Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Only remarkable because of two Hammer firsts

Man Bait (aka "The Last Page") (1952)
Starring: George Brent, Diana Dors, Marguerite Chapman, Peter Reynolds, Raymond Huntley, and Meridith Edwards
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a lazy bookstore employee (Dors) and a psychopathic career criminal (Reynolds) set out to blackmail her married manager, his refusal to submit leads to murder.

"Man-Bait" is a rambling crime drama that is probably more true to life than most films of this type--the criminal element are dumb as rocks and their "brilliant" scheme of first blackmail and then murder is so badly conceived that the movie only lasts as long as it does because of characters who either panic because they think they are going to be the ones blamed for murder, or who play detective and put themselves in major peril. If the mostly law-abiding citizens had turned the police when it had been the smart thing to do, the film would have been over in 20 minutes.

Although the film's story is incredibly forced and populated by dunderheads, the actors give it their all, as does director Terence Fisher, in what was the first film in what would be a 20+-year association with the company. Although George Brent is still pretty bland, he is more lively here than I've ever seen him before, while the scenes involving Peter Reynolds as he sets out to do violence to the beautiful Diana Dors and Marguerite Chapman are excellent and suspenseful high points for the film that are as good as anything Fisher did in later and far better films.

While this was Fisher's first film for Hammer, it was also the first of a dozen co-productions between Hammer Films and American B-movie producer Robert Lippert; before Hammer hit it big with Peter Cushing and Technicolor horror, they were creating quite a little niche for themselves with low-budget mysteries and film noir dramas. This first collaboration is one of the weaker films that would result from the union, but it's a far sight better than some of Lippert's other films, such as sci-fi misfires "Lost Continent" and "Unknown World". Also, while all the Lippert/Hammer productions are very British in nature, this is perhaps the one that is most strongly so, with the flavor of the bookstore where much of the action takes place, the characters both inside and outside the store where they work, and the setting of a London still recovering from WW2 blitzes all bringing a strong atmosphere to this picture that I've not often seen in this genre.

Still, this is a film that is really primarily of interest to the hardest of the hardcore Anglophiles or fans of film noir, as well as those with a strong interest in the works of Terence Fisher, one or more of the features performers, or the history of Hammer Films. It's not a bad movie, but it's also not as good as many of those that would follow.