The Vicious Circle (1957) – Tuesday’s overlooked movie

Vicious-Circle-germanThis 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 finds the dead body of Frieda, a German actress. They had met only a few hours earlier at London Airport (as Heathrow Airport used to be called) when he collected her for a friend. The 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.

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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 olf 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 …

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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 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.

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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 making 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.

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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 look perfect frankly. The video quality is acceptable if not exactly stellar – basically clean and sharp but an older video master, none the less.

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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

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

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33 Responses to The Vicious Circle (1957) – Tuesday’s overlooked movie

  1. As always , Sergio, an interesting and well-written review! I always find it interesting to see how serials are once they are filmed as one story. In this case I can see how there would be those ‘stop/start’ moments, given the origins of the film. Still, it sounds like a nicely-done story, even with the editing-out of the gas-taps scene (if there was one). I wonder if that was done in the interest of saving time, or perhaps because it was believed viewers would infer what happened with help? Hmmm…

  2. tracybham says:

    Even though you don’t give this a high rating, it sounds like I would like to see it. Maybe someday, when we have whittled down our unwatched DVDs and BluRay discs and the queue on Netflix.

  3. Colin says:

    I feel about the same, Sergio. It’s a good enough film in general but the pacing – as you say, likely stemming from its origins – could be better. I’d forgotten about the odd editing around the attempted gassing scene but, thinking back on it now, the fact it was cut is quite clear.
    I really liked the location work too and the whole aura of others knowing a lot more about what was going on than Mills’ character was well done.

    • Thanks Colin. I started listening to some of the Paul Temple radio serials to get myself in the right mood – I had forgotten how rigid the formula could be (always smugglers, always the unmasking of the head of a secret organisation at the end, the huge cast of suspects) – but this is good, clean, unpretentious fun. Makes me want to watch more of the Rogers and Thomas thrillers and makes you wonder what might have happened if CARRY ON hadn’t made them so rich.

  4. I have done this as the wet-afternoon-movie – for which, as you say, it is perfect. In days gone by I used to scan the Radio Times for b/w movies on in the afternoon (often Ch4 or BBC2) and set the recorder and have them piled up for when we needed them. It doesn’t happen like that any more, but this was a good one. I love your analysis of Durbridge in your response to Colin above!

  5. As you rightly say, this film is unpretentious but fun – just as enjoyable as so many of the other Durbridge stories.

  6. neer says:

    Thanks for the review Sergio. This does seem like an interesting movie to while away a couple of hours.

  7. Todd Mason says:

    “Latimer making a point of sticking his out of the car window.” Well, I can certainly see why That might get the censors to sit up. (Yes, I’m auditioning for the CARRY ON revival scripting.)

    You know, I’ve not seen too much of the film condensations of Brit tv series, aside from the Nigel Kneale items and the arguable example of the US version of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN…hm.

    • Thanks for that, Todd – all better now … In the 1970s of course British cinema was dominated with adaptations of TV shows (I listed a few here) but there are several very good ones (among them The Abominable Snowman, another Nigel Kneale TV script originally). Scum is an interesting example of where the tV company refused to screen its own production, so it had to be remade as a cinema film from scratch.

      • Todd Mason says:

        Hadn’t thought of the PYTHON nor MUPPET movies in quite those terms…and, of course, suppressed memory of THE AVENGERS film with Steed and Peel lite, not Quite a fully US travesty…

  8. Sergio, I can’t imagine the producers of the CARRY ON series, most of which I have seen, also producing thrillers. They were funny in a whacky sort of way. I watched a “Carry On” film a couple of years ago and it failed to hold up. Clearly, I’d outgrown them. They were considered too adultish in the eighties!

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