This highly entertaining puzzler was scripted by Francis Durbridge (1912-1998), who adapted it from his six-part BBC TV serial, My Friend Charles. John Mills stars as the Harley Street doctor who returns home one evening and there finds the dead body of Frieda, a German actress. They had met only a few hours earlier at London Airport (as Heathrow used to be called) when he collected her for a friend. Then another woman he just met, this time a new patient, soon also turns up dead …
I offer this review for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Movie meme over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog – you should head over there right now.
“Are You trying to blackmail me, Mr Brady?”
“Oh, is that a possibility? Are you wealthy, Doctor?”
“No, I’m not.”
So popular on TV that the BBC screened a repeat in 1956 within 2 months of its original transmission, this is very recognisable as a Durbridge story. We have the innocent but resourceful hero accused of crimes he didn’t commit, the equivocal supporting characters, the slightly suspicious ‘hail fellow well met’ friend, the surprisingly obliging police inspector, the leader of an international smuggling ring who is only unmasked at the end, etc. In other words, nobody can be trusted and until the end we really are not supposed to know who is who and what is going on.
Before making their fame and fortune with the series of Carry On movie farces, producer Peter Roger and director Gerald Thomas collaborated on a variety of projects, including several thrillers. They deserve a lot of credit for the way that Durbdridge’s story has been ‘opened out’ to get rid of the TV studio feeling. Indeed, much of it was shot on location and outside the studio and I really enjoyed seeing so many London landmarks circa 1957 such as the Festival Hall, Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment, some very nice mews near Knightsbridge (back when you didn’t have to be a millionaire to own one), London Zoo, London Airport – it even throws in a boat ride down the Thames! All shot with his usual mastery by Otto Heller, the celebrated Czech cinematographer whose impressive British credits include the first and best version of The Ladykillers (and the original Alfie) as well as such 1960s classics as The Ipcress File, Peeping Tom and Victim (just to mention the ones shot in London).
“Dr Latimer, over the last few days, have you ever stopped to wonder why you haven’t been arrested?”
For all that, the story is a little bit plodding – Mills’ Dr Latimer keeps getting into serious trouble and then gets bailed out by a very sympathetic Inspector and then hangs out with his friends until someone else gets killed or a blackmail demand is met, at which point it all starts again. This stopping and starting is probably the only way that its origins as a weekly serial really come through. However, once the first hour is up, the Inspector reveals all to Latimer and now it becomes a case of creating a trap for the fiendish villain behind the scenes – but who could it be? Latimer’s dim-but-nice old university friend (Derek Farr), or his fiancée (Noelle Middleton) who seems to have something to hide? What about the scared doctor (Mervyn Johns), the shady man (Wilfrid Hyde-White) who wants Frieda’s matchbook? Or …
John Mills is always reliable as the everyman put under pressure, and he is very ably supported by a tip-top cast. Lionel Jeffries makes for a very quirky henchman while Roland Culver and Wilfrid Hyde-White have a delighted twinkle in their eyes throughout, no matter how serious the story gets. Derek Farr is always good playing the slightly befuddled best friend and Mervyn Johns is both pitiable and infuriating as the doctor who lies to save his own skin, no matter who it puts in jeopardy. René Ray is great as the patient whose dreams of murder with a candlestick seem to come true but who later also becomes part of the conspiracy against Latimer. Ultimately this leads to the unmasking of the villain (which to Durbridge fans will not be much of a surprise, admittedly) and a punch up ensues. Our hero gets knocked out in his mews flat and the baddie heads off to catch a plane to Berlin.
However, there is an oddity about this sequence which some viewers will notice. When Latimer is knocked out, the villain looks at him lying on the floor next to a gas heater and then leaves. When Latimer’s girlfriend comes looking for him, she smells something then we see him awake sitting next to an open window looking dizzy and when they drive off to the airport, Latimer makes a point of sticking his head out of the car window. Clearly, as originally shot, the villain turned on the gas to suffocate our hero, but all references have been removed from the commercial DVD I have (see below). This cut was also present in the version I saw on TV decades ago. Checking with the online records of the BBFC (British Board of Film Censorship, as it then was) one sees that they did demand some cuts at the time, so it looks like this attempted gassing was removed then and never reinstated.
DVD Availability: This title has been included on DVD in the John Mills Centenary Collection 2 available in the UK and also on its own in Germany (where Durbridge remains a popular name) under the title Interpol ruft Berlin. Both offer the film in an open matte / full screen edition – it should be cropped to widescreen, but really doesn’t hurt the film very much. Using the zoom function on my TV made it looks perfect frankly. The video quality is acceptable if not exactly stellar – basically clean and sharp but an older video master, none the less.
The Vicious Circle (1957)
Director: Gerald Thomas
Producer: Peter Rogers
Screenplay: Francis Durbridge
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Art Direction: Jack Stevens
Music: Stanley Black
Cast: John Mills, René Ray, Derek Farr, Lionel Jeffries, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Noelle Middleton, Lisa Daniely, Roland Culver, Mervyn Johns