Man Bait (1952)
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John Harman (Brent) is a London bookshop manager who finds himself blackmailed by his busty young assistant, Ruby Bruce (Dors), and her new ex-convict beau Jeffrey Hart (Reynolds), when he foolishly steals in for a kiss during after hours stock taking.
British Hammer and American Exclusive teamed up to produce a number of low budget crime dramas in the early 1950s, often using American stars and directors blended in with British actors, they were produced in Britain in next to no time. The Last Page is a safe viewing for the undemanding film noir fan. Terence Fisher would become a legend amongst British horror fans (rightly so) for his work on Hammer's reinvention of the Universal Creature Features. Here he crafts a nifty atmospheric melodrama without fuss or filler, while just about managing to stop the flaws and daftness of plotting from sinking the picture.
Story has some interesting noirish characters and themes. The man who begins to pay for a moment of weakness, the young shapely gal in over her head-lured to the dark half by a well spoken criminal element, while some secret passions amongst the staff of this particular bookstore come to the fore once things inevitably go pear shaped. The setting is a doozy as well, this bookstore is perfectly antiquated, so much so you can smell the leather bound novels nestling on the shelves. Walter Harvey's (The Quatermass Experiment) photography ensures that shadows feature throughout, and there's the odd macabre touch that befits the writing of Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder/Wait Until Dark).
Cast are professional to the last. Brent (The Spiral Staircase) and Huntley (I See a Dark Stranger/Night Train to Munich) are the epitome of gentlemen in a rut, stoic and stiff, grumpy yet gritty, but nicely portraying men we expect to appear in a bookstore noir. Chapman (Coroner Creek) has an abundance of hard looking sexuality and Reynolds has a spiv nastiness about him, very cold but charming. But it's Dors who holds all the aces, she would impress herself upon many a red blooded male during three decades of British film and TV. Here at aged 21, as Ruby, she's a curvy blonde babe with full lips, a gal who understandably turns the heads. The character is tardy as well, hardly a crime, but mostly in Dors' hands she's believable as a girl clearly out of her depth, she's not a femme fatale, she's a weak willed person hurtling towards film noir doom. It's here where this British B noir gets its worth.
It's not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a good one considering the modest budget afforded it. There's dumb decisions made by characters, holes of plotting and the ending fails to seal the deal after the hard noirish mood eked out by Fisher, Harvey and Dors. However, as film noir time fillers go, it's well worth checking out. 6.5/10
The proprietor of this bookstore is, of all people, George Brent. He had a long career. Though this is a noir of sorts and I therefore can't give it a bad rating, let's just say this is hardly a career highlight for him.
Marguerite Chapman is attractive and convincing as his employee. She's stylish and pretty and comes off as nice.
This is an early Diana Dors film. She's decent in it. She gets pulled into some very bad behavior. But she's not a truly terrible character. She's chronically late to work and weak willed.
This isn't a memorable or distinguished film. But it isn't terrible, either. Nor does it hold to any formula. It's mediocre in a unique way.
None of the films are of the front rank, being issued originally on the bottom half of double bills. Hammer may not have established itself as a memorable producer of noir on the basis of this transatlantic deal, but the results have been unfairly neglected (being the basis of only a passing reference in the official history of the studio for instance).
Criticism of the films, apart from focusing on their small budgets and hand-me-down leads, has generally dwelt on the success or otherwise of transplanting an American hardboiled genre into a different soil. Certainly the first of those made under the new arrangement The Last Page (aka: Man Bait, 1952) is example. Far too genteel to be successful as more than a mildly suspenseful thriller, its impact is further affected by the unassuming performance of lead George Brent - an actor whom Betty Davies apparently liked as a partner on screen as it was so easy to steal the picture from him! Brent plays the manager of a bookshop, hardly the first choice for a thriller/ noir setting (although one makes a memorable appearance in The Big Sleep) who is blackmailed by the bad blonde of the title - no less than Diana Dors, an early screen role. It was an early credit too for one of Hammer's best directors Terence Fisher, though again this critic, at least, thinks he remains a minor talent. Like practically all the Hammer films in this series, the title was changed for the American market and 'Man Bait' certainly sounds more the job for the pulp world that the films inhabit. It also places Dors firmly at the centre of this film with a fine sense of atmosphere - having worked in the book trade for some years I found the dated interiors and procedures especially fascinating - while some other, equally effective location shooting amidst a now-lost London adds to the charm.
Brent is the manager of a bookstore who has an invalid wife played by Isabel Dean. Clearly Brent is not having an itch scratched and when Diana Dors gives him that come hither glance who could blame the guy. But before the film is over Dean and Dors are both dead, Dors by an accidental strangulation and Brent is looking good for it.
Fortunately Brent's fellow American Marguerite Chapman also works in this Peyton Place of a bookstore. She helps clear Brent and in turn gets her life saved in the climax.
Nothing special about Man Bait unless you like full figured gals and they don't come more full figure than Diana Dors.
Plot hole #2--Soon after they meet, although it's OBVIOUS he's a no-good ex-con, she agrees to a blackmailing scheme with him.
Plot hole #3--When the blackmail of her boss is attempted by this female employee, the boss being blackmailed threatens to call the police--but doesn't bother to fire the girl nor does he call the cops.
Plot hole #4--When the blackmail is refused, the thief from #1 sends a letter to the boss' wife and she dies as a result. So, does boss fire the lady or call the police now--NOPE!
Plot hole #5--When the lady AGAIN comes to the boss to blackmail him (AFTER the wife is dead), he angrily throws a huge wad of cash at the blackmailing lady--even MORE than she had asked for with the blackmailing attempt!
Plot hole #6--At no point does the boss tell anyone about the blackmail, so when something happens to the blackmailing employee, the boss is an obvious suspect. If he'd only gone to the police or fired her or talked about this problem all this might have been avoided.
Plot hole #7--Although every bit of evidence points to the boss being a murderer, a trusted female employee (not the dead blackmailer) agrees to help him avoid the police and investigate the crime with him. What a cliché! In real life, even if you think the boss is innocent, when an employee knows he's a wanted man they'll call the police.
Plot hole #8--The other female employee blunders into the killer's lair in a completely hair-brained way--and with no plan at all, nor did she have backup or tell anyone she was confronting him.
With all these major problems with the script, there simply was no way that veteran director Fisher or veteran actors George Brent and Marguerite Chapman could pull this one off! The bottom line is that if anyone had bothered to read the script first, they would have no doubt spotted all these holes and probably many more. I wonder if perhaps a chimp was the writer of this film?! As a result, it's frustrating to see a group of accomplished film makers stuck with second-rate tripe--especially Brent who was a very fine actor and did his best with this mess.
This is a pity because you can easily see the potential that MAN BAIT had in wanting to be something of a British noir classic . In fact just reading the plot summary on this page finding himself attracted to a pretty blonde clerk that leads to a plot of blackmail and murder so the bare bones of a good involving thriller are there . However it's the way the story unfolds that is a serious problem and undermines most of the potential . People don't do anything in a logical manner and they don't react to situations that you would recognise as being realistic which means the only thing you'll remember from this film is that it starred Diana Dors when she was a starlet of British cinema and that many of the people behind the scenes went on to make Hammer studios a successful horror film franchise
Horror icon Terence Fisher directed this sordid tale for Hammer. He does a good job of wringing tension out of what is essentially a weak script. There are certainly moments to enjoy, but overall, Man Bait is to uneven to consider it anything other than average at best. For example, the acting of the principles is terrible. Dors is terribly miscast and doesn't come across as the temptress she playing. Even worse is Brent. What a mamby-pamby man! The whole notion of this milk-toast being on the run from the police is hysterical. A complete change in casting would have gone a long way in making Man Bait a much better film.
Brent - who had completely lost his Irish accent by this time which disappointed me slightly if I'm honest! - is no Cary Grant when it comes to charisma but he's quite a good leading man. Only 19 or 20 at the time that the film was made, Diana Dors is extremely good as Ruby Bruce, a sweet, slightly naive girl who falls in with the wrong man which ultimately costs her her life. The film has a good supporting cast, including Raymond Huntley (the best actor in the film, he later appeared in Fisher's "The Mummy"), Peter Reynolds, Meredith Edwards, Marguerite Chapman and Eleanor Summerfield (whose husband Leonard Sachs and son Robin Sachs graced later Hammer films). It has a strong script with some nice surprises and Fisher brings his usual finesse to the project. It's easy to see why Hammer engaged his services so often after this.
Notwithstanding my rewatch of "Dracula" as a tribute to the late, great Sir Christopher Lee last week, this is the first Hammer film that I have watched in about six weeks so it's nice to get back into the saddle with this great little thriller. I tend to view Hammer films as being pre and post The Curse of Frankenstein and this is one of the best of the "pre" films that I have seen, after "X: The Unknown" and Mantrap".
I had a difficult time buying the idea that Brent wouldn't even see past Dors' childish extortion or even get close to her in the first place. His reaction to his own personal tragedy is emotionless and destroys whatever credibility his character had prior to that. The poor writing of this half moves to the opposite side of the spectrum for the finale which utilizes a bombed-out church for Brent's hiding place and a creepy confrontation between Brent's love starved former Army nurse (now his personal assistant) and the villain.