Portrait of Alison (1956)

Potrait-of-Alison_DVDAlso known as Postmark for Danger, this  is a typically engaging thriller by Francis Durbridge (1912-1998), for many the heir to Edgar Wallace’s thriller crown. He first came to prominence with his hugely popular Paul Temple serials for BBC radio. He then moved even more successfully into television and wrote several novels and stage plays too. Over a period of forty years he was so popular, in the UK and on the Continent (Germany and Italy especially), as to constitute almost a genre all on his own, one in which innocent men and women have to prove their innocence of murder by unmasking the leader of a gang of smugglers! We begin with a car driving over a cliff in Italy …

“A post card killer threatens artists, models, diamonds and MURDER!”

The car was being driven by Lewis Forrester, a journalist working on a story about a smuggling racket. His body is found in the wreckage with  a woman identified as Alison Ford, an American tourist. Her father asks Tim Forrester (Robert Beatty), Lewis’ artist brother, to paint a portrait of her, supplying a photo and her favourite pink dress. While out at dinner with his other brother Dave (William Sylvester), Tim’s portrait is defaced … by Alison (Terry Moore), who is clearly alive and kicking but also on-the-run, terrified about something.

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Tim works out of Dave’s apartment and when they get back they not only find the damaged painting but the dead body of his favourite model, Jill, who was just about to leave the business and get married. Inspector Colby is a fairly sensible chap but he starts to wonder if Tim is unbalanced, especially after Alison’s father disappears and the painter claims to have seen Alison who everyone thinks dead – and that a car dealer has offered to sell a postcard of Lewis’ back to Tim for £1,500! This postcard, with a drawing of a hand holding a bottle of Chianti and the name ‘Nightingale’  prove to be the McGuffins driving the plot forward. Did Alison kill Jill? Is Dave, a commercial pilot, involved in the smuggling ring? What was in the box that Jill left in Tim’s apartment the day she died? Why is the postcard so valuable? What does ‘Nightingale’ mean?

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The lives of artists, and their paintings, have long-held a fascination in literature and the movies. Some of the best and most famous are tinged with the macabre, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s splendidly creepy ‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’ from 1839, Poe’s eerie ‘The Oval Portrait’ from 1850 and Oscar Wilde’s 1891 masterpiece Picture of Dorian Gray, to the more recent Portrait of Jennie (1940, Robert Nathan) and Laura (1943, Vera Caspary), both of which feature a man falling in love with a woman in a painting (Richard Matheson updated this to a photograph for his 1975 novel Bid Time Return, which in 1980 became the movie Somewhere in Time). In this film some of the most atmospheric scenes are the ones in which we see Tim craft his painting (incidentally, they were actually the work of experienced film artist and set decorator, Olga Lehmann) – and, bit by bit, fall in love with the subject, even though he thinks she died with his brother.

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It has to be said, when Terry Moore belatedly appears in the film, she doesn’t quite live up to the portrait, which is a bit of a shame. Despite a big build-up, clearly modeled on Gene Tierney’s re-appearance in Laura, and a dramatic arrival at the scene of the first murder (could she even have committed it?), one can’t quite see why Tim goes all gaga over her. Although photographed in the standard glamorous fashion, and hardly a plain Jane, never the less Moore doesn’t exactly exude much in the way of charisma and her breathy voice kept reminding me of Marilyn Monroe, which really was distracting.

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Deep down I kept wishing Moore had swapped roles with Josephine Griffin, who plays the scatterbrained model Jill who poses for Tim, the two clearly having more than just a professional relationship. Very much in the Kay Kendall mould, she is great fun and much classier than the rather annoying Alison as played by Moore. Sadly she exits the film a third of the way in after getting strangled and left in Tim’s apartment. If Moore and Beatty don’t have much in the way of chemistry, the supporting cast provides plenty of value, most notably Geoffrey Keen as the somewhat exasperated Scotland Yard Inspector, Allan Cuthbertson as Jill’s rather dull fiancée and Terence Alexander as a shady journalist who knows both Dave and some decidedly unsavoury types.

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Durbridge originally wrote the story as a six-part television serial for the BBC. It starred Patrick Barr as Tim, Helen Shingter as Alison and Brian Wilde as Dave. It was broadcast between 16 February and 23 March 1955 and it would later serve as the basis for Durbridge’s 1962 novel of the same title – in between though came the movie adaptation, which was shot only a few months after the TV version, with William Lucas recreating his role as dodgy car-dealer and blackmailer Reg Dorking.

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I love this kind of film – it being Durbridge you know it will probably involve a smuggling ring, everybody will be a potential suspect and the story will conclude with the unmasking of its leader, which will usually come as a decent surprise. It is these elements that always make me think of Durbridge as the natural heir to Edgar Wallace – indeed his first radio serial was produced in 1933, the year after Wallace’s early death. This is a great little movie, expertly shot and giving little evidence of its fairly modest budget, and I recommend it unreservedly to anyone who loves British vintage black and white mysteries.

Special thanks incidentally to mystery author Martin Edwards, who put me on to this DVD release over at his fine blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?

DVD Availability: Network recently put the film out on a very nice DVD offering a fine anamorphic widescreen presentation from very good elements – by the way of extras it also includes the alternate US titles, a brief image gallery and a trailer.

Portrait of Alison (1956)
Director: Guy Green
Producer: Frank Godwin
Screenplay: Guy Green, Ken Hughes
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction: Ray Simm (portraits by Olga Lehmann)
Music: John Veale
Cast: Robert Beatty, Terry Moore, William Sylvester, Geoffrey Keen, Josephine Griffin, Allan Cuthbertson, William Lucas, Terence Alexander

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

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This entry was posted in Film Noir, Francis Durbridge, Italy, London, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Portrait of Alison (1956)

  1. realthog says:

    I liked this movie a lot too, and would agree with you on the desirability of a Griffin/Moore swap! I’m not so sure I’d rate Durbridge as highly as you do, though. A principal characteristic of his work always seems to be that the plot doesn’t make sense. Of course, this was often true of Wallace also . . .

    • Thanks John – actually, I do know what you mean about Durbridge’s plots though I haven’t read many of his novels (which were often prose versions of his radio and TV scripts) – he was a bit of a pop culture phenomenon though, which is fascinating to me as I can’t think of another who was so successful at the time in Europe, and in that sense at least the Wallace comparison seems apposite.

      • realthog says:

        he was a bit of a pop culture phenomenon though, which is fascinating to me as I can’t think of another who was so successful at the time in Europe, and in that sense at least the Wallace comparison seems apposite

        Couldn’t agree with you more! I want at some point to get to grips with the Durbridge krimi movies, of which the Germans did a few after, I assume, they’d run out of Wallace pere et fils stories to “adapt”!

        I remember as a kid listening to all these Paul Temple serials on the radio . . .

        • I love the Peter Coke and Marjorie Westbury serials from the 50s and 60s, which are regularly repeated on the BBC. Haven’t seen any of the German ones but saw plenty of the Italian versions growing up of course 🙂

  2. Colin says:

    I just ordered this film and a half dozen other titles in the current Network sale. Never badly priced at the best of times, I had it on my wants list for a while and was just waiting for that price to drop. It seems to have so many of the elements I enjoy and I look forward to seeing it.

    • I think you’ll love it Colin – a perfect example of the genre in my view. Yes, I wish Terry Moore had been a bit more charismatic, but it still works a treat. Another one of the several very goo thrillers that Ken Hughes worked on in the 50s.

      • Colin says:

        Not to mention Guy Green.
        Two films I didn’t add to the order, though, I may well go back and grab a few more titles before the end of the month, are The Franchise Affair & Home at Seven. Any opinion on those two?

        • I haven’t seen either but must admit, I was planning on getting them – John said some good thing about Franchise here. Yes, shouldn’t have shut Guy green out of the equation, but was surprised Hughes only worked as a screenwriter on it. Green’s background as a DP I think made a real difference here.

          • Colin says:

            Thanks for the link – I’d missed that actually. OK, I will be cobbling together a second order in the coming days then.

            Back to the movie in question, Green and Hughes’ names in the credits were a big draw for me. Also, Robert Beatty is an actor I like in most things I’ve seen him in – in fact, I remember him popping up in the New Avengers episode Target!, which I watched just a few weeks back.

          • I just caved and ordered them both (hadn’t spotted the 40% sale in fact – thanks chum). Beatty was really solid and I love the fact that in 1968 he cpo-starred in both of MGM’s biggest hots of the year: 2001 and Where Eagles Dare – he would inevitably turn up when you needed a Yank in your movie or TV show (did he ever actually play Canadians?)

          • Colin says:

            Not sure if he did, now you mention it. He was certainly cast as Irish a few times, which I thought he pulled off reasonably.

            That 40% sale is allowing me to mop up a fair few titles I’ve been eying for a while now.

          • I also got IPCRESS FILE, HANDS OF THE RIPPER and UNEARTHLY STRANGER on Blu-ray – for less that £17 it would have been rude not to!

  3. An excellent review – and I’m delighted you enjoyed it!

  4. stelazoric says:

    I have to admit, I mostly pictured Terry Moore as a talentless starlet – seems I was right (sadly). Well, proof you don’t have to be talented to make it in Hollywood (Moore did, whatever I might think about it)

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have obtained the film. I shall give my comments after seeing it.

  6. Sergio, I like watching this kind of films too though I don’t see them very often. This one’s new for me, of course. Sometimes too many elements or characters can render such a film confusing for me but that’s my weakness and not the filmmaker’s. Thanks for an absorbing review as ever.

  7. John says:

    I’ll be on the look out for this. Would be interesting to do a double bill and watch this and LAURA back to back.

    Terry Moore tended to play spunky teenagers and wise acre girlfriends and was good at it. But her skills as a dramatic actress I think were completely absent. Though I liked her dramatic work in a circus-cum-espionage movie called MAN ON A TIGHTROPE it was still a small part. And she couldn’t compare to sultry and extremely talented Gloria Grahame who basically wiped the floor with her. Moore never struck me as a leading lady type being much better in smaller character parts and supporting roles.

    • Yes, that really sounds does sound like a fun double bill John! And I think you are dead right about Moore – I checked on IMDb and am just agog that she is still at it!

      • John says:

        God bless her! The photo of her on imdb at the VAN HELSING premiere shows a hip and funkily attired Terry. She was recently in an episode of TRUE DETECTIVE. I have that lined up in my Netflix queue. I’ll have to be on the alert when she shows up in episode 8.

        • You’re kidding – I saw that but had no idea – the lady that Harrelson interviews who owned the green house, right! Hope you enjoy it – thought it had a great last episode (not everyone agrees)

    • Colin says:

      I’d love to know more about Man on a Tightrope – it’s a film I’ve been eying for a while now and can never find out much about it. The cast looks great and the subject matter seems promising but I can’t help wondering whether it’s one of those overly earnest and dour Cold War movies.

      • John says:

        Colin, I saw it on YouTube a while ago (Sergio, look the other way please. :^D), but of course it has since been taken down for copyright violation. Now it’s available via amazon’s Instant Video service. Works for us over here, not sure if you have access to the same movies on the UK amazon site. It’s also available in a set of DVDs of Elia Kazan’s Fox movies (Kazan at Fox, vol. 2) along with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Viva Zapata! and Wild River.

        In 2011 I wrote a review of the original book and compared it to the movie on my blog. You can read it here. I thought the movie was excellent. Not at all dour! Fredric March and Grahame are wonderful, as are Terry Moore and a very young Cameron Mitchell in supporting parts. Richard Boone and Adolphe Menjou do good work as well. Much better than the book which is really a short novella that was expanded form a magazine article on the real Circus Brumbach.

      • You know, I thought I’d seen this but I think I’ve always got it mixed up with the Kirk Douglas movie, The Juggler! It does sound like another one of Kazan’s attempts to justify his naming names to HUAC but would love to see it …

  8. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have seen the film.
    Though nothing outst anding, it is a good, enjoyable and entertaining film filled with suspense and mystery with several twists and turns. Worth seeing.
    I agree that Moore should have swapped roles with Josephine Griffin !
    One scene I found unbelievable. Tim doesn’t check even once that Alison is still there before calling Colby in the morning.
    Incidentally, I think that the six-part TV serial is irretrievably lost.

    • Thansk Santosh, glad you enjoyed it. So much TV from that era is gone, breaks your heart a bit, though doubtless much of it was very primitive and pedestrian. And yes, I agree, drives me a bit mad when people don’t do obviousl things just for the same of the story!

  9. I love the sound of this. Francis Durbridge was revered by my parents and many of their generation – they thought he was the very best. I think they loved the sophisticated atmosphere – everyone smoking and visiting nightclubs and having a drinks tray at home: the clink of glasses and some brittle dialogue. And always something a bit doubtful about a girl who was a model. I heard one of his radio plays recently and very much enjoyed it, a film would be even better.

    • Thanks for that Moira – indeed, the chattering classes living it up in in the hoitspots of Maidenhead and Marlow 🙂 It’s very addictive – and the movie is certainly godd clean fun.

  10. Melvyn Barnes says:

    Yes, Durbridge DVDs and CDs continue to dribble through very slowly to the public, leaving us wondering how many of his tv (and indeed radio) serials are truly “lost”. For example, DVDs of his 1966 tv serial “A Game of Murder” were released out of the blue a few months ago, and now there’s news that the very first Paul Temple radio serial (“Send for Paul Temple”, 1938) will shortly be released by the BBC on CDs (though it will be the Canadian version 1940, with Bernard Braden). I’ve kept up-to-date with this, and all things Durbridge, in my new book “Francis Durbridge: a Centenary Appreciation”, and anyone wanting information about this is invited to contact me by email melvyn.barnes@oldnewton.com

  11. Pingback: FRANCIS DURBRIDGE: A CENTENARY APPRECIATION by Melvyn Barnes | Tipping My Fedora

  12. tracybham says:

    I read this earlier and then did not comment (it appears). I remember because I asked my husband about it but he had not heard of it either. Sounds very appealing.

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