October 23, but of course back in 1931.

    I first recall noticing Diana Dors , many years ago, in the 1948 David Lean version of ” Oliver Twist” wherein she played the role of Charlotte. At an early age, that film left a great impression on me, so much so, that my parents gifted me the slim “movie version” of the book, which I have still retained over these many years. It contains pictures of scenes from the film together with a list of the participants and their photos, including one of a very young Miss Diana Dors.

    At that point in time she was not the “British Sex Symbol” that she eventually became, but I always enjoyed her participation in a movie, as, in many of her films she displayed a fine sense of humour. Maybe they are little remembered today, but there were a couple of films that she appeared in, that I particularily recall, “Worm’s Eye View” (1951) and “An Allegator Named Daisy” (1955). They were no “world-beaters” but pleasant little films.

    Thanks for the memory of Diana Dors and one of her films.

    • Thanks very much Rod. And kudos because I wondered if anyone would spot the date and you were the only one to note that Diana Mary Fluck would indeed have been celebrating her 82nd birthday yesterday. The David Lean version of Oliver Twist is marvellous – here’s a still of the young Diana from that film, from Doctor Macro.

  6. IAN says:

    Brilliant stuff – the one and only DD !! They don’t make them like her or those films anymore sadly.

    • Thanks very much for that Ian (DD on film is too often underestimated though one wishes the details of her life that keep emerging had been rather less sordid and unpleasant) – that link is great!

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