Tuesday 4 April 2023

Smokescreen (1964)

Director: Jim O’Connolly
Writer: Jim O’Connolly
Stars: Peter Vaughan, John Carson, Yvonne Romain and Gerald Flood

Index: 2023 Centennials.

Part of the joy of my centennials project is to avoid the typical titles that get trawled out everywhere else and choose something a little more obscure instead. With character actors like Peter Vaughan, that tends to mean seeking out leading roles rather than his usual prominent supporting slots, and, in turn, that has me turn over rocks to discover little gems like this. This is such an obscure film that I can’t even find the usual portrait poster, whether a one sheet or the very English double crown format; just a landscape one, presumably a quad, that isn’t available online without a watermark from CineMaterial. It did land a DVD release, paired with director Jim O’Connolly’s debut, The Hi-Jackers, but it’s long out of print. The version I watched is also watermarked, as a broadcast on TalkingPictures TV, which is new to me but looks like a more British-focused take on TCM that’s right up my alley. And all this obscurity is a shame, because this is a quietly impressive British B-movie that deserves to be more widely seen.

It’s everything I want from delving backwards into British film: a slice of its time shot primarily on location with an excellent cast, plenty of them sparking nostalgia from television roles, and a sharp script. It’s a mystery, but one led by an insurance assessor not the typical policeman or private detective. That insurance assessor is Mr. Roper, whose first name may have been dropped at some point during the film but really doesn’t matter, because 1964 was a different time so it was likely only used by his family. To Player, his boss at Reed, Player & Phillips, he’s just Roper, a highly capable but mild mannered investigator who’s tightfisted with money to the degree that his expenses warrant careful attention. To the many characters he encounters during the film, he’s Mr. Roper, who breezes into Brighton in his bowler hat and refuses to accept anything as its presented. He’s all business, but he finds that sharing a glimpse of his life can loosen lips. The running gag about thriftiness has a reason and it’s a private one we feel privileged to see.

The mystery at hand is the one that we see before the opening credits in a startling sequence that’s over so quickly that we could be forgiven for blinking and missing it. There are the White Cliffs of Sussex, outside Brighton, but we quickly pan inland to see a young couple necking on top of them. Suddenly a horn pierces the pastoral peace and we cut to see a raging inferno of a car hurtling right off the cliff. It bounces a few times on its way down to crash into the English Channel, as the couple watch in horror, and there’s the title and the opening credits. It’s been fewer than fifty seconds, because this picture, which runs a lean seventy minutes, can’t hang about. It has a lot to do and not much time to do it, which is why it seems so odd that Connolly dedicates so much early time to how Roper’s probably fiddling his expenses. That does become clear, eventually, and it helps to ground Roper magnificently, but it does take its time, unlike almost everything else, which is edited with almost television level severity.

Of course, Roper is going to be sent to Brighton to look into this car business. It was owned by a businessman named John Dexter, a missing businessman given that his body was not discovered in the wreckage. What’s more, he took out a lucrative insurance policy with Australian Life Assurance only a couple of months earlier to the tune of £100,000, as did Graham Turner, his partner in Dexter & Turner Ltd., Electronic Engineers. As soon as Roper checks into the Grand Hotel, another British landmark at which Miss Marple solved the mystery of The Body in the Library, he meets up with Trevor Bayliss. This is the agent who sold the policies, whose star is tarnished because of the probable imminent loss. His only hope is for Roper to figure out the fiddle that Player believes it is, along, I should add, with the rest of us. Everything about it suggests that a fraud is being perpetrated, but that remains to be proven and we have the length of a movie for Roper to solve the case.

The star of the show is emphatically Peter Vaughan, who would have been a hundred years old today, and he’s only the first of the many actors I know primarily from British television. The first thing I saw him in was probably Porridge, the sitcom set in a British prison, playing “Genial” Harry Grout, the prisoner who practically runs the place. That began in 1975, a couple of decades into his career, but the most recent thing I saw him in began thirty-five years later, in 2011, because he was also Maester Aemon in Game of Thrones, completing his run at Castle Black at the age of ninety-two. Fittingly, he brought so much presence to each of those roles that it’s almost shocking to realise that he was only in three episodes of Porridge, plus the later feature, Doing Time, and only eleven episodes of Game of Thrones, across four seasons. That presence extends to his film roles, where he continued to resonate to a much greater degree than any screen time might suggest, so I was especially glad to see him playing the lead for once.

Roper is a fascinating character. He seems young, compared to what we tend to know Vaughan from, but he’d reached forty by this point. In the tradition of so many classic British detectives, he’s incredibly sharp while never quite seeming to be. There’s a superb scene in which he and Bayliss visit Dexter’s doctor. Bayliss flounders around trying to get answers out of him about his patient and only prods him into more anger. Roper keeps out of the way and then pierces that anger with a simple comment about his flowers. Suddenly the doctor is apologising for flying off the handle and letting them in on the answers they sought. It’s exactly the sort of thing we might expect from Miss Marple or Father Brown and the latter may not be a coincidence. I caught plenty of Alec Guinness in Vaughan’s portrayal of Roper, especially when he’s asking cab drivers or waitresses how much things cost, so he can add them to a growing list of expenses, only to then walk or not indulge instead. There’s some Guinness in his infectious grin too.

Just as Vaughan was perhaps more known as villains than heroes, his co-star here, John Carson, played a long string of them, on a long string of television shows, but appears to be a good guy here. I say “appears to be”, because he’s a little too dim to be a capable insurance agent and, as we start to learn more about the mystery, we also start to wonder if he’s dim enough to be part of it. There aren’t a lot of characters here to muddy up the waters, but Connolly liberally distributes the suspicion so that we’re kept guessing. Not only did Bayliss sell the policies, but he knew Janet Dexter before she married John, that missing businessman, and wanted to marry her. “Don’t give up hope,” says Roper. “Rich widows are hard to find.” I’ve probably seen Carson on a dozen TV shows, but it was a string of other characters who brought back nostalgia. Inspector Wright, the local policeman, is Glynn Edwards, the barman at the Winchester Club in Minder; and the stationmaster at Hellingly is Deryck Guyler, the caretaker in Please, Sir!

The other two featured names in the cast are Yvonne Romain and Gerald Flood. Romain is Dexter’s beautiful widow, Janet, and like Carson, I know her primarily from horror movies. He was in The Plague of the Zombies, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter, to name just three Hammers; she was in The Curse of the Werewolf and Captain Clegg, to name two more. She’s quite the delight here, though she would soon retire in 1967, after a couple of Hollywood films, to return only once, in 1973, as Sheila in the appropriately titled The Last of Sheila. She could easily be involved in her husband’s disappearance here, with whether she is or not perhaps contingent on whether she will file a claim on his life insurance after what Roper discovers in the first half of the film. Flood, much better known on stage and television than film, is a more overtly suspicious character, clearly a man with secrets that may or may not have anything to do with the core mystery. He’s sleazy with a struggling veneer of respectability.

Of course, Roper figures it out in the end because that’s how mysteries work. Notably, he does so either side of a brief break, which is indicative of the type of character he plays. We’re used to detectives and PIs hunting down leads until the whole thing’s over, but he’s an insurance assessor and he has a different objective in mind. He does enough to figure out whether there’s a fiddle in play or not and, once he has that answer, he returns back to head office with his recommendation. Fresh news awaits him, though, so he’s sent back to Brighton to finish things up, uncovering the twist in the tale, the smokescreen of the title, in a way that in a just world would have not merely improved his lot as an actor, which it did, but also spawn a series of films. I’d have liked nothing more, after wrapping up this one, than to binge watch the next half dozen, but it stands alone as a lost opportunity for Butcher’s Film Distributors, which knocked out consistent product through two world wars but wouldn’t outlast the sixties.

While the direction is matter of fact, I liked almost every aspect of this B-movie, but Peter Vaughan stands above them all. He was a talented actor but, like his lifelong friend Donald Pleasence, he didn’t have the good looks to be a traditional leading man. “Luckily, I’m not beautiful,” he once said, “otherwise I might have starved.” Instead, he landed character part after character part and made a habit of elevating everything he was in. He was born Peter Ewart Ohm to an Austrian bank clerk and a nurse. He found theatre at school and quickly became a professional actor. However, while he appeared in a short in 1954 and a couple of features in 1959, he was only credited on live plays and early British TV shows until 1960’s Village of the Damned, the first adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. Once established, though, he kept busy until his big breaks in 1964, this first leading role on the big screen and a prominent stage play, Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane, in its première on the West End.

Oddly, for a consistently working actor knocking out episodes of countless television shows and interspersing them with roles in an array of versatile features, from Die! Die! My Darling to Zulu Dawn via Straw Dogs, he only became more prominent as time went by, as he landed more and more noticeable roles. He had a couple in Terry Gilliam features, his quirky charm perfect for Time Bandits and Brazil, playing Winston the Ogre in the former and a memorable deputy minister in Information Retrieval in the latter. However, he also had prominent supporting roles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Crucible and Les Misérables, the former when he was close to sixty and the latter pair when he was well into his seventies. Having somehow gone without nominations for major awards over a long and distinguished career, he finally landed a BAFTA nod for Our Friends in the North in 1997, playing a trade unionist suffering from Alzheimer’s. With his screen son Christopher Eccleston also nominated, the vote was split and neither won.

His private life was far less notable, though I’m sure he had stories to tell from his service during the Second World War. He became a second lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Signals in 1943 and saw action in Europe and Asia. However, when the war ended, he was part of the Army Entertainment Unit, alongside John Schlesinger, Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams. He met Billie Whitelaw in a London fringe theater and married her in 1952, though she was nine years his junior. They managed to have four children during a busy time for both on the stage. After they divorced in 1966, he quickly married another working actress, Lillias Walker, who gave him two further children, and they remained married for half a century until his death, of natural causes, in 2016, appearing in two films together: Malachi’s Cove, with Pleasence, who had lodged with Vaughan and Whitelaw years earlier, and Intimate Reflections. In a screen career of over sixty years, it’s not surprising to find hidden gems. This is one. I’m looking forward to finding more.

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