Saturday, November 12, 2016

The October Man (1947)

“Perhaps I DID kill her and I don’t remember...”

It’s time for another British noir, this one directed by Roy Ward Baker, another future Hammer horror film director, (though most of his titles in that series were toward the later half of the studio’s heyday) like Terence Fisher, whose editing work I noted in 1943’s They Met in the Dark.

The deliciously murky, ominous cinematography is by Erwin Hillier, and the effectively colorful and melodramatic music is composed in prime noir fashion by William Allwyn, whose career spanned from the british noirs like this, Odd Man Out, and Green For Danger, all the way through Disney’s london-based productions of Swiss Family Robinson and In Search of Castaway (starring the Haley Mills, daughter of the lead actor in this production).

The story opens, as all good noir should, on a dark and stormy night, where we meet Jim Ackland, John Mills, who would become one of England’s most beloved performers (and who died at the ripe old age of 97 in 2005).  He is a passenger on a perilous bus ride, where we see him tying some knots in his handkerchief to create a make-ship bunny puppet to cheer the mood of the young child (played by his own real-life daughter and future star Juliet Mills) who shares his seat on the bus. A palpable sense of tension is created intercut shots of a bolt coming loose on the wheels of the bus. Suddenly, just as we hear the mournful whistle of a train passing by a set of tracks adjacent to the road, the bus wrecks.

Cut to a year later, at a hospital, where we learn the child died that night, and that Ackland received a traumatic skull/brain injury from which he is now recovering well enough to leave and get back to work. He shared with his doctor (Felix Aylmer) his plans live in London at a hotel and get back to work as an industrial chemist, and maybe even find a wife and settle down.  He also expresses his sense of guilt for the child’s death, despite the doctor’s confirmation that the child’s family (and his old friends, apparently) do not hold him to blame.

The doctor has reservations about his health, but can see no reason to keep him on, though in confidence with the insurance claims manager, he admits concerns that of faced with excessive hardship, his fragile emotional state could lead him to suicidal thoughts.  This bit of foreshadowing and setting up of the stakes is all handled efficiently, though not necessarily as dramatically as it might be.  There is a lot of such expositional dialogue in the film, but generally the pace stays moving well enough.

At the inn, we are introduced to all the players in the drama to come, while watching Ackland being led to his room by the manager, Miss Selby (Catherine Lacey). The drafty old building with its twisted staircase and dimly lit corridors is a perfect setting for the dark tale that follows. Like the plot, it is beautifully laden with shadow and ambiance.

There is Miss Heap, a dotty old lady lodger played by Esme Beringer, and the gossipy Mrs. Vinton (Joyce Carey).  In the room below Ackland’s is Mr. Peachy (Edward Chapman), a retired businessman who Miss Selby suggests is very rich.  and in the room next to Ackland is Molly Newman, a troubled but beautiful woman played by Kay Walsh.

Finally left to himself in his room, Ackland opens a window, only to hear a train whistle, and experience a frightening flashback to the accident.  In that moment of anxiety, he unconsciously ties his hankerchief into knots, recreating the bunny- before a symbol of charm, not a sign of his tangled inner turmoil of regret and sorrow.

The next day introduces Ackland to his new job and Harry Corden (Patrick Holt), a coworker who he readily befriends, and who eventually invites him to a party to meet his family.

Before that meeting though, there is a seemingly innocent encounter with Molly Newman after a fuse goes out in the hotel and he helps to replace it for her.  they share a drink in her room, and she expresses how much nicer he is than Peachy, whom she discloses has previously made passes at her when invited in.

Title in the dialogue moment: Molly has an interest in horoscopes, and, discovering Ackland to be an “October Man,” reads his horoscope to him. “Libra- that means the scales.  October people are affable, suave, dapper, and have a sense of beauty.  The October people love gaiety, friends, and all the good things.  Above all, they love life.”

He laughs at this decription. “affable and suave, eh?”

“Well, you love life don’t you?” she insists.

“Doesn’t everybody?”

“No, not everybody,” she replies sadly. She is in love with a married man, whose wife won’t give him a divorce.

Peachy witnesses them parting in the hall, and seeing him there, Molly uses the moment to try to ward off his advances by planting a kiss on Ackland. Peachy clearly is bothered by this.  By Ackland takes it as merely an awkwardly over-friendly greeting.

Instead, upon finally Cordon’s family, in particular his beautiful younger sister Jenny (Joan Greenwood), Ackland is quickly and mutually smitten, and that relationship quickly grows into an intensely warm romance.  Something hold him back from committing to a deeper level though - he feels his mental history would unfairly burden her if they married.

But more trouble than this is brewing for them. Molly comes again to Ackland for some financial help, and, being a soft touch, he writes her a check. Unfortunately she never lives to cash it, but instead is found strangled out on the commons.  “It must have been a lunatic,” opines one resident of the inn.  And when the other residents pick up the rumor of Ackland’s hospital time, they have a suspect, confirmed in their minds by the discovery of Ackland’s check at the scene of the crime.

The police seem to agree with this conclusion, and Peachy feeds this belief with the insertion of malicious disinformation into the investigation. Initially his remarks seems less than sinister, but merely inquisitive or investigative but is it just a clever cover-up for someone else?

Even Ackland is unsure of his own innocence. He remember being out in the general area for a walk that night but little else.  His nightly walk back from work takes him over a bridge that crosses the railroad, just as a train is coming through.  That ghostly whistle haunts him with recollection of the accident, and we see him watching as the train passes below, and the smoke and steam envelope him, a fitting metaphor for the the cloud of uncertainty about his own memories. This evocative depiction of the terror that comes when  you can no longer rely upon the accuracy of your own memories is potent, but perhaps under-explored in the film.

His uncertainty about his own wherabouts, in addition to his medical history and a misunderstood moment involving his compulsive hanky-tying habit, does nothing to help his cause with the law. Complicating Ackland’s problems is the arrival of Molly’s lover, Wilcox (Jack Melford) who at first behaves like a suspect, then treats Ackland like one, ambushing him and beating him up, then driving off.  Finally, Ackland has had enough of these accusations and wrongful suspicions, and resolves to find the real killer and clear himself.

His whole demeanor changes during this time, and he is no longer the kindly, generous October man, but a man on a mission, with little time for niceties or proper channels.  He abuses and berates his potential suspects and witnesses, beginning with returning Wilcox’s violence to him in kind.  His search gets on wrong track frequently, but he presses on, convinced at last of his innocence but grasping to find the proof he needs.  The chase builds up dramatically, but after a startling encounter with Peachy, in which he remorselessly admits his guilt to Ackland, knowing he’s got no evidence to prove it to police, Ackland gives up on the solution, and decides he must turns himself in to the hospital for help.

Joan Greenwood’s character is unfortunately given all too little to do during all this but sit and wait for the vindication of her man to happen. This is boring dramatically. She does have one useful moment in the plot, that is a climactic event on his road to emotional recovery, when, in despaor, Ackland finds himself at the bridge again, thinking clearly of throwing himself over into the path of the oncoming train, only to be spotted by and prevented by the cries of the girl.  Not enough is done to build up to the moment for her character, so it seems a bit contrived for dramatic effect.

The most dramatic moments are in the opening sequence, and the scene of the murder is atmospheric enough, but despite an interesting and intricately arranged plot, the film lacks lacks largely in the kind of dramatic tension  acheived so well in the beginning.
Still, with its depictions of shadowy, furtive encounters, its psychological themes, and its excellent performances, this is still a film worth viewing for a lover of all things noir.

** out of 5

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