This review is by way of a small tribute to the multi-talented Christopher Lee, whose death at the age of 93 was announced a few days ago. This film, also known as The Accursed (and also, confusingly, The Accused), offers most of the virtues of a British 1950s B-movie: a solid cast, a decent mystery, and fine black and white cinematography. Here Lee, in a supporting role, plays a doctor who may also have betrayed the leader of his comrades in the underground resistance during the war. At the annual reunion of the group, a decade after the war, news reaches them that the identity of the informer is to be revealed. And unfortunately for those at the reunion, the killer wants to remain hidden …
“It doesn’t please me to know that I shall help to kill one of my best friends in the next thirty-six hours”
Belatedly, this modest but unusual country house whodunit was picked up for release in the US by Allied Artists (who used to be Monogram) and who apparently re-titled it The Accursed, a bizarre title that makes me think that it was really a typo and that it was supposed to be called ‘The Accused’ – and indeed, that is the alternative title provided on the UK DVD release. Anyway, on with the story …
The Plot: When Col. Charles Price (Donald Wolfit) receives a phone call from a man claiming that one of the former German resistance members gathered in his home is responsible for a friend’s death, Price asks him to the house. But when the informant arrives, he is stabbed to death before he can name the traitor! When an American intelligence officer, Major Shane (Robert Bray) then arrives under mysterious circumstances, the tension escalates until a shocking plot twist reveals all.
The film: first and foremost, one has to say that director Michael McCarthy’s script for The Traitor offers a very solid foundation, beginning with the mysterious discovery of a dead body in a displaced persons camp in Germany (were they killed, was it suicide) and then switching to an English country estate where we learn that a plan years in the making is now coming into effect. We are first introduced to all the surviving members of the team one by one (they include the mayor of a small town, a professor, a doctor, a concert pianist etc) as they receive their invitations from Colonel Price, who took over as their commander in the war when their original leader was betrayed to the Nazis and shot. Since then Price has been using his old contacts to find out who did it and execute the informer – and now it seems the time has come. But when the investigator with the information arrives from Berlin, he staggers into the house (a very eerie and effective sequence) with a knife in his back and utters one sentence:
“There’s been a mistake”
Price hides the body in the study, but then Major Shane arrives, claiming to have had problems with his car. Clearly he is not there by coincidence and knows more than he’s letting on – but how much? There is an attempt on Shane’s life and then one of the guests, the hard-drinking Thomas (an eye-catching performance by Oscar Quitak), is smothered to death – the time has come for a murderer to be unmasked.
The cast of suspects includes Vicki (Jane Griffiths), the daughter of Professor Toller, who also fought in the resistance and who may have been at the centre of a love triangle between Joseph (Anton Diffring) and the original leader of the team. Joseph stills seem to me mooning over her and plays extracts from his new piano piece, ‘Prelude without a Name’ which as the title suggests becomes the theme for the film in both senses. Lee plays Doctor Neumann and is his usual imposing self, though also shows those flashes of humour that could add such a twinkle to his performances. The main stars of the film though are Donald Wolfit, who was known to ham it up if given half a chance but is actually pretty restrained here, and American actor Robert Bray, who spends most of time either berating the suspects for lying about their intentions and their past, getting annoyed with his overly familiar British liaison officer (John Van Eyssen) or lusting after Vicki (well, can’t blame him for any of these really).
This is generally held to be by far the best of the productions by E.J. Fancey, which tended to be pretty cheap and undistinguished. This one was made an a modest but adequate budget (there is even some overseas location shooting involving Colin Croft as the German investigator, Theodore Dehmel) using the Danziger’s New Elstree studios (it may even have been the first film completed there). It does feel like a play for the most part, with the action restricted mostly to the inside of the house, but if you like that sort of thing (and I do) then it works very well. Also, while the script plays fair by having one of the guests turn out to be the murderer (thus reducing the possibility of ‘surprise), the eventual motive for the killing brings a whole new layer of meaning to the story and is very satisfying indeed in its ambiguity.
Undeniably a great screen presence, tall, dark and ‘sinister’ looking Christopher Lee was usually cast as the villain rather than the hero and so was usually seen at his best when paired against a less than perfect protagonist so that he too could provide a more shaded characterisation. A classic example of this can be found in the brilliant The Wicker Man, though he could be fabulous when playing hardcore super villains too, as in the Fu Manchu series of the 1960s and Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (which admittedly I doubt is anybody’s favourite bond movie). He occasionally go tot play a romantic lead, as in the Hammer Hound of the Baskervilles and made for a great hero in the company’s Dennis Wheatley adaptation, The Devil Rides Out. If I had to pick 10 favourite Lee films that would be hard – his iconic presence in the Lord of the Rings films and the Star Wars prequels introduced him to whole new audiences but I would reach further back for his best work – certainly I would have to recommend these as providing a fair snapshot of his range as an actor:
- Dracula (1958)
- Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
- The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960)
- The Whip and the Body (1963)
- The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)
- The Devil Rides Out (1967)
- The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
- The Wicker Man (1973)
- The Three Musketeers / The Four Musketeers (1973/1974)
- Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
DVD Availability: The film is available in a no frills but very solid open matte edition from Renown Pictures in the UK. In the US it is available in a widescreen edition from Warner Archive under the alternative title, The Accursed. though this is a shortened version running 74 minutes. The UK DVD is 10 minutes longer, though it turns out that the US version also has one scene missing from the UK version – for a comparison of the two editions, see Gary Tooze’s indispensable DVD Beaver.
The Traitor (1957)
Director: Michael McCarthy
Producer: E.J. Fancey
Screenplay: Michael McCarthy
Cinematography: Bert Mason
Art Direction: Herbert Smith
Music: Jackie Brown (piano solos played by Dennis Wilson)
Cast: Donald Wolfit, Anton Diffring, Christopher Lee, Jane Griffiths, Robert Bray, Carl Jaffe, Rupert Davies, John Van Eyssen, Oscar Quitak