Monday, January 25, 2010

Tread Softly Stranger (1958)

“You know how it is. Some women are merciless.”

Tread Softly Stranger (1958) from director Gordon Parry isn’t a great film. It’s even a stretch to call it a good film, but this B film is worth catching for two reasons: the gorgeous Diana Dors and a plot that illustrates how a femme fatale messes with the heads of two vastly dissimilar brothers. Tread Softly Stranger was released in 2008 as part of the 6-film, 3 disc set: British Cinema Classic B Film Collection, Volume 1. While it’s great to see some of these lesser known, B tier films finally making it to DVD, Tread Softly Stranger is going to be a disappointment if you approach the film with high expectations. Approach it as a curiosity and as an intro to (or reunion with) Diana Dors, and you’ll enjoy this B noir a great deal more.

The immensely popular and well-loved British celebrity, Diana Dors (real name Diana Mary Fluck) had a lot of fans during her lifetime, and the film’s producer, George Minter, must be part of that list as he insisted on using her for Tread Softly Stranger’s femme fatale--even though it meant that filming was delayed for several months until she was available. Diana Dors was known as the British Marilyn Monroe, and if you take a look of some of her early pin-up photos, it’s easy to see how she earned that title. Dors, who died from ovarian cancer in 1984 at the age of 52, had a career that largely limited her to cheesecake or sexpot roles, but while famous for her gorgeous looks and phenomenal body, she could act--a fact that’s sometimes rather sadly overlooked. Tread Softly Stranger shows Diana Dors at the peak of her beauty, and while she plays a femme fatale, her occasionally guileless manner is enough to make the men in her life believe every word she says.

In Tread Softly Stranger, Dors is marvelously cast as nightclub hostess, Calico. Interesting nickname--makes me think of a piece of cheap brightly coloured cotton, or alternately the colour of a cat. Either projection fits well with the character--a woman who seems wildly out-of-place in the damp, dank grimy Northern industrial town of Rawborough. Diana Dors makes the screen sizzle every time she appears, and she’s certainly the most interesting element in this otherwise patchy film.

The film begins in London at the bachelor pad of immaculately-groomed gambler, Johnny Mansell (George Baker) as he eagerly plumps up pillows on his couch and turns the lights down low. He even leaves the door to the bedroom open as part of a giant hint of what’s in store. He’s expecting a date with an exotic brunette, and while Johnny is rather obviously itching to get into the passion pit, the evening is interrupted by a phone call. He owes money, and the gambling debts are about to called in. Johnny puts down the phone, and while his date sits on the couch, he enters the bedroom behind her and begins smoothly and efficiently filling a suitcase. Johnny has decided to split town and stay away until things cool down.

This scene swiftly establishes Johnny’s character. Even though he has a willing brunette waiting, he won’t waste time dallying when his hide is threatened. Another man (James Bond, for example) might stay, have sex and then leave. But to Johnny, women are easy-come-easy-go. He prizes his hide more than the promise of sex, and he knows that there will always be more women.

Johnny travels to Rawborough, his old home town, the place he couldn’t wait to escape from ten years earlier. Rawborough is the type of town that people only come back to when they have hit rock-bottom or if they need a place to hide. There are no trees, no lawns, no gardens, just the bleakness of concrete, brick, and industry. The murky black and white print complements the film’s setting of a dreary town in which huge factory chimneys bilge filthy smoke and poisonous fumes into the gloomy sky.

Johnny’s been gone so long, he doesn’t even know his brother Dave’s address, so he pops into the Rawborough Working Mans’ Club to hit up the old crowd for information. Ten years may have passed but the old faces are the same, and childhood friend, Paddy Ryan (Patrick Allen) and his father night watchman Joe (Joseph Tomelty) are playing billiards. Johnny learns that Dave has a ‘regular’ girlfriend who works as a part-time hostess in a local club. Paddy’s enthusiasm about Dave’s girlfriend reveals that “she’s a looker,” while Joe declares that she’s “no good.” These disparate descriptions serve to set the scene for Johnny’s first meeting with Dave’s girlfriend, and when Johnny enters Dave’s meagerly furnished rented rooms, one of the first things he spies is a deliciously abandoned nylon stocking.

Diana Dors as Calico is unforgettable. She first appears from a rear view bending over for stretching exercises in shorts that might fit a twelve-year-old. The rear view is just the preliminary for what’s in store when Diana turns around and faces the camera, and this scene is set so that our reaction to finding this gorgeous girl in the dung heap of Rawborough is mirrored in Johnny.

It seems incongruous that Calico should be in such a drab little town as Rawborough. She landed there due to “romance” and now can’t wait to leave. Her ticket out appears to be Dave, Johnny’s nervous bookkeeping brother. As a bachelor, and an accountant at the town’s largest employer, he’s a good catch. A good catch, that is, if you plan on staying in Rawborough for the rest of your life, but Calico is the sort of girl who wants more. Dave showers Calico with expensive gifts he can’t afford, and in order to keep Calico interested, Dave’s been dipping into the payroll at work. With an audit coming up in a few days, he has to replace the money fast or face being imprisoned for embezzlement. Of course, Calico comes up with the brilliant idea of knocking off the payroll so that Dave doesn’t get caught and that the loot will fund their get-away to all the places she’s ever dreamed of.

Johnny sniffs out that Dave has money problems, and before long he uncovers the robbery plan. Johnny, who spent his childhood keeping Dave out of trouble, realizes that the plan is flawed, and he thinks he can replace the money his brother embezzled with just one lucky day at the track….

Calico, of course, by setting up Dave as a gun-toting robber, has bet on the wrong pony. Dave might be capable of sneaking his hands in the till, but he lacks the courage for anything bold or violent. Johnny, on the other hand, enjoys taking chances, but although he’s a brazen risk-taker, he’s not an idiot. Johnny has Calico’s number from the moment he hears about her. But is this just how he views women in general? While Johnny mildly threatens Calico to treat his brother well, at one point he wallops her, and of course, she melts in his arms. What follows is one of the most flagrantly and tackily suggestive symbolic scenes of sex. No details, because that would spoil the fun, and it really does have to be seen to be believed.

Tread Softly Stranger has all the elements to make a really great noir film, but it falls down along the way. The plot isn’t bad, and there’s a fatalistic irony to the idea that Calico has the persuasive skills to lead the weaker brother down the criminal path, but those same skills only get the stronger brother as far as bed. Johnny feels Calico’s powerful sexuality; he can’t deny it, but unlike Dave, he will never check his sanity at the bedroom door. Dave’s hysteria seems to be a substitution for tension, but instead of increasing tension, Dave’s hysterical outbursts call for a slap to knock some sense into him. The fickle hand of Fate plays a strong hand in the film, and this augments the film’s basic premise, but the film becomes mired in dull exchanges just when the plot needs to pick up the pace.

The film’s best scenes, naturally, include those with Diana Dors, and throughout the course of the film, her clothes appear to either be too small, glued on, or about to fall off. With full pouty lips long before silicone, she has a healthy, clean almost luminous presence in stark contrast to the film’s murky quality. Her character becomes more complex as the plot unfolds, and whether or not you think she’s a gold digger may depend on your level of cynicism. Those tears certainly look real enough. The idea of her character set in between these two vastly different brothers is intriguing; it’s just not intriguing enough to pull the rest of the film together. Thanks to Calico’s influence, she makes a seemingly good man go bad, and a former ne’er-do-well becomes decent. It’s a fascinating premise and flips the corrupting femme fatale influence to new levels.

Tread Softly Stranger is a Northern crime film--a sub-genre in itself, and if you haven’t checked out Britain’s recent addition to the genre: The Red Riding Trilogy, (editor's note: only available on R2 DVD) based on the Red Riding Quartet novels of David Peace, do yourself a favour and go get a copy. One phrase from the first film in the trilogy leaps to mind: “This is the North. We do what we want!” And this is an idea that underscores that the North of England has a very different set of rules and behaviour from the South. While Tread Softly Stranger doesn’t explicitly explore this North vs South divide, nonetheless it’s implicit through its depiction of the opportunities and expansive horizons of London in opposition to the narrow, claustrophobic hard-scrabble world of Rawborough.

Written by Guy Savage



  1. True crime buffs will notice Soho gangster Johnny Rice standing head and shoulders above the crowd during a scene at a racecourse.

  2. This is an interesting film. Gritty in a British kind of way.


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