The Traitor (1957)

The-Traitor_cover2This 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.

Traitor-01

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.

Traitor-03

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).

Traitor-04

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.

Traitor-02

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)

Accursed-DVDDVD 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

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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32 Responses to The Traitor (1957)

  1. mikeripley says:

    Funnily enough, The Traitor was on television, the “Movies For Men” channel(!), only last week. My earliest encounter with Christopher Lee – and indeed with cinema – was in Pirates of Blood River (1962?) which might have been the first film I ever saw on the big screen. It is a sobering thought (a term I do not use lightly) to think that 53 years later I was watching him on the very big screen in Battle of the Five Armies.

    • Thanks for that Mike, managed to miss that screening (don;t believe I’ve ever watched the channel in fact though i do get it on Freesat). My first Lee is a muddle because I remember my Grandad getting me all excited circa 1977 telling me all about him playing Dracula and that I should get too scared (I would have been 8 at the time) – then it turned out it was FRANKENSTEIN they were showing on BBC 2 that night, but not only that – it was the original Karloff version! I loved my grandad and I’m a lot like him in many way, but he knew nothing about movies!

  2. Christopher Lee most definitely left his mark on the cinema, Sergio, and will be missed. This film does sound like a solid little ‘B’ film, so I’m glad you enjoyed it. Goes to show you that you don’t need a multi-million sort of budget to make a decent film. And as you know better than I, there are plenty of huge extravaganzas that aren’t good films at all. Thanks, as ever, for the fine review.

    • Thanks Margot – considering what a long and full life he had in the public eye, it still seem, in a way, as if he was always going to be there. Ah well … Plenty of movies to enjoy!

  3. Colin says:

    I have this film (the Renown edition) but have yet to watch it and will hopefully do so in the coming weeks.
    The length of Lee’s career and the number of films he made during that time is quite mind-boggling. The range is impressive too, pretty much every genre is represented ans shows how he did far more than the horror films he was most famous for.
    Of your list of recommended viewing, I’ve never seen The Whip and the Body – I think maybe the title put me off.

    • Hope you enjoy the DVD chum. Well, I’m a Mario Bava fan and Whip and the Body (or La Frusta e il Corpo) is a pretty good title actually, given the downright perverse content!

      • Colin says:

        Yes, I saw a review of it somewhere or other not that long ago and I found myself wondering why I’d never seen the film, or made some effort to do so – the only reason I could think of was the title. I think I’d been mixing it up with a Pete Walker film, and I cannot abide those.

        • Haven’t seen many of his actually – quite enjoyed The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), but it is basically an old-fashioned theatre whodunit tarted up with a bit of, well, flesh and blood 🙂 I will say, I wish Lee had a bigger role in The Traitor but it’s a decent supporting part all the same and McCarthy does well with the limited means at his disposal.

          • Colin says:

            It sounds like a good little film anyway, and I glad I’ve got the UK version (even if it is open matte) rather than the truncated US release.

          • Yes, I agree – having said that, when I re-watched it yesterday I did use the zoom function on my TV and at 14:9 it approximated the 1.66;1 ratio closely and looked better for it I thought. Am now watching the original Dracula and then it’s The Devil Rides Out as part of my mini Lee fest!

          • Colin says:

            Good choices. Lee tired of the Dracula role fast and it shows in the later films but the original is top stuff. And I think TDRO is my favorite among his many parts.

          • Really enjoyed watching Dracula, it’d been ages in fact. I’d forgotten how little Lee is in it! Can’t say that about Devil though – every inch the lead, though Charley Gray is clearly having a great time.

          • Colin says:

            It’s been a while since I saw Dracula myself.
            TDRO is a really fun film and yes, Gray gets his teeth into the campy malevolence of his role.

          • Just re-watched and had managed to forget the twist ending, which was nice. The Blu-ray has revised opticals and unfortunately doesn’t include the original version, though the shots are used in the various documentaries, which is not ideal – looks great though. The plot is maybe a little too ‘catch and release’ but a great role for Lee.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, the plot is nothing special but it does the job well enough. I do think Lee’s performance is a big part of what makes the movie work.

          • Yes, in complete agreement here. Fisher’s really assured direction really helps too – and it’s great to have Lee in a role that could probably have gone to Cushing but which works much better this way.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have seen the film.
    I agree that The Accused is a more appropriate title than The Accursed. (perhaps they thought that it was a horror film due to the presence of Christopher Lee. 🙂 )
    It is a good and enjoyable whodunit. Suspenseful. The solution is clever. It explains clearly why the “traitor” betrayed only the leader and not other members of the team.
    Worth watching.

  5. realthog says:

    I like this movie a lot as well, and agree with you in particular your huge relief that Wolfitt (or his director) kept the hamminess in check.

  6. le0pard13 says:

    Well put, Sergio. Haven’t seen this one, but Christopher Lee’s work was remarkable. His “villainy” was the stuff of legend, but his other work (like those noted) too often got short shrift because he was so superb as the bad guy. Have to mention his sacrificial valor in, of all things, Airport ’77, playing the put-upon husband of Lee Grant. It was something I always remember, mainly because he brought everything he had in that small supporting role, which didn’t have any of the tried and true showy hero/villain traits, but he made it unforgettable. Never did he “mail in” a part. So glad we had him to enjoy for as long as we did. Christopher Lee will be greatly missed. Thanks, Sergio.

  7. Yvette says:

    Ooooh, this sounds good, Sergio. I will definitely find a way to watch it. Thanks for the intro. Christopher Lee was such a imposing screen presence – always. And I understand, a very brilliant man. Multi-lingual and did actually fight Nazis once upon a time. Why don’t they make men like this anymore? 🙂

    • Thanks Yvettee – and yes, he had a pretty distinguished service record though he doesn’t go into much detail in his autobiography as a lot of it, especially parts dealing with the SAS (as was).

  8. Sergio, IMDb says Christopher Lee acted in 278 films and television series which is mind-boggling considering that I haven’t seen most of them. I’m going to have to get my “teeth” into some of his early movies including this one.

    • ‘Teeth” – I see what you did there 😉 An amazing career, mostly in supporting roles it has to be said and a fair amount of junk too – but also some really good stuff, well worth seeking out. Thansk for visiting chum.

  9. Anne H says:

    My personal tribute to Christopher Lee consisted of unearthing my VHS copy of The Wicker Man. I’m not sure which of the many versions it is, but I enjoy it every time.

  10. tracybham says:

    Somehow I missed this post when it came out but I am glad I stumbled upon it today. I was not aware of how many movies Christopher Lee had been in and the tremendous variety in the type of work he did. This movie sounds very good, the type of thing I would like. I will have to follow up on it.

    • Thanks Tracy – he was incredibly prolific – apparently in the early 60s he went to live in Switzerland but to establish his residence couldn’t leave for 6 months – during that time he set up various acting jobs so that in June and July 1963 he went to Italy and made four films including a personal favourite, The Whip and The Body – amazing!

  11. I love all of Sir Christopher Lee;s films and also Peter Cushings films, i have some CDs and Christopher singing opera he has a marvellous, at 105 desibells that is one powerful dark deep voice, i miss these guys they will be always in my heart and throughts.until we meet again Christopher and Peter i will be looking out for you in heaven.

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