Wednesday, November 2, 2016

They Met in the Dark (1943)

** out of 5

This so-called "British Noir" seems in many ways to be an attempt to recreate the formula so well executed by Hitchcock's 39 Steps (1935), minus the pivotal pair of handcuffs that so prominently figured in that film.  James Mason plays a ship's commander who is accused wrongly of espionage for vital strategic information that is being leaked, apparently from his own crew or someone within his circle.  He seeks to track the source of the leak by first hunting down a manicurist named Mary (Patricia Medina), whose last name, for all the screen time she gets, might as well be MacGuffin.  She turns up dead, and he must continue pursuing a long and tangential trail of clues to find the spies.  In the course of his search, he continually encounters an inquisitive Canadian girl, Laura Verity (Joyce Howard), who throughout the tale alternates between suspecting him, helping him, and needing to be saved by him.  He is also aided by his mate, Mansel, played with hardy good humor by Edward Rigby.

The film, directed by the Austria-Hungarian Carl Lamac, is a bit disjointed, with a lot of people running around with very little explanation for why. It comes off as a series of situations in search of a plot.  Future Hammer director Terence Fisher is credited as an editor on the film, and no doubt he had his work cut out for him (heh heh).  The plot mainly follows Mason' character, but oddly switched focus about 45 minutes in, first to follow Joyce Howard as she does her own investigating, then, even less logically, to spoil for us exactly who the villains are, by revealing them as they are in the process of pumping one of Mason's crew for yet more information they can funnel to the enemies at sea.

Beyond the theme of the Wrongly Accused Man, and the central plot of the uneasy relationship he has with the girl in the tale, this film has other admittedly superficial similarities with the 39 Steps. There is a suspicious mind reader, known in the film as The Great Ricardo;  initially, he is played more as a fool, but is revealed to be in on the plot, along with the manager of a local talent agency, who uses his clients' various skill sets in the service of espionage-  a hypnotist, a magician, and even, somewhat unusually, a harmonica who performs in a code that is somewhat too easily cracked by the loyal members of Mason's crew who come to his aid in tracking the spies.

This film came out early in the noir cycle, and from Britain, beside, so the elements that distinguish the genre are not heavily featured here.  It begins darkly enough with Mason's court-martial, but he never is less than upright in his actions, and though there are a couple of characters that could easily have been written as femme fatales, there is little of that sort of thing here either.  The most noir it gets is that Mason has been unjustly accused of a crime, and must spend the film's runtime getting out from under the shadow of that judgement.  That is not to say it is unentertaining, just more as a spy mystery than as a noir.

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