Wednesday 12 August 2009

The Blue Lamp (1950)

Director: Basil Dearden
Stars: Jack Warner, Jimmy Hanley, Dirk Bogarde and Robert Flemyng

Dixon of Dock Green was one of those TV series whose name was well known to my generation but wasn't well known itself, on the grounds that only 30 episodes of it's amazing 22 year run survive to this day. That's out of the 432 episodes that were broadcast, highlighting to us Doctor Who fans just how lucky we really are that we have so much to work back through. Dixon of Dock Green started out as a film though, an Ealing film no less, called The Blue Lamp, and it's this film that introduced the lead character of PC George Dixon. It's hardly Hill Street Blues, but like that series it's a real reflection of its time.

That time is the years immediately after the end of the Second World War. As the film, which occasionally slips into documentary format, tells us early on, there's a new generation of crooks for the police to deal with. They're intelligent enough to plan big jobs though not professional enough to really get away with it for long, but hardened by the war they could easily cause a lot of trouble while they're active. Bizarrely, the example we're given is played by Dirk Bogarde, well known as one of the good guys in no end of comedy and drama films for the next three decades.

He's Tom Riley and he's a young upstart, more than willing to use violence in his robberies. The first time we meet him he's robbing a jewellers, having stolen the keys to the place from the owner under clever circumstances: he grabs them during a home invasion and robbery that woud seem to be aimed at the pearls young Maisie has. Mr Jordan doesn't even want anyone to know he was there but he opens up he releases his shop keys are gone. Of course the other key factor involved is the fact that the coppers on the street know him because they know their beats.

And really that's the point here. It's almost a propaganda film for the man on the beat. If there were more of them, especially those like PC George Dixon who spend 25 years walking the streets and getting to know everyone his job is meant to protect, then neighbourhoods would be safer places and like Tom Riley get caught about as quickly as is possible. Of course that's not the only factor. The rest of the police are sharp too, Riley is a little too clever for his own good and he has himself a seventeen year old runaway for a girlfriend. Add to that the old chestnut of coincidence and inevitability comes into play.

I mentioned Hill Street Blues early in this review and it's well worth milking the comparisons. This isn't quite as fragmented, given that the various threads tie together into one in the end, but it does play out in a similar way and there's a good deal of focus given not jut to the job but the real lives of the men doing it. Add to that the use of a number of things more usually seen in American films and cop shows: Riley has a pair of guns and drives a Buick. These things do stand out in a very English film, something that isn't just obvious in the use of a police force much more polite and down to earth than what we might be used to on film, but in things like the semaphore language used by those running the tote at the greyhound track.

If anything Dirk Bogarde, who would go on to be the biggest film star of any of the actors here, is the least of the main characters, but that could just be because he's playing Tom Riley as a disturbed young man. There's a lot of pain evidenced in his portrayal, as if he's somehow driven to do what he does, but the role isn't that deep. The writers deliberately made this film, which is dedicated to the police force, to highlight changing conditions for their men at the time. Criminals like Riley were a new breed: inconsistent, arrogant and dangerous. As he's forced to play a character utterly unlike everyone else in the film, Bogarde can hardly fail to stand out in their company.

Jack Warner plays George Dixon, as he would for 22 years in Dixon of Dock Green, though that run wouldn't begin for another five years. Given what happens to him in this film, maybe he needed that long to recover. Jimmy Hanley is an able assistant, PC Andy Mitchell, who becomes Dixon's partner. Surprisingly, given that he seems so young, he was already a 17 year veteran of English film. Robert Flemyng and Peggy Evans also shine, but the cast is solid throughout.

What really stands out though, above the acting, is the script. It's so well written that there's opportunity for even the smallest characters to add some depth. If I forget Dixon and Mitchell, I'm going to remember the old woman and her lost dog Baloo, the little girl who apparently knows the word 'no' and the young couple who can't agree on anything. These people are very believable and that can't help but make the story they're in more believable. No wonder it was such a hit in 1950.


Dirk Bogarde said...

An excellent review. As an admirer of Dirk Bogarde's body of work, I'm always gratified to read insightful comments on his films. Thanks to TCM-US's DIRK BOGARDE DAY which aired thirteen DB films on the 10th of August and to reviews like yours, his performances will not be forgotten.

I would enjoy your review of KING AND COUNTRY (1964), one of five Bogarde-Joe Losey collaborations. I consider it the best, or one of the best, but not fully appreciated, anti-war films made.


Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks for the compliments. I was a little surprised at first to find Dirk Bogarde commenting on my blog from beyond the grave though...

I don't have King & Country but I'll keep my eyes open for it. I did, however, review Ill Met By Moonlight last month though, and HMS Defiant aka Damn the Defiant! earlier in the year.

The other Bogarde film I recorded from TCM on the 10th was The Servant as I've heard great things about it. Watch out for that review soon.