The Dark Road (1948) is a crudely made, but never the less amusing title which emerges from the film-fossil grounds of late 40's and early 50's British cinema as a potential cult item. It tells the sad story of a life, the undistinguished criminal career of one Sidney Robertson, burglar and jewel thief. Sid is very much on the lower rungs of the underworld, and for the most part a bungler, who makes the most of the confusions and upheaval of post war England to make what he thinks is an easy life for himself. We see his life over three periods. First, his initial theft from his guardian and early housebreaking efforts, interrupted by a spell in approved school. Then his career as a burglar and involvement with Pearl, a photographer's assistant in Blackpool; finally his escape from Dartmoor and eventual teaming up with Anne (`If you ever need a partner-in-crime then you know who to ask') to fleece the patrons of a prestigious night club. This history is told by an American newspaper man to his editor, in an attempt to find a suitable 'English story' to file that week.
It's a moral scheme, made amusing today thorough the ineptness of the staging and script. The journey of an exemplum is familiar from such works as Hogarth's 18th century series of engravings 'The Rake's Progress'. Closer to home, this viewer is reminded of another minor cult item, Cosh Boy (1952), where the moral turpitude of the chief protagonists leads to inevitable retribution by society. But Charles Stuart, playing Sidney in The Dark Road, has none of the whining dynamism of Roy, Cosh Boy's notorious thug. In fact, for most of the film, his impact as an actor is non-existent. He gives an apologetic performance - which probably explains why this cheap production marked his only screen appearance. More of an impression is made by the actor as the escaped felon in the last section of the film, at which point he acquires dyed hair and moustache to work a posh night club. With his slicked-back black hair, slimy grin and dark motives, his face incidentally recalls that of a real life criminal, the acid bath murderer John George Haigh. Haigh was hung in the fifties after a murderous spree on the South Coast of England, in which he picked up his wealthy female victims in hotels, killed them and pawned their property. (Sidney at one point is also seen preying in a hotel).
Director Alfred Goulding is a minor figure, whose best film was perhaps with Laurel and Hardy, with the spoof A Chump at Oxford (1940). In The Dark Road, he makes some peculiar decisions on set ups, such as shooting the first period in Sidney's criminal career without ever showing more than the back of his hero's head. This stratagem certainly creates suspense, but being then abruptly abandoned as a narrative device it reveals neither rhyme nor reason. The first time we really see Sidney he is being interviewed by a prospective employer, some minutes in. This is actually one of the better scenes in the film, as Sidney's insincere smarminess suits things well, and he is seen in apt long shot, one hand grasping a wrist as if anticipating handcuffs to come. Another effective moment occurs at the moment of his first arrest: Sidney returns to a property already burgled, despite the warning of his first partner in crime (played by a splendidly seedy Michael Ripper, who went on to some memorable supporting roles with Hammer). The crook's torch beam flutters round the dark house, picking out likely valuables. Suddenly just the heads of two policemen are spotlighted in the gloom peering back at the crook - a surreal moment which would not be out of place in Hitchcock. Unfortunately, such visual imagination rarely occurs again.
Besides the primitive plot mechanics and weaknesses in the central performance, a further disasterous element is the film's framing device, in which patently English actors mug along as 'American' newspaper staff, unconvincingly held spellbound by the unfolding yarn. The narrator's voice is particularly unfortunate. It veers uncertainly from American patois to vaguely Irish accent, then back to wholesome English vowels and enunciation - often within the space of a few words. Introduced by some clumsy over dubbing in several key scenes, his contribution has little to offer but a needlessly doom-laden interpretation of events, or a heavy handed explanation of what viewers could quite easily hear and see for themselves. One imagines that this narrative interpolation was introduced to make the film more marketable to a transatlantic audience, although whether The Dark Road ever showed overseas is doubtful. Whatever the reason, today the bathetic effect of it all can make the modern viewer laugh out loud.
Curiously, there are strengths to be found even in such a clumsy production. Besides providing incidental entertainment to modern audiences familiar with camp and exploitation, The Dark Road can be affecting because of, or despite of, itself. Stuart's performance is so self effacing that it acquires, by default, a naturalistic manner vaguely anticipatory of Bresson. This is an impression reinforced during the crook's escape from Dartmoor, particularly in the light of A Man Escaped (1957). Apart from the plod of his jailer's boots, Sidney concentrates in silence as he painstakingly constructs a unique device for unlocking his cell door, before using ARP ropes to clamber down roofs and walls to freedom. This is a long sequence which 'works' because Sidney, though weak, is so intense in his singlemindedness that he forces our concentration. Because of budgetary constraints, Goulding's film has a frequent sparseness which accidentally works in its favour, a pared down look which strips out the distracting comforts of ordinary life.
The Dark Road is not a long one, and the relative brevity of the film, as well as the paucity of production values, strongly suggests that it was conceived along 'quota quickie' lines (one of the UK government's ill-conceived plans to obligate home production.) It survives today as fascinating flop, and its rudimentary attempt to depict the petty criminal in bourgeois terms is both amusing and revealing. Those who remember the 'Scotland Yard' series of short films which started a few years later, and which occasionally still air on UK TV, will want to seek this out as it certainly surpasses that in entertainment.
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