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
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