Do not miss this little-known Ealing classic which works as a salty East London riff on The Third Man.
Robert Hamer remains synonymous with 1949’s quaint Ealing serial-killer yarn, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Yet this underloved example of British noir (with a caustic protofeminist undertow) not only stands toe-to-toe with his icily jovial classic, but also with such homegrown masterworks as Carol Reed’s man on-the-lam crime saga, Odd Man Out, or even David Lean’s lilting May-to-December romance, Brief Encounter.
The film opens by affirming the promise of the title, capturing rainfall over the red-brick edifices of East London. Hamer’s film is a thrillingly ambiguous examination of how criminal activity can infiltrate all levels of working-class life. For brassy barmaid-turned-cloistered domestic goddess, Rose (the sublime Googie Withers), the tedium of servitude is tested when dastardly old flame Tommy Swann (John McCallum) escapes from Dartmoor Prison with a plan to high-tail it to Cape Town.
Rose initially conceals Swann in her coal shed, a set-up that instigates a series of tense sequences that would’ve given Hitchcock the vapours. But this is no cut-and-dried genre yarn, as Hamer and co-screenwriters Henry Cornelius and Angus MacPhail swaddle Rose’s life-changing clinch in rich cultural subtext.
The bustling markets nearby are a breeding ground for vice, a place where love and deception are rife, everyone’s looking for an angle, and, on the moral barometer of post-War life, 'monogamy' and 'truth' have become dirty words. Hamer’s astonishing directorial marshalling brings together clamorous sound design (in a breathlessly executed crane shot over an outdoor market) and, in its heart-stopping train yard chase finale, ravishing chiaroscuro photography care of Brit ace, Douglas Slocombe.
But above all, this a showcase for the colossal acting talents of Withers, whose subtle, intricate performance betrays a woman who quickly learns the difference between the noxious allure of the slickly turned out petty crim and the potentially dire (but oh so exciting!) consequences of clinging to the arm of a globehopping gangster.
A chance to see East London before it got, ahem, ‘repurposed’ for the Olympics.
A breathtaking melange of romance and crime drama. A British classic.
Seriously, this gets better and better with every viewing.