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Having been stuck in the house on a cold winter afternoon I switched on Channel 4 to view their afternoon film Town on Trial and am I glad I did This is a hidden gem of a movie. It will keep you guessing right up to the end who the murderer is. Try and spot Dandy Nichols in a bit part(this is what I love about these old fifties films,spotting actors who go on to greater things) If you can get a copy to rent you will not be disappointed. I give it nine out of ten
I come out somewhere between these two last verdicts. The plot had more holes than a chunk of gruyere, motivations I'd agree were distinctly shaky, and chemistry between Mills and Barbara Bates as the girl he falls for was notably lacking. (Love scenes have never exactly been Johnny Mills's forte, have they?) But as so often with British films of this vintage, the portrayal of a particular era and social milieu is fascinating, and the supporting performances include some gems. I liked Derek Farr's increasingly sweaty reactions as the bogus ex-officer running the social club as his own little harem; initially loathsome, but gradually becoming a pitiable figure as his carefully-constructed social persona crumbles about his ears. And Elizabeth Seal turns in a tour de force as the respectable mayor's daughter going determinedly to the bad. Her spirited, bottom-wiggling solo dance at the club was utterly wonderful.
The main reason to watch this movie now, for me - and I guess most - is
for John Mills, as the firm but fair Scotland Yard Inspector Detective,
who has to solve a couple of murders of young women in a sleepy Home
Counties town in England.
It's all about the rather sermonising 1950's "respectable" folk who wag their fingers at a local beauty - a Marilyn Monroe (sort of) lookalike who carries on with married men and flaunts her curvy figure at the local snobbish Sports Club, the elitism of which extends beyond their usual, especially as the membership secretary is a fan of hers....
One night, she is strangled and of course, a whole array of the obvious candidates spring up, some red herrings and some real. Charles Coburn as a disgraced GP and Derek Farr who has more business fingers in more pies than are reasonable are two of the more recognisable stars that come under the Inspector's radar.
The film is well enough made, the story complex enough to satisfy the average amateur sleuth and John Mills is sturdy, even if his 'romance' with one of the deceased young friends is both awkward and frankly, ridiculous. There's also a pretty meaty and suspenseful ending, that Hitchcock himself might have come up with.
The calm of prosperous Oakley Park is shattered when a local woman is
murdered. A Scotland Yard detective is called in to solve the case. He
unmasks the murderer but not before another woman is killed.
This picture contains some of the stock characters we see in many thrillers; the woman killed just because she is sexually attractive, the detective who gets results by breaking the rules and a community of outwardly respectable people who all have their dirty little secrets. These elements could have resulted in a predictable formulaic thriller but "Town on Trial" is lifted onto a higher class by the writing, direction and acting.
The acting is consistently good from the bit part players up to the stars. The two outstanding performances are given by Alec McCowen as a suspect and John Mills as the detective.
I would recommend this film to any viewer.
"Town on Trial" is the kind of film that is simply not made these days.
I imagine it is the sort of thing that formed part of the staple
repertoire of B-movies that were shown in cinemas in the days when
filmgoers were treated to an appetiser before the main feature was
aired. Such films were usually unpretentious, workmanlike dramas that
provided solid but unmemorable entertainment to get patrons in the mood
for the (hopefully) more sophisticated fare that was to follow. "Town
on Trial" is a good example of that kind of film.
The plot concerns the investigation into the murder of a femme fatale in the commuter-belt town of Oakley Park in what I assume is meant to be southern England of the 1950s. The investigation is undertaken by Superintendent Halloran (John Mills), who becomes romantically involved with the niece of the town's GP. A further murder takes place before Superintendent Halloran solves the case.
Any critical analysis of a film such as this is largely superfluous. "Town on Trial" knows exactly what it is doing - and delivers a solidly entertaining mystery that has the air of an early forerunner of an episode of the current British TV series "Midsomer Murders". The cast includes an impressive array of well-known British character actors of the time, such as Raymond Huntley, Derek Farr, Fay Compton, Harry Fowler, Geoffrey Keen, Margaretta Scott and the wonderfully-named Totti Truman Taylor. It is competently directed and scripted and, while it will not live long in the memory, provides 90 minutes or so of undemanding entertainment. 6/10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I watched this on television many a moon ago as a young teenager and
I'm now over 60. I really liked this movie and would love to see it
again. Since I like British movies of the '40s-early '60s I probably
wouldn't be too disappointed seeing it again. I especially like
thrillers, suspense, and mysteries. I thought the way they
fingerprinted every male in town trying to find the killer was great (I
read somewhere that that was used in a real case). Also the notes found
with Ezekiel 23:5 "And Aholah played the harlot when she was mine; and
she doted on her lovers, on the Assyrians her neighbours . . ." because
of the first victim's reputation and the author's opinion of women in
general had me running to a Bible and I actually memorized it.
The young man climbing the church tower/belfry (or some high precipice) when he felt cornered really had me hold my breath.
This is all from memory, mind you. It hasn't even been shown on television here in the States in years. I lived in the Los Angeles area when I did see it.
I really really wish it would be made available in a Region 1 DVD though at this point I'd probably take any format and any region I could get!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Scotland Yard's Detective Superintendent Hollarin (John Mills) arrives
in the small town of Oakley Park to investigate the murder of a young
girl called Molly Stevens who was found strangled with a stocking in
the grounds of an upmarket tennis club. Virtually the entire town falls
under suspicion including her former boyfriend Peter Crowley (Alec
McCowen) whom she deserted in favour of the club secretary Mark Roper
(Derek Farr) who also had a reason for wanting her dead since he is a
married man and he also got her pregnant. If that had come out he would
have lost his job. The town's physician, Dr Fenner (Charles Coburn), is
being blackmailed by Roper who knows that he left his practice in
Canada when a wrong diagnosis resulted in one of his patients dying and
his niece, Elizabeth (Barbara Bates), agreed to give Roper a false
alibi in order to protect her uncle. In addition, the prominent Dixon
family's daughter Fiona (Elizabeth Seal) was very friendly with Molly:
they used to frequent a dubious nightclub which is facing an illegal
gambling charge, get drunk and go joy riding with boys. This angered
her father, Charles (Geoffrey Keen), who is a town councillor and is
earmarked to become Oakley Park's Mayor and did not like the thought of
his daughter keeping that kind of company. The police gradually close
in on the murderer, but not before Fiona is killed while a dance is
taking place at the club...
As a straightforward murder mystery it is something of a let down because the identity of the killer is fairly obvious by about half way into the film's running time. Shame on the screenwriters Ken Hughes and Robert Westerby! Nevertheless, this mysteriously obscure little film is still well worth the watch thanks to strong realistic characterisations, vigorous direction by John Guillermin in what must have been one of his first 'A' features and excellent acting all round.
John Mills offers a career best performance as the tough, dogged police superintendent who never plays by the rules and quite often finding himself in hot water with his superiors and the townsfolk who do not like his sometimes unorthodox methods and, above all, resent an outsider meddling in their affairs. Derek Farr, a familiar face of British cinema at that time, also stands out playing the dishonest and thoroughly dislikeable club secretary Mark Roper. In addition to his cheating on his wife and blackmailing the local doctor, he also lies about his war service in the RAF claiming to have been a distinguished fighter pilot yet Mills discovers he was only a lowly member of the ground crew who was dishonorably discharged for theft. There is an extremely effective scene where the Superintendent confronts him about this in quite an aggressive manner and we learn that the reason for his anger towards Roper was that his wife and child were killed during an air raid. And when he attempted to volunteer for the RAF himself, he was turned down and he resents anyone who lies about their war service like he did.
The sense of small town distrust of outsiders is well conveyed and Guillermin opted to shoot the film in Weybridge, Surrey, England, which serves the plot very well. Basil Emmott, a lighting cameraman of prolific output whose work helped lift numerous 'B' pictures above the average, heightens the strong sense of place and the mysteriousness with his rich black and white camera-work. The suspense reaches fever pitch at the climax where Mills climbs up the steeple of a church to confront his killer who is threatening to commit suicide from throwing himself off the roof. The murder scenes are also very well done and are sufficient to send a chill down the spine even though the composer, Tristram Carey, opted to play a harpsichord over them predating the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films by a few years.
When "Town on Trial" begins, you hear the voice of the murderer before
he commits the crime! You see him looking at pretty Molly at the
country club...and you hear him saying how she has it coming because
she's one of THOSE sort of girls! Well, Molly certainly was pretty and
liked to show off her figure...and the sicko thought this meant he was
entitled to kill her!!
Police Superintendent Halloran (John Mills) is assigned to the case. And, unfortunately, it's not a quick and easy case to solve...and some of it is because the rich folks he questions sometimes have a strong sense of entitlement. In fact, the more he investigates, the more these folks put pressure on his superiors to take him off the case! What's to come of this?
This is a very good film. Sure, the story is good but the reason I liked it was the very fine acting of Mills. He was a heck of a good actor and made even average material well above average. Well worth your time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although there were a number of British films noirs, few of these are
well-known today. Robert Hamer, for example, is justly remembered for
his blackly comic masterpiece "Kind Hearts and Coronets", but less so
for his two great noirs, "It Always Rains on Sunday" and "The Long
Memory". Carol Reed's celebrated trilogy of "Odd Man Out", "The Third
Man" and "The Man Between" may be an exception, but it is notable that
although these films were made by a British director none of them were
actually set in mainland Britain.
"Town on Trial" is another British noir which has largely been forgotten. We normally associate film noir with the mean streets of American cities, often Los Angeles, and British examples tended to be set in working-class areas. "It Always Rains on Sunday", for example, was set in London's East End and "The Long Memory" in the back streets of Gravesend. Some later examples, such as "Tread Softly Stranger", also contained elements of kitchen-sink realism. This one, however, is set in a respectable Home Counties commuter town, Oakley Park. A young woman named Molly Stevens is found murdered and Superintendent Mike Halloran, a Scotland Yard detective, is sent to investigate.
Halloran's problem is that he has too many suspects. Molly, a sexy good- time girl, had a long list of enemies, mostly men whom she has flirted with and then rejected, or women jealous of the attentions paid to her by their husbands or boyfriends. Three men, however, fall under particular suspicion, namely Peter Crowley, a former boyfriend of Molly, Mark Roper, a married man who was having an affair with Molly and was the father of her unborn child, and John Fenner, the sinister Canadian- born local doctor. (Charles Coburn was cast in the role, possibly because he had earlier played a sinister doctor in "King's Row").
Despite the title, this is not a courtroom drama. The town is "on trial" in the sense that the investigations into the murder reveal some unpleasant secrets which the predominantly middle-class townspeople, who believe firmly in keeping up appearances and in not washing dirty laundry in public, would prefer to keep hidden. The prominent Dixon family try to hush up the wild behaviour of their daughter, even though she is not a suspect in the murder. Dr. Fenner is revealed to have left Canada under a cloud when a misdiagnosis led to a patient's death. The wealthy and outwardly respectable Roper, the secretary of the posh local tennis club of which Molly was also a member, has several skeletons in his cupboard, quite apart from his extramarital affair. He is heavily in debt and is revealed to have lied about his war record to cover up a dishonourable discharge for embezzlement.
Adding to the complexity of the situation is a growing romance between Halloran and Elizabeth, a beautiful nurse who is also Fenner's niece- and who might also be lying to protect her uncle. Elizabeth is played by Barbara Bates, a former Hollywood starlet (today best remembered for her small but important role in "All about Eve") who was trying to revive her once-promising career in Britain. This sub-plot seems like an unnecessary distraction. As another reviewer has pointed out, John Mills was never at his best in romantic roles, particularly as he was 49 in 1957, nearly two decades older than Bates.
Another weakness is that the killer's motives remain ambiguous. Even when his identity is revealed it is never made clear whether he killed Molly because of a personal grudge- he was one of her rejected lovers- or because of a fanatical religious Puritanism. (He goes on to kill another young woman who he considers to be acting in a sexually provocative manner).
The film also, however, has its strengths. In his role as a detective, as opposed to his role as a lover, Mills's performance is a perfectly good one, and he receives good support from some of the other cast members, notably Derek Farr as the sleazy Roper. There is a brilliant cliff-hanging finale on the church steeple, a scene in which director John Guillermin clearly reveals the influence of Alfred Hitchcock, who also liked setting cliff-hangers on prominent buildings or structures, such as the Forth Bridge scene in "The 39 Steps". "Town on Trial" still holds interest today as an exposé of the dark underside of 1950s middle- class respectability. 7/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With lust in their eyes,a group of men watch a nubile(not to say pleasingly plump) blonde playing genteel and wholesomely sexy tennis. Each of these will,in turn,be suspects when the unfortunate young woman gets murdered and Dept Supt Halloran from Scotland Yard - pause for a quick intake of breath - gets called in on the case. Messrs Derek Farr,Alec McCowen and Charles Coburn come immediately under his gaze,a Battle of Britain hero,a teenager(that alone was a crime in 1957 - believe me)and a doctor on the run from some sort of malpractice suit in Canada who has brought his niece along for company and so she can provide a little love interest for Supt Halloran. And here we have "Town on trial"'s greatest(and it has a few) weakness. No matter how much he leers,shouts and menaces,Mr John Mills is totally unconvincing as a tough Scotland Yard detective.He cajoles,he threatens,he lies,even,but he just doesn't cut it. Coppers in 1957 were big,bluff,Brylcreem tonsured men with broken noses and fists like hams who had cut their teeth on mean streets and didn't take any sh*t from anybody - indeed they were seldom offered it in a milieu where both sides of the law knew exactly where they stood. You murdered someone - you risked the rope.Halloran's suspects would all have known that. The thin veneer of respectability is stripped under the basilisk - like eye of Supt Halloran and eventually he gets his man,but not before another murder occurs. Tennis Club morals are vilified and the local teenage hangout,"The Hotspot"(it would probably be called "The 'G' Spot" nowadays) is shown as a den of mildly inappropriate behaviour("It's a rock and roll joint" says Harry Lock,amusing as a sartorially challenged detective). If you're in your seventies and want to remember when you wore a high - necked pullover and a tie to repair your motor - cycle and helmets were for Geoff Duke,you might find "Town on trial" diverting. If not it's a bit of social history that might be amusing.
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