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