Monday, July 25, 2011

The Blue Lamp (1950)

The Blue Lamp, a 1950 British crime film from Ealing Studios and directed by Basil Dearden (Pool of London 1951, Sapphire 1959) presents a story of two British policemen whose daily beat brings them into the sphere of two young desperate thugs. Sentimental viewers may fall for the idea that The Blue Lamp shows a gentler, kinder age. More cynical viewers (including yours truly) understand that The Blue Lamp is a reflection of the age and its censorship. The film was passed by the BBFC with no cuts made. Not too surprising as the film does nothing to offend.

It’s a toss-up whether the police in American noir are corrupt or not, but in British film of the 40s and 50s, corruption is startlingly absent thanks to censorship. In The Blue Lamp, the policemen are portrayed both sympathetically and impeccably as hard-working, caring, humane individuals while the crims are unstable delinquents on the make who get their just desserts. Forget tasers, SWAT teams, brutal interrogations, strip searches or indeed any hint that policemen are less than saints in uniform. In fact, one scene shows an urchin pretending to be lost just so that he can get a jam bun from the kindly policemen. In other scenes, The Blue Lamp finds London police directing traffic, giving directions, finding lost dogs, and even singing in the police choir. The grossest sin committed by the police at the Paddington Green station is a tendency to park themselves in the police cafeteria and drink a few too many cups of tea.

The film’s script was written by former policeman T.E.B. Clarke from a story by Ted Willis and Jan Read. It begins with a semi-documentary style which establishes the basic premise that thanks to WWII, many homes are “broken and demoralized by war.” The film carefully laces the action with the lurking shadow of WWII--one woman arrives at the police station to file a lost ration card report, and in another scene, street urchins play amidst a bombed-out London street. The film argues that the social upheaval of WWII has fermented an environment which fosters the emergence of delinquents:

“Those restless, ill-adjusted youngsters have produced a type of delinquent which is partly responsible for the post war increase in crime. Some are content with pilfering and petty theft. Others, with more bravado, graduate to serious offences. Youths with brain enough to plan and organize criminal adventures and yet who lack the code, experience and self-discipline of the professional thief which sets them in a class apart. All the more dangerous because of their immaturity.”

The film pits the police against two desperate young thugs who have turned to crime. Spud (Patric Doonan--who gassed himself to death at the age of 32) and Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) have teamed with 17-year-old runaway Diana Lewis (Peggy Evans). These three young people are hell bent on a life of crime. Dressed in a cheaply cut suit, Riley is the dominant character here, and that’s unfortunate as he’s far more emotional, a potential psycho and a bigger risk-taker than his more reasonable pal, Spud. Riley and Spud knock off a jeweler’s on the Edgeware Road. Riley imagines that he’ll be able to sell the hot goods to seasoned, sneering professional crook Randall (Michael Golden).

In opposition to the film’s two thugs are two policemen from Paddington Green Station. Gentle, unassuming PC Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley) is a young wet-behind-the-ears lad from Kent, and genial, wise and seasoned PC George Dixon (Jack Warner) is a happily married, begonia-growing policeman with a mere 6 months left on the force until retirement. Mitchell is at the beginning of his career, and Dixon, after 25 years, is on his final lap, yet both men share some common attributes--both are kind, patient and dedicated to their chosen profession. Dixon assumes a fatherly role and takes Mitchell under his wing; he brings Mitchell home for a proper cooked meal, and even persuades his wife (Gladys Henson) to accept the young PC as a lodger.

PC Mitchell unknowingly becomes involved in the jeweler’s robbery case in a tangential way when he’s called in for a domestic violence dispute at the chaotic Lewis home. Seems Mr. and Mrs. Lewis have frequent fights that result in visits from the police. In this instance the fight is triggered over the disappearance of Diana Lewis. Diana’s worn-out-mother wants Diana to return to help with household chores, so the 17-year-old girl is logged as a runaway. Mitchell eventually finds her--although he has no idea that she’s involved in any criminal activity. Later Diana, Spud and Riley plan another robbery that has tragic consequences, and at this point, the film becomes a police procedural as the resources of the Metropolitan Police dept. relentlessly converge on the criminals.

The Blue Lamp sets up its story well. It’s fairly easy to predict that the desperate young criminals will fall foul of the law, and the film goes to great lengths to illustrate the vast moral distance between characters such as explosive, dangerous baddie Riley and the public protector PC Dixon. Indeed the first scene lays out just how Joe Public can easily become a victim of crime:

“What stands behind the ordinary public and this outbreak of crime? What protection has the man in the street against this armed threat to his life and his property?”

Clearly the opening scene, which is cleverly tacked onto the film’s underlying argument that the police have a new tough job to catch the young violent criminals, serves to endorse the idea that men like PC Dixon and PC Mitchell stand between us and the End of Civilization as we know it.

The Blue Lamp is a seminal film in the history of British cinema. That’s not due to the film’s greatness, but rather it’s due to the fact that the film presents a cross-section of British life even as it proffers an impossibly optimistic view of the British police. The police in The Blue Lamp seem to exist just to make society run smoothly, and they treat most of the crims like naughty children who divert them from their police choir performance. The film is also notable for the fact that it inspired the long-running television series Dixon of Dock Green (1955-1976). The series starred Jack Warner as the ever-popular PC Dixon--a role that formed the perception and PR role of the police for years. Warner, who was eventually promoted to desk sergeant, was 81 years old when the series ended.

Another fascinating feature of The Blue Lamp is its depiction of the hierarchy of the criminals. There’s a clear demarcation between young thugs (Spud and Riley) and professional criminals and thieves such as Randall, a man who weighs the risk of the crime against the benefit, and who understands that some crimes are just not worth the consequences. To Randall, punks like Spud and Riley are liabilities, and when Riley approaches Randall about fencing the stolen jewelry, he wryly tells them: “stick to gas meters, sonny.”

Available for instant play from Netflix


Written by Guy Savage


  1. Guy, I saw this film long, long ago. Your review is really incisive about English society; not only as it is portrayed in the film but also its view of itself. Seen now, this film can only give rise to huge feelings of nostalgia...them were the days...or maybe not!

  2. How could you review this film on a film noir board and not mention the truly stunning black and white cinematography? The night street scenes are amazing, and it's great to see those 1940's British cars careening around London corners during the daylight chase scene! A wonderful film! - Wes Clark

  3. Please,
    There are subtitles for this movie? I'm from Brazil and I would have to translate it into Portuguese. Have searched and not found.
    Thank you.

  4. Please,
    There are subtitles for this movie? I'm from Brazil and I would have to translate it into Portuguese. Have searched and not found.
    Thank you.


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