Monday, September 05, 2005

The Long Memory (1952)

Posted by Don Malcolm

Note: this was written prior to the thread about picking more “accessible” films for the NOTW. In this instance, I’m exposing everyone to a “lost” film that will hopefully become available in the near future.

Please also note the large number of 1950s British films listed in the "noir pedigree" section that are apparently unavailable at present. If any of our intrepid British film collectors have leads on these, feel free to let us know--the descriptions of these films at IMDB make most of them sound worth a look.


(UK, 1952)

Director: Robert Hamer
NOIR PEDIGREE: It Always Rains On Sunday (1948), The Spider And The Fly (1949)

Cinematographer: Harry Waxman
NOIR PEDIGREE: Brighton Rock (1947), To The Public Danger (1948), Waterfront (1950), The Sleeping Tiger (1954), Lost (1955), House Of Secrets (1956)

Writers: Robert Hamer/Frank Harvey (original novel by Harold Clewes)

Lead actors:

John Mills (Phillip Davidson)
NOIR PEDIGREE: The October Man (1947)

John McCullum (Supt. Bob Lowther)
NOIR PEDIGREE: It Always Rains On Sunday (1948), The Woman In Question (aka Five Angles on Murder) (1950), Port Of Escape (1956)

Elizabeth Sellars (Fay Lowther)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Guilt Is My Shadow (1950), Cloudburst (1951), Hunted (1952), Recoil (1953), Forbidden Cargo (1954), Three Cases Of Murder (1955), The Last Man To Hang? (1956)

Eva Bergh (Ilse)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Venner (Norway, 1960)

Supporting actors:

John Chandos (Boyd)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Terror Street (1953), One Way Out (1954), The Ship That Died Of Shame (1955)

The recent series at UCLA devoted to Robert Hamer showcased the wide range of that famously "self-destructive" British director, known mostly for his films with Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets, Father Brown). The Long Memory, a “redemption noir,” might well frustrate those who crave more grit and bad girls, but others will admire the deft interpolation of so many themes and plot convolutions—and the terrific lenswork of Harry Waxman, whose stark but understated style is used to maximum advantage.

Even though this film is apparently unavailable anywhere, it’s of sufficient interest that I’m going to add it to our NOTW in hopes that the indefatigable noirhounds here will turn their attention to turning it up so that the rest of you can enjoy it.


Phillip Davidson (John Mills) is released from prison after serving twelve years for a murder he didn’t commit. He holes up in a bleak, remote shack on the Marshes, where he plots his revenge against those who lied at his trial. (A flashback provides us the details: a smuggling job goes sour, and Davidson is blamed for the death of a man who, in fact, is not dead. His girlfriend, Fay—who, in one of the film’s neat little ironies, subsequently marries a police superintendent)—is coerced by her father to lie about the identity of the man who was burned in the boat fire that followed the altercation).

As he slowly formulates his plan for revenge, Davidson frequents a rundown tavern on the Marsh, where he tries to get a line on the punch-drunk boxer who also lied at his trial. There he gets involved with Ilse (Norwegian actress Eva Bergh), a refugee with the type of intense emotional antennae that allows her to recognize a latent spiritual side to Davidson. He saves her from being raped one night, and a simultaneously awkward and touching relationship begins to develop, forcing Davidson to re-evaluate his need for revenge.

Meanwhile, Fay (Ellzabeth Sellars) and her husband (John McCullum) are extremely worried. Her lies—and the really dangerous secret that the man presumed dead (Boyd, played with nicely escalating desperation by John Chandos) is still a presence in the underworld—are in danger of exposure. When Davidson intimidates the fighter into recanting his earlier testimony, Fay is forced to find Boyd and arrange for her own disappearance—sacrificing her suburban home with husband and son.

Before she can finalize those arrangements, however, Davidson confronts her. Taking a cue from his developing attachment to Ilse, he backs away from revenge, explaining to Fay how he had shed his desire to punish her for what she’d done to him.

Boyd, however, doesn’t turn up to help Fay, and his path crosses Davidson’s when the barkeeper enlists him to deliver a package to Boyd’s office. Fay’s husband, aware of her lie from even before their marriage, tracks his wife down and finds out that Boyd is alive. He figures out that Boyd and Davidson are now in a death chase across the Marsh, and he gives chase, hoping to intercept the two men before Davidson is killed.

How does it end? You’ve got a 50-50 chance of being right...


The acting in this film is mostly in that specifically-British style of taciturn underplaying, though Chandos is refreshingly sweaty in his role as the closeted crime boss. As Ilse, Bergh gives a genuinely strange performance, alternating between nuance and exaggeration, brimming with emotions that are simultaneously wooden and overwrought. Despite this, she is still somehow mesmerizing. Her modern look—a sloe-eyed, turned-down Ingrid Bergman—carries her through these often-careening inconsistencies.

Mills is rock-solid throughout, managing to smooth over the rough points in his character’s transitions. Sellars and McCullum (in real life, the husband of Googie Withers) are “teddibly proper” but show their skill at nuance, playing a well-modulated game of cat-and-mouse with each other. And the gallery of grotesques who pop up from time to time are in the time-honored, terribly-toothed British tradition that has no rival in any other "national cinema."

The real stars here are Hamer and Waxman, however, who make every composition and camera angle count, and saturate the film with a sense of atmosphere that is finely attuned to the details of each scene. The Long Memory has a great deal in common thematically with another "redemption noir," Frank Borzage’s atmospheric Moonrise, and they’d make for a most satisfying double bill.

Now it’s up to the “trackdown specialists” at the Blackboard to dig up a video of this one. Hopefully the above has provided you with sufficient motivation...

(Note also the various other obscure "Brit noir" titles in the noir pedigree section—there’s still more to unearth, guys!)



  1. In the last scene, there is an old man with a shotgun who sings a song as he's walking away. Could anyone possibly tell me what that song is called? or whether it was written for the film? I loved it so much and would DESPERATELY like to hold the song in my possesion.

  2. Posted by mike k. on 7/22/2006, 5:12 pm, in reply to "The Long Memory question..."

    It's called "As I Went Out One May Morning." The old guy sings it in the beginning and at the end. I just saw "Long Memory" last week and found myself humming the song for several days afterwards.

  3. The heroine is Ilse, not Isle.
    There used to be a version of the song by Shirley and Dolly Collins available and Ralph Vaughan Willaims used it in one of his Norfolk Rhapsodies.

  4. UK's Film 4 digital channel is broadcasting this on Wednesday 1 November 2006. Get your DVD recorders ready!

  5. can anyone tell me the locations used? (apart from shad thames )

  6. Location of scene where Pewsey is holed up I recognise as Queen Street Gravesend looking over the Thames towards Tilbury.

  7. The film is included in ITV's John Mills Centenary Collection Volume 2. Region 2 PAL. (Bad news for the New World)

  8. This film is excellant in so many ways and is a true 'time capsule' of Britain in the 1950's. There were few telephones then, you had to go to a garage or hotel to use a 'phone. The greasy looking cafe was typical of many cafe's.

    The old man by the way, was actor Michael Martin Harvey, who gave a great performance as the slightly dotty hermit yet full of friendship. Harvey's performance as the hermit is one of the many highlights from this film.

    Do watch it if you can, great acting, good soundtrack and a slice of London and North Kent that no longer exists. Neil.

    1. Could you tell me who plays the old man