Lovers of vintage English crime thrillers will have a lot to chew over with this pair of escapist gangster pix, one pre-war and one post-. In each an innocent young couple suffers a run-in with a criminal gang. John Mills and Richard Attenborough are the ‘fresh’ new talent on display. The leading lady of Dancing with Crime is Sheila Sim, playing opposite her husband Attenborough. The co-feature The Green Cockatoo sports credits for William Cameron Menzies and Miklós Rózsa.
Dancing with Crime + The Green Cockatoo
Cohen Film Collection / Kino Lorber
1937 & 1947 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 82 + 64 min. / Street Date January 25, 2022 / Available from Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Sheila Sim, Barry Jones; John Mills, René Ray, Robert Newton.
Original Music: Benjamin Frankel, Miklós Rózsa
Directed by John Paddy Carstairs; William Cameron Menzies
The Blu-ray era has given home video devotees great opportunities to catch up with ‘exotic’ genre films from abroad. American TV mostly mostly kept to English ‘classics,’ often edited for time. The audio quality was often poor. We saw almost nothing of Italian and French crime pictures except maybe Rififi, badly dubbed into English and looking poor indeed.
Criterion and Kino Lorber (through Studiocanal, sometimes) have been rectifying this with older English and French genre pictures; vintage Italian crime movies are still less accessible. Sure, I’ve come across a few duds, but numerous ’50s & ’60s Euronoirs like Touchez pau au Grisbi are now favorites, as is the highly recommended English picture Pool of London.
Cohen Film will soon release a double bill of English crime films from early in the cycle: Dancing with Crime + The Green Cockatoo. Variety reviewed both as new in July of 1947 but they were actually made ten years apart. At the time of the release of Dancing with Crime, London critics were decrying new movies with a ‘sordid, unhealthy’ preoccupation with violent crime and underworld schemes, blaming them for a rise in juvenile delinquency. Released in London around the same time was Cavalcanti’s ‘quality’ (mainstream) crime thriller They Made Me a Fugitive with Trevor Howard, and a little later, the notorious censor-target No Orchids for Miss Blandish. But both Dancing with Crime and the earlier The Green Cockatoo are light, even slightly frothy crime/suspense stories; coincidentally, each film revolves around a fancy nightclub setting.
London critics were decrying new movies with a ‘sordid, unhealthy’ preoccupation with violent crime and underworld schemes, blaming them for a rise in juvenile delinquency. Released in London around the same time was the ‘quality’ crime thriller They Made Me a Fugitive with Trevor Howard, and a little later, the notorious censor-target No Orchids for Miss Blandish. In the immediate postwar years many Brit crime films shared a similar premise: a demobilized (demobbed) soldier falls into the Black Market racket and goes bad. A girlfriend or a friendly copper may or may not redeem him. Both of these light-suspense stories revolve around a fancy nightclub setting.
Dancing with Crime
1947 / 82 min.
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Barry K. Barnes, Sheila Sim, Garry Marsh, John Warwick, Judy Kelly, Barry Jones, Bill Owen (Rowbotham), Cyril Chamberlain, Peter Croft, Diana Dors, Danny Green, Jon Pertwee, Dirk Bogarde, Dervis Ward.
Cinematography: Reginald Wyer
Art Director: Harry Moore
Film Editor: Elly Boland
Original Music: Benjamin Frankel
Written by Brock Williams story by Peter Fraser
Produced by James A. Carter (associate Anthony Nelson Keys)
Directed by John Paddy Carstairs
Dancing with Crime is a crime thriller first but also serves as a star vehicle for the up-and-coming Richard Attenborough and his actress wife Sheila Sim. They were wartime sweethearts, and both are remembered for roles in patriotic films. Sim starred in Powell & Pressburger’s masterpiece A Canterbury Tale. Attenborough had small but well-reviewed bits as soldiers and sailors; and had just recently played a two-shot walk-on in A Matter of Life and Death — which always prompts a gasp of recognition from viewers. Attenborough’s breakthrough to stardom came a year later, with the very serious Graham Greene gangster drama Brighton Rock. That controversial show was acknowledged as a British classic only after the censors stopped condemning all post-war crime films.
In the immediate postwar years many Brit crime films shared a similar premise: a demobilized (demobbed) soldier falls into the Black Market racket and goes bad. A girlfriend or a friendly copper may or may not redeem him. Dancing with Crime is somewhat in that mode, but deals with black market crime and gangland murder in a somewhat sanitized, even glamorously stylized fashion. The critics — and the BBFC — were mollified by the film’s restraint and charm. Most of the action takes place in a fancy dance hall with a layout similar to those in Hollywood’s The Blue Dahlia, Gilda, and Dark Angel. Good performances and very good direction enliven a crime tale not much more complicated than a Nancy Drew mystery: the innocent young couple make themselves the targets of vicious killers, yet prevail mainly by being ‘nice.’
Demobbed soldiers Ted Peters and Dave Robinson (Richard Attenborough & Bill Owen aka Rowbotham) have taken different paths. Ted is squeaking along as an honest cabbie but Dave has fallen in with a black market mob. The devious Mr. Gregory (Barry Jones) hides behind the facade of his dance hall ‘Palais de Danse.’ He dishes out orders to his minions Sniffy and Sid (Cyril Chamberlain & Danny Green) and puts too much trust in Paul Baker (Barry K. Barnes), his main operative (& club emcee). The trouble begins when Dave turns up dead after a pay dispute with Mr. Gregory. Ted and his actress-fianceé Joy Goodall (Sheila Sim) → can’t interest the cops in the case and investigate on their own. Joy becomes a dance hall hostess at the Palais, where Paul Baker’s interest in her angers his regular girl and gang member Toni (Judy Kelly). Just as the snooping Ted connects Baker to Dave’s murder, the evil Mr. Gregory discovers what’s going on. But he’s confident that he can snuff out the amateur sleuths in one go.
Stuffy London commentators wanted to discourage movies about postwar rackets, but the entertaining Dancing with Crime surely made them happy. The essentially wholesome movie underplays postwar rationing and the real Black Market economy. Instead of quietly smuggling contraband goods from the Continent, Mr. Gregory’s gang rob warehouses. Their only victims are troublesome gang members like Dave, and unlucky night watchmen.
Squeaky-clean sweet Ted couldn’t be more different from Attenborough’s chilling Pinkie Brown in the next year’s Brighton Rock. Always smiling and chipper, Ted plays the role as if it were written for Mickey Rooney. This underworld is very menacing, but Ted and Joy lead charmed lives. In his first deadly confrontation Ted overcomes three armed bad guys preparing to shoot him in the head. Knowing that his best girl is in potential danger at the club, Ted doesn’t inform the cops but instead foolishly blunders right into Mr. Gregory’s warehouse crime scene, where he yet again must find a way to escape a summary execution.
Good direction from John Paddy Carstairs shows some visual style and an appreciation of suspense: the resourceful Joy skulks around Mr. Gregory’s office just long enough to hear about a secret crime plan. Studio sets let the entire movie play out at the club, in Ted’s taxi garage and on nighttime streets that seem alive and busy. The cheerful young leads are never insipid; both Attenborough and Sim radiate intelligence and good will.
Even better is the array of characters around the Palais. Barry Jones’ crime kingpin Mr. Gregory is superb. Jones is best known for mild-mannered roles (Seven Days to Noon, Brigadoon) but fully convinces as a brilliant schemer and gang leader, setting up robberies and ordering the killing of his own men. Also excellent is the unfamiliar Barry K. Barnes, (above right ↑ ) whose Paul Baker has a smooth approach with Joy but also an uncontrollable temper. It’s also fun to see favorite Danny Green (The Ladykillers) as Gregory’s main muscle thug.
Sheila Sim’s Joy behaves like a Babe in the Woods, yet the screenplay lets her infiltrate the club unsuspected until almost the last moment. It’s a thin role fleshed out with a sincere smile. Nothing in Sim’s career touches Sim’s wonderfully conflicted and quietly noble Alison Smith in the unforgettable A Canterbury Tale.
Some uncredited stars-to-be add appeal around the periphery. In her second movie, a young and baby-faced Diana Dors is suitably charming and physical as a cheerful dance hostess (above left ↑ ) . Both John Pertwee and Dirk Bogarde are said to play policemen, although I didn’t spot either. An unfamiliar actress named Joy Harrington has a nice walk-on as a sweet diner waitress who talks to Ted. Harrington spent the war years acting in Hollywood. She returned to England in 1947 and kept performing for decades, while pursuing a busy career as a producer in English television.
This was a first ‘associate producer’ credit for the later Hammer legend Anthony Nelson Keys. He began as an assistant director and continued as a production manager until Hammer’s first breakthrough color horror film, whereupon he became one of that studio’s best assets. He wasn’t given full producer status until 1962’s The Pirates of Blood River.
The Green Cockatoo
1937 / Four Dark Hours; The Race Gang 64 min.
Starring: John Mills, René Ray, Charles Oliver, Bruce Seton, Julian Vedey, Robert Newton, Allan Jeayes, Frank Atkinson.
Cinematography: Mutz Greenbaum
Art Director: Arthur Cornwall
Film Editor: Russell Lloyd
Original Music: Miklós Rózsa
Screenplay by Edward O. Berkman from a story and scenario by Graham Greene
Produced by William K. Howard
Directed by William Cameron Menzies
The Green Cockatoo may grab the attention of American film fans. It’s a difficult-to-see job of direction by the famed production designer William Cameron Menzies, the story is by Graham Greene and the music score is by the celebrated Miklós Rózsa. It can also boast three established actors of note, John Mills, René Ray and Robert Newton.
Graham Greene wrote the story and an initial screenplay but the finished film is awfully generic in feel. Most of the sets are standard-issue and the one expressive setting, an abandoned building, shows none of William Cameron Menzies’ design influence. His direction is slack, undistinguished. Biographer-critic Gene D. Philips wrote that the experienced producer William K. Howard aided Menzies’ direction. Philips also reported that Greene remembered the entire Green Cockatoo experience as ‘deplorable.’
We soon realize that it’s a minor film at best. Filmed in 1937, it was held from release until 1940, presumably because the English censor wished strongly to discourage sordid gangster pictures. More preferable were movies about well-dressed people discussing murder over cocktails. Grahame Greene’s story might have been more explicit about the pre-war criminality in certain corners of London, as in Gerald Kersh’s book Night and the City. Despite a couple of bad stabbings and beatings, the atmosphere in this one feels tame. The gang of crooks do a lot of standing around in trench coats, and the most shocking thing on view is a streetwalker at a lamppost. A Bobby stops a couple of feet away and patiently waits for her to ‘move on.’
The film begins like a ’60s vehicle for Rita Tushingham. Country girl Eileen (René Ray) arrives in London. We never learn what kind of person Eileen is or what she wants; she’s immediately entangled in a criminal mess and stays involved for no credible reason. In the train station she comes to the aid of hood Dave Connor (Robert Newton), who has just been severely stabbed by confederates he cheating in a dog-racing scheme. Dave dies, and ‘witnesses’ think Eileen killed him. She ends up spending the next 24 hours on the run in Soho with his brother Jim (John Mills). Jim owns and sings at the club The Green Cockatoo — and vows revenge against his brother’s killer. The much-too-confected twist sees the real killer Terrell (Charles Oliver) continues to frame Eileen, and events lead Jim to wrongly assume that she’s guilty. This main conflict relies on Jim never asking Eileen some obvious questions, like ‘why did you run to The Green Cockatoo?’
The Green Cockatoo follows its shady characters through the London night replicated on soundstage sets. Most of the film’s energy is spent on the growing romance between the leads and comic relief: a ‘funny’ butler, an ‘eccentric’ train passenger. John Mills’ Jim is too misinformed to be an effective revenger, even though he consistently bests professional crooks in fisticuffs. His trim suit also seems a bit severe — when he buttons it up he looks like a cut-out paper doll. The best scene sees Jim and Eileen hiding from Terrell’s killers in an abandoned wreck of a building. The actors project just enough charisma to keep us engaged, even if Ms. Ray’s Eileen, supposedly a wide-eyed country girl, seems far too composed amid all this danger.
Another surprise is Miklós Rózsa’s music score is not at all memorable. The tense cues seem to run in the background at random, as if composed in isolation and fit to the film afterwards. Perhaps an informed critic with a better ear could find a connection to Rózsa’s later noir scores.
By 1937 Mills, Ray and Newton already had plenty of film experience; I have no idea if they were English fan favorites, or if their real breakthroughs came later. Newton’s name soon became known internationally, as did Mills’ eventually, but not Ms. Ray. She certainly stayed busy acting, and she wrote novels as well. Her only IMDB writing credit is for the science-fiction TV play The Strange World of Planet X, that also became a feature film under that title and (for America) Cosmic Monsters (1958).
The Green Cockatoo wasn’t released in America until July of 1947, when it must have seemed severely outdated. The Variety reviewer called its soundtrack ‘raspy’ and remarked about the bad music score, by a composer who had just won an Oscar two years before. This double bill treats Cockatoo almost as an extra: the unrestored print on view is of good quality with better than average sound, but it has numerous dings and rough transitions, where replacement negative pieces don’t meet well across dissolves, etc.
The Cohen Film Collection’s Blu-ray of Dancing with Crime + The Green Cockatoo presents one feature in a bright restored condition, and the second in a passable fine transfer but unrestored. Dancing with Crime is flawless-looking, its transfer yielding impressive B&W images courtesy of the hard-working, unheralded Reginald Wyler (So Long at the Fair, Unearthly Stranger). The second feature with the impressive creative credits is from unrestored elements, but plays nicely as well.
The one extra is not an original trailer, but a Cohen promo for Dancing with Crime.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Dancing with Crime + The Green Cockatoo
Movie: Dancing Very Good; Cockatoo Good
Video: Dancing Excellent; Cockatoo Good-minus
Sound: Dancing Excellent; Cockatoo Good-minus
Supplements: trailer for Dancing with Crime.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 9, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson