British Noir about Sadistic Psychiatrist Holding a Man Captive
This film is based on a novel ('A Man about a Dog') by Alec Coppel, who wrote Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'. This story is far creepier and more sinister than that one. Robert Newton, who the previous year had entranced people as Bill Sikes in 'Oliver Twist', and who was to be cursed with the role of Long John Silver the next year, from which he would struggle to escape for the rest of his life, here shows what a fine standard British actor he was. He plays a highly articulate and urbane London psychiatrist who beneath his mask is actually an obsessive and sadistic psychopath. Anyone who thinks psychiatrists cannot be more mentally ill than their patients is naive: I have known two psychiatrists personally (no, I was not a patient) who were totally insane. It is a good place to hide when you are psychotic, as no one can question you. Newton is perfect in this part, and his calm never leaves him till the end, as he carries out his odious plans with the unruffled manner of a cleaner dusting a bookshelf (and he has plenty of bookshelves). Newton is married to a compulsively unfaithful wife, played with style by the glamorous Sally Gray (who made one more film the next year and then became Lady Oranmore and retired from the screen). One day he snaps, and Phil Brown is the American lover who bears the brunt. As Newton says to him: 'You've heard about the straw that broke the camel's back? Well, you're the straw.' With meticulous cunning, Newton imprisons Brown in a cellar on a deserted bombsite (this is just after the War, and bombsites were everywhere in London). He holds him for months, and Brown very cleverly creates a character who attempts to bond with his captor, in the hope that he can somehow escape. Brown is kept chain within a chalked circle of his subterranean den, and Newton stands just at the edge of it and lectures Brown about how each time he comes he brings a hot water bottle full of yet more acid with which he is slowly filling the bath tub into which he will place Brown's body when it comes time to kill him, where it will dissolve. 'So I'll just go down the plug?' asks Brown, and Newton solemnly agrees. This film is really nasty and does not let up in showing us the calculating manner in which a psychopath goes about his carefully coordinated crime plan. Ed Dmytryk directs chillingly and tautly, and surprisingly the music is by Nino Rota of Italy, who later would become famous for composing the music for major Italian directors like Visconti and Fellini. Naunton Wayne plays a Scotland yard superintendent with a calm and menace which exceeds even that of Newton's. This film in a sense is a study in the mannered British way of behaving, and the politenesses exchanged between a criminal and a detective who are enemies, as well as between a husband and a wife who loathe each other but for some reason never split up, living on in their elegant house with no children but the dog Monty, played by a real dog called Monty. And here is the rub: Monty messes things up in a major way, but that would be telling. For those who can bear the extremely grisly and claustrophobic aspects of this sick tale, which was a forerunner of 'The Collector' with Samantha Eggar, this film could be recommended as good noir fare. But it is not pleasant, and it lacks the surreal and haunting quality of 'Vertigo' entirely. It is certainly a savage comment on the arch hypocrisy of traditional upper middle class British manners, and all that they can conceal, such as 'something nasty in the shed'.
- Nov 13, 2008
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