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Monday, 11 September 2017

The Ringer (1952)


Director: Guy Hamilton
Writer: Val Valentine, from the play by Edgar Wallace, with additional dialogue by Lesley Storm
Stars: Herbert Lom, Donald Wolfit, Mai Zetterling, Greta Gynt, William Hartnell, Norman Wolland, Denholm Elliott, Charles Victor, Walter Fitzgerald, Dora Bryan and Campbell Singer


Index: 2017 Centennials.

Today, it would be surprising to discover a film fan who doesn’t immediately associate the name of Herbert Lom with that of Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus, so memorable was he in that role in a number of Pink Panther movies. However, he was a man of talents far beyond magnificent comedic timing and the rare ability to prevent Peter Sellers from stealing every scene he was in. Taking a look back through the phases of his career highlights those different talents well: Czech pictures in the thirties, villainous roles in British films of the forties, stage musicals in the fifties, a wide variety of roles in the sixties, European horror icon in the seventies and, of course, Dreyfus across the decades. He even found time to write two historical novels, one about Christopher Marlowe and the other about the French Revolution. I’ve enjoyed his work since I was a kid, so his versatility isn’t news to me, but I had no idea until now that he was the King of Siam in the original British stage run of The King and I, the role Yul Brynner played on Broadway.

While he was far more frequent a supporting actor than a lead, there are intriguing features almost leaping out of his filmography to be covered in a project like this. I’m a sucker for Ealing films but he wasn’t most prominent in The Ladykillers. I love the classics of horror, but he was disappointed with the Hammer version of The Phantom of the Opera, in which he played the lead. He appeared in other iconic roles too: Captain Nemo in Mysterious Island, Van Helsing in Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (supporting a dream pairing of Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski as Dracula and Renfield) and Napoleon Bonaparte in two films: The Young Mr. Pitt in the UK and War and Peace in the US. He even appeared in two different versions of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The movies that shouted the loudest, though, were his British film noirs of the forties and fifties, like Dual Alibi, in which he played twin acrobats, a Hammer noir called Whispering Smith Hits London and this Edgar Wallace thriller, The Ringer.

The latter won out because it’s a blistering stage adaptation with an impeccable cast and a notable crew, led by a debut director by the name of Guy Hamilton. This newcomer had cut his teeth in menial roles, learning everything he could as he worked his way up the ladder. He shot second unit on Carol Reed films like The Fallen Idol and The Third Man before finally landing this opportunity to direct solo. The Colditz Story made his name in 1955 and Goldfinger cemented his stature in 1964. He’d actually turned down the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, but soon made up for lost time, directing four of them in total, more than anyone except John Glen, who made the weaker entries in the eighties. While The Ringer was obviously based on a stage play, restricted as it is to a few locations, Hamilton nails the choreography, with characters walking into and out of the frame constantly without us ever losing track of the important things, like who’s who, what’s what and where’s where. It’s a really solid debut.

The key location is the home of Maurice Meister, a clever but clearly not entirely honest lawyer. It’s a great part for Herbert Lom, because it allows his deep voice and eloquent diction free rein but doesn’t restrict his general acting in the slightest. He wasn’t an English native, having been born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchačevič ze Schluderpacheru in Prague, then in Austria-Hungary. His first films were in Czechoslovakia, which had been carved out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when he was but a year old, but he quickly left because his mother was Jewish, arriving in England two months before the Nazis invaded. His first roles in his adopted nation were as an uncredited member of the Hitler Youth, in 1940’s Mein Kampf - My Crimes, and Napoleon in 1942’s The Young Mr. Pitt, both of which would have seemed natural at the time for a newly arrived European émigré but which seems odd to us today, used as we are to his resonant command of the English language. Meister is much more in line with what we might expect.
The reason that Meister is the focal point of this picture is because there’s a particularly important skeleton in his closet. Meister has a habit of looking after the families of the criminals he fails to keep out of jail, an apparently honourable vocation until we dig a little deeper and find that ‘families’ tend to be young ladies in whom he is clearly interested for other reasons than the goodness of his heart. One of these, the sister of the title character, had been placed into his care and worked for him as a secretary, just like the soft voiced young lady who fills that role as we join the story, Fraulein Lisa Gruber. However, the Ringer’s sister was drowned in mysterious circumstances that are never explored but which don’t take much imagination to conjure up, given that Meister is putting the moves on Lisa in no uncertain terms. This is all past history for him, until he’s told that the Ringer is apparently not as dead as has been previously reported. He’s back, he’s in London and he’s apparently got his sights set on Meister.

So, who is the Ringer and why does the news of his return make people so nervous? Well, he’s a master criminal, whose real name is as prosaic as Arthur Milton. The nickname carries two meanings: that he ‘rings the changes’ and that he changes his appearance; the former highlights that he’s a powerful criminal who’s used to getting his way and the latter that he’s a true master of disguise, so much so that the police have no idea what he looks like: there are no known photographs and descriptions of him vary broadly, depending on what he happened to look like at the time. The worst thing about this film is that it really doesn’t take much for us to figure out who he is, but the best thing may be that it really doesn’t matter; we shift from ‘who’ to ‘how’ very easily and that keeps us going until the finalé, which demonstrates in no uncertain terms that this is a British picture that doesn’t have to kowtow to the Production Code which would have eviscerated this script for breaking a number of its key rules.
Frankly, of course, nobody could mistake this for the product of any other country, because it’s quintessentially British and would remain so even if it didn’t feature the magnificent character of Sam Hackett, a true gift of a role for William Hartnell, looking good a decade before he would become the first Doctor in Doctor Who. He’s a Cockney thief who often speaks in rhyming slang and loves the sound of his own voice. He’s important because he used to share a house with the Ringer and that expertise leads him to take a job with Meister while the Ringer is a threat, shoring up the defences and serving brandy. He’s notably sharp dressed to the nines as the butler, but his common roots frequently betray him; Hartnell switches between the act and the act’s act seamlessly. He’s an absolute joy to watch and so is Lom, who makes wearing an expensive suit look easy. He’s elegant, debonair and refined, but still crooked as the day is long. These two characters alone make The Ringer worth watching.

However, there are many more, each of them substantially different from the others, which is a credit to Val Valentine, adapting the play by Edgar Wallace. Swedish actress Mai Zetterling is a delight as a nice but naïve girl only half aware that she’s already in Meister’s clutches; Lisa Gruber is utterly unlike the actress, who was an intelligent lady who found an unusual second career as a controversial film director in Sweden; I’m now eager to track down her sixties films, Loving Couples, Night Games and The Girls, not remotely as pornographic as those translated titles make them sound but definitely ahead of the curve. Her character here thinks she’s merely waiting for her Johnny, who simply isn’t bright enough to stay out of jail when someone like Meister has his eyes on Johnny’s girl. Denholm Elliott is so young here that I hardly recognised him as John Lemley; this was only his fourth film, almost four decades before Raiders of the Lost Ark, and we have to pay attention to recognise his memorable eyes, voice and smirk.
Usually, the forces of good play second fiddle to the scene-stealing forces of bad, but that’s not the case here. Leading the hunt for the Ringer is Insp. Wembury, an easy role for the highly experienced Charles Victor, who already had seventy films to his name; he often played coppers, including in support to Bulldog Drummond and the Saint. His younger colleague, Insp. Bliss, however, is an odd duck indeed; he’s newly returned from the States, where he studied with the FBI, and he very deliberately follows his own drum. He has a fantastic habit of walking through doors into the scene at hand and then right back out again on the other side; the ability of actor Norman Wooland to hide his emotions aids the character’s disconnection from all around him. It’s Dr. Lomond who steals their scenes though. He’s a doddery professor type researching a book on criminal psychology at Wembury’s station house and Donald Wolfit, well known for scene-stealing, does it as effectively as usual but fortunately rather less effusively here.

That leaves two better halves, who couldn’t be more different if they tried. William Hartnell has an eager and talented foil in Dora Bryan, playing Mrs. Hackett; this was no stretch for her, because she could run her mouth in her sleep, but she enhances him with panache. ‘How can I leave him?’ she says at one point. ‘I’m not married to him!’ This pair converse at a mile a minute, with natural energy, and I could easily have seen the couple spun off into their own comedy series. Instead, they carried on, finding fame apart in the early sixties; Hartnell in Doctor Who and Bryan as Rita Tushingham’s alcoholic mother in A Taste of Honey. Then there’s Greta Gynt, the first voice we hear, as Cora Ann Milton, the wife of the Ringer. She’s a vibrant and vivacious young lady, quickly seduced into a life of crime (she marries him in Cairo and they spend their honeymoon on the run) but bright enough to survive there. 'If you associate yourself with crooks, you have to be clever,’ points out Meister at one point, and she’s certainly that.
I remembered Greta Gynt on her centennial last year in a different Edgar Wallace movie, The Dark Eyes of London, released Stateside as The Human Monster, and it’s odd to realise that Herbert Lom was a year younger, given that he’s the established lawyer here and she’s the young widow. Perhaps her casting was deliberate as the character that looms is occasionally reminiscent of her foil that time out, Bela Lugosi. There’s a suspenseful shot in Meister’s living room where this man enters through a distant door to emerge slowly out of the darkness, so subconsciously equating him with Lugosi helps build him for us as a red herring. It’s hard not to fall for Cora Ann because she’s utterly alive, running rings around the police and throwing out sharp retorts at the drop of a hat. ‘If only I was five years younger,’ comments Dr. Lomond. ‘Twenty-five,’ she snaps back at him. The Dark Eyes of London was a decade and change earlier, but she appears just as young here and even more vibrant. No wonder UK filmgoers loved her.

And so there’s your cast of characters, who all find their way into Maurice Meister’s Deptford home to stir the pot as we count the minutes until the Ringer wreaks his revenge on the master of the house. If this were an American film, it wouldn’t play anywhere near the same because the Production Code wouldn’t have allowed it. The whole thrust of the suspense would have been deemed inappropriate and immoral, so the script would revert from the ‘how’ to the ‘who’. It would become a mystery again and the cast would have to play it that way. The banter between Mr. and Mrs. Hackett, who really aren’t anything of the sort, would take on a different timbre because they would have to be man and wife. How else could they have had children? Meister’s hinted at history would be different too, as sexual crimes wouldn’t fit in what is really a comedy as much as a mystery, a thriller or a crime drama. Fortunately, it’s British so it’s much freer, a statement that still feels odd to me, having grown up in the video nasty era.
The Ringer is not the greatest movie ever made and it probably isn’t even the greatest of the hundred or so British films of 1952, but it’s hard to resist such a talented cast in a picture with such sharp dialogue that rockets along at such a fantastic pace. William Hartnell endows Sam Hackett with those exact attributes, so is really the film in microcosm and he’s well worth the experience on his own. ‘I can hardly understand what he says,’ suggests Lisa Gruber, but ‘he makes me laugh.’ Maurice Meister explains to her, in Herbert Lom’s dulcet tones, that the thief is speaking Cockney, a dialect ‘only slightly connected with the King’s English.’ I enjoyed the irony of hearing that from the mouth of an Austro-Hungarian but Lom makes it work. Incidentally, Lom was the shortest name he could pluck from the phone book; it means ‘quarry’ in Czech. It made for a much easier stage name than ze Schluderpacheru, a lesson that should be passed along to the twelve-syllabled Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

Of course, Lom was still building his career in 1952 and there would be many highlights still to come. He held his own against Alec Guinness in the Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers, in 1955, billed above Peter Sellers. He found his way into Hollywood productions, in roles as wild as the pirate envoy, Tigranes Levantus, in Spartacus, but spent most of his career in British film, where he was able to play pillars of the British establishment and exotic characters of almost any nationality (some more outrageous than others; Chong Sing in Tiara Tahiti sounds particularly unlikely). It was A Shot in the Dark that really announced him to the world though, as Charles Dreyfus, then a Police Commissioner. He’d progress up and down the ranks as the Pink Panther series ran on, driven progressively insane by his nemesis, Insp. Jacques Clouseau, and the world laughed. He made a hundred films exactly but it’s nigh on impossible to leave him in any way but his fade in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, vanishing Cheshire Cat-like to a single floating, twitching eye.

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