Friday 9 March 2018

The Last Page (1952)

Director: Terence Fisher
Writer: Frederick Knott, from a play by James Hadley Chase
Stars: George Brent, Marguerite Chapman and Diana Dors

Index: 2018 Centennials.

One hundred years ago today, Marguerite Chapman was born. 22 years later, she started a film career that only lasted for a decade and change but kept her busy indeed. From 1940 to 1943 alone, she appeared in twenty B-movies of varied genre and quality, that prompted Jerry Mason of the Los Angeles Times to suggest, ‘I saw none of them, and you probably didn’t either.’ I have indeed seen some of these, as they weren’t only routine wartime programmers, like Navy Blues or You’re in the Army Now, in which she appeared as a member of the Navy Blues Sextet. I saw her in detective series, like Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum or One Dangerous Night, one of the Warren William Lone Wolf pictures. Some of these certainly seem to exist as little more than opportunities for her to rise to the A list, having impressed people in the highly-regarded 1942 serial, Spy Smasher. Unfortunately, they seem to be rather hard to track down nowadays. I looked for films like Parachute Nurse and the later One Way to Love, but they’re nowhere to be found.

Her easily available movies are generally later ones in which she played a supporting role, like The Seven Year Itch, although she did actually make it to the A list by being cast as the female lead in Destroyer, alongside Edward G. Robinson and Glenn Ford. I prefer to find the interesting films lurking behind those major titles in a filmography, but hers are surprisingly elusive and, when they can be found, they’re not that appropriate. I did watch Spy Smasher, thinking it was about time I included a serial in this project, but as enjoyable as she is as the lead’s fiancée, she’s hardly in it. Similarly, Flight to Mars, a 1951 sci-fi romp in which her character, Alita, is named as an overt homage, might have worked, but she’s only in the second half; maybe I’ll revisit it later this year for her co-star, Cameron Mitchell. I remembered that she ended her film career with a leading role, in The Amazing Transparent Man, but that was hardly a great movie. So which picture should I choose to remember her, one that I can actually find to watch?

It came down to three for me: Counter-Attack, The Walls Came Tumbling Down and The Last Page. Counter-Attack, a 1945 Paul Muni film, was one of those odd pro-Soviet movies that were made in the brief pocket of time after World War II, when Russia was led by our ally, Uncle Joe Stalin, but before the heady days of the Red Menace and the Communist witch-hunts. Yes, the enemy of our enemy is often our friend, but it is fascinating to see just how far American propaganda swung back on itself in such a brief time. I haven’t seen The Walls Came Tumbling Down yet, but it’s a 1946 murder mystery in which the victim is a priest and Chapman plays a suspect; what’s more, it sounds like The Da Vinci Code almost half a century early, given that it features a code (found in a bible, no less) that leads to a hidden painting by Leonardo da Vinci himself. In the end, I chose The Last Page, a film noir made in England by Hammer in 1952, as the character she plays, while hardly the lead, gives her quite a bit of range to explore.

It might surprise some to realise that Hammer didn’t only make the horror movies for which they’re justly remembered today. If we remember them for anything else, it’s usually for Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years, B.C., but they were never a one trick pony and they had a number of phases in their history. Hammer Productions Ltd. was founded in 1934 by William Hinds, the name taken from his stage name as a comedian, Will Hammer. Early films included The Mystery of the Marie Celeste with Bela Lugosi, which was released Stateside as Phantom Ship, and Song of Freedom, a Paul Robeson musical, but the company went into liquidation after only three years. These films had been produced by Hammer but distributed by a company named Exclusive Films, run by a Spanish cinema owner called Enrique Carreras, and it was he who revived Hammer in 1946, after wartime service, with Anthony Hinds, William’s son, and James, his own son. This quartet would become the directors of Hammer Film Productions in 1949.
Initially they made ‘quota quickies’, cheap films made to fulfil a government-required quota that required, as of 1935, 20% of films exhibited in Britain to be British productions. The companies had to be British, using British studios, British writers and with three quarters of the salaries going to British subjects. These haven’t been remembered well, but they’re starting to gain some credit for recording the aspects and performers of a uniquely British culture that might otherwise never have been documented. Certainly, the revived Hammer started out with a set of big screen adaptations of British radio shows, featuring such quintessentially British characters as PC49 or Dick Barton, Special Agent. Of course, these radio shows are mostly lost today, but the Hammer adaptations are still easily available. They expanded into thrillers and comedies (what other nation could have made a movie entitled What the Butler Saw?) and other genres, but The Last Page is a pivotal picture in Hammer’s history for a number of reasons.

For one, it was one of the first films they shot at their most famous location, a rundown country home on the banks of the Thames by the name of Down Place; they fixed it up, converted it into a fully fledged studio and named it for the nearby town of Bray. Bray Studios would remain the heart of Hammer until 1966 and you’ll have see it many times in many forms. A second reason is that it marked the beginning of a contract with Robert Lippert, a prolific American producer and cinema chain owner, which shaped the near future for Hammer. ‘Every theater owner thinks he can make pictures better than the ones they sent him,’ he once said. ‘So back in 1943 I tried it.’ He started well, financing Sam Fuller’s earliest movies, and he signed many major stars who had been let go by their studios. His contract with Hammer and Exclusive effectively meant that he would distribute their films Stateside and vice versa, but one condition was that Hammer films must include an American star, starting here with George Brent.
Another reason for The Last Page to be remembered well are a couple of prominent names in its credits, starting with the director, Terence Fisher. Fisher had never made a Hammer picture before but, after this one, he would make little else, changing the face of the horror genre forever. It was he who directed The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, so bringing colour to gothic horror and stardom to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. He made many other movies in other genres, but most of the pivotal Hammer horrors were his, including Dracula, The Mummy, The Curse of the Werewolf and The Devil Rides Out. The opening credits identify another prominent name: ‘introducing Diana Dors’. She became the British Marilyn Monroe, though she’s believably naïve and innocent here, and she had a fabulous and scandal-filled career that she kept on reinventing. I first saw her at the age of ten as the fairy godmother in the Prince Charming video by Adam and the Ants, one of my formative influences with its line, ‘ridicule is nothing to be scared of’.

And, for a while, at the other end of her career, it seems like Diana Dors is the leading lady in this picture. She’s Ruby Bruce, who’s always late for her job at J. A. Pearson, Bookseller and who’s also the Man Bait of the film’s American title, albeit because she falls in with the wrong company. We meet everyone else before her, but she gets the first overt scene, in which she catches a young man about to steal a rare book; she makes him put it back but doesn’t report him for it and that mistake starts a friendship that will lead to multiple deaths; that and a single, ill-advised kiss between her and her boss, John Harman, while she helps him with a late night inventory. She’s vulnerable because she’s young and he’s vulnerable because his wife is an invalid and because of trauma incurred during the war; Marguerite Chapman’s character, Stella Tracy, was his nurse after that and is now his secretary at the bookshop. It doesn’t take eagle eyes to notice that she’d also like to be something more. The unrequited love throughout the shop is palpable.
Scriptwriter Frederick Knott, adapting an early play by the famous thriller author best known as James Hadley Chase, lets us in on the action slowly and carefully, as we might expect from his own original plays, Dial M for Murder and Wait Until Dark, both adapted to film as well. He introduces an ensemble cast of characters at Pearson’s and we quickly figure out the dynamics between them: who loves whom and who has it in for whom. However, it’s a stable, unchanging environment and, without an external factor to stir it up, it would remain a stable, unchanging environment. Harman, played by the ever-affable George Brent, would continue to look after his wife, oblivious to how much Stella cares about him; Stella would continue to support him in everything, oblivious to how much Clive Oliver likes her; Oliver would continue to pick on young Joe for everything that goes wrong, even if it wasn’t his fault; Ruby Bruce would continue to be late and Harman would continue to gently reprimand her for it; and so on and so on.

The external factor that stirs it all up is that would be thief, Jeff Hart, thoroughly charming and thoroughly vile. Peter Reynolds is fantastic as Hart and it’s no surprise to find that he would specialise in such roles throughout his career, even in movies where we might expect something different, like Devil Girl from Mars. He latches onto Ruby Bruce when she doesn’t turn him in, inviting her to the Blue Club where he cleverly twists her, however unwillingly, to the dark side. Suddenly this little drama set in a bookshop becomes a film noir fuelled by blackmail, with Hart the blackmailer, Harman the target and poor little Ruby the means to an end. What elevates this relatively simple, if well crafted plot, is the presence of Eleanor Summerfield as Vi, another crook working the Blue Club, who has a history with Jeff Hart and is more than happy to either rekindle their relationship or fleece him for all he has or maybe even both. The dynamics keep the film busy and interesting throughout.
While the basic concept here is hardly groundbreaking, I was thoroughly impressed by how the characters flow through the film. George Brent is clearly the lead, but he doesn’t drive the picture; Peter Reynolds does as Jeff Hart. Everyone else has their part to play too, however much we might initially see them as just texture to the bookshop backdrop. This would be a fascinating picture to watch, then rewatch and dissect, so as to catch all the hints, set-ups and triggers that foreshadow everyone’s story arcs. It may be that eight different characters get their own pivotal moments, when the direction of the story depends entirely on them; that’s a refreshing approach and a good one for film noir, because it keeps us on the hop, even when it’s completely obvious from early on who the femme fatale is. In fact, the story only gets more interesting after that femme fatale gets accidentally murdered in the basement of Pearson’s bookshop. Even the police are thoroughly capable and that’s refreshing too.

Not everything is as good as I may have made it sound. Brent’s performance, is thoroughly routine, rarely notable and apparently phoned in. This was close to the end of his career and he was far from the star he used to be; he was a big name in the pre-codes and he continued to shine throughout the thirties and into the forties, often supporting the big leading ladies of the day, including Bette Davis in eleven different films, including Dark Victory and Jezebel. He was her favourite leading man and they had a fling for a couple of years, but his six marriages included three different actresses: Ruth Chatterton, Constance Worth and Ann Sheridan. It’s hard to avoid him when exploring classic film and he gave solid performances in many films, but he rarely seems to be interested here, even when acting opposite Marguerite Chapman and Diana Dors, both vivacious, if very different ladies. Maybe he really had settled down, five years into his fifth marriage, which lasted until his wife’s death and gave him his only children.
Early on, it’s Diana Dors who catches the eye; well, her and the bookshop, which is as notable eye candy for me. The ‘introducing’ credit was misleading, as she’d already appeared in sixteen films, and was the lead in a few of them, including 1951’s Lady Godiva Rides Again, alongside a debuting Joan Collins; Dana Wynter, still credited as Dagmar Wynter; and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England. While she’s magnetic throughout and does drop hints at why her exploitative first husband, Dennis Hamilton, would go on to shape her into the British Marilyn Monroe, we eventually shift our attentions to Peter Reynolds as the weasel, Jeff Hart. While she’s capable early, it’s later in the film when Marguerite Chapman truly comes into her own and demonstrates why she’s the leading lady here, Stella Tracy becoming more than just the reliable nurse turned secretary suffering from unrequited love for her patient turned boss. Chapman shines in a number of scenes, whether as sacrificial saviour or damsel in distress.

From 1940 to 1952, Chapman averaged over three films a year and, as I mentioned earlier, they include some fascinating pictures; after that, she only made two more. Decades later, she was asked to audition as the older Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic, but was too ill to be able to do so. In the years in between, she painted, exhibiting her work in Beverly Hills, and she shifted her attentions from film to television, starting that phase of her career in the year she made this, with only four films still to come. She appeared in many TV plays and proved reliable support in a variety of shows, from Rawhide and Laramie to Hawaii Five-O and Marcus Welby, M.D., via The Whistler and Perry Mason. Her last performance was in an episode of Barnaby Jones in 1977 and it’s for her TV work that she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I’d argue that her movie career is just as notable and it’s unfairly overlooked today; her centennial is a good time to push for a reassessment. And for some of those hard to find films to see a long overdue release!

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