Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tiger in the Smoke (1956)

Class and Patriarchy 
by Guy Savage
“I’ve been on the bash.”

If you’d like a glimpse of the London fog that helped cover the tracks of the notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper, then take a look at the British film, Tiger in the Smoke (1956), an excellent noir from director Roy Ward Baker. The film is based on the 1952 novel by the prolific crime author, Margery Allingham, and while it’s number 14 of the Allingham Albert Campion novels, no mention of Campion appears in the film.

The film is set in post WWII London. It’s November, late afternoon, and in terms of fog it’s a peasouper--fog so dense and thick that it’s difficult to see more than a few steps ahead. The film opens with a string of street musicians, 6 in all, walking in single-file through the crowded, noisy London marketplaces. One of them sits in an ad-hoc cart of sorts while another jiggles a collecting box on which the word “ex-servicemen” is written. While the musicians could be seen as just another element of local colour, their presence is seminal to the film.

The drama opens when a slim young woman, Meg Elgin (Muriel Pavlow) accompanied by her stuffy, bowler-hatted fiancé, Geoffrey Leavitt (Donald Sinden) pile out of a taxi and into the train station. Meg, a WWII widow, is about to marry the affluent Geoffrey, but over the last three months, she’s been receiving envelopes that include a photo of a man who appears to be her dead husband, Martin. Accompanying the last photo was a note telling her to meet Martin on the 3:23 Southend train on the 1st of November. Fearing blackmail, Meg and Geoffrey have contacted the police, and Chief Inspector Luke (Christopher Rhodes) and a handful of men are there to grab the man who may or may not be Martin. These initial scenes establish one of the film’s main themes: the clash of the parallel worlds of the so-called lower and upper classes.

As it turns out the man who claims to be Martin is an imposter--a man known as Duds Morrison (Gerald Harper). Duds is hauled off to the police station for questioning, and here it’s revealed that he’s a career criminal who was released from jail a few weeks previously. His last crime was robbery with violence committed with a thug known as Jack Havoc. Since Duds hasn’t yet done anything wrong, Chief Inspector Luke lets him go. Meanwhile Meg, who maintains a level of hysteria throughout the film, is bundled off back home to her father, the saintly Canon Avril (Laurence Naismith).

Geoffrey decides to do some sleuthing of his own, and so he follows Duds as he leaves the police station and offers him money if Duds will explain how he’s involved in these mysterious claims that Martin is still alive. After all Geoffrey has a vested interest in ensuring that Meg is a widow, and as far as the official records are concerned Martin is “posted missing presumed killed.” The spectre of the possibility that Martin is still alive is an issue that must be addressed given the flurry of photos Meg has received. Duds, however, refuses to cooperate and he appears to be terrified of something. He tears out of the pub, and Geoffrey loses Duds in the dense fog….

Meanwhile all hell is breaking loose in London with the escape of the homicidal maniac, Jack Havoc (Tony Wright). Havoc, doing time at Wormwood Scrubs, had convinced the warders that he’s a head case, and as the film plays out, it seems likely that Havoc didn’t need to try hard to pretend that he’s a nut-job. Havoc was attending an outside interview with a psychiatrist when he knifed the doctor and made a dramatic escape. Assistant Commissioner Oates (Alec Clunes) who knows Havoc well insists that Havoc timed his escape with the fog, but Luke remains skeptical. Oates argues that Havoc is one the three truly evil men he’s had the misfortune to meet in his lifetime, and that Luke will understand what he means when he meets Havoc.

Part of the film’s fascination can be found in its portrayal of patriarchy and hierarchy within British society which the plot shovels out at every turn. For example, there’s the patriarchy of the male-female dynamic in how the story deals with the idea that Meg may not have known her husband as well as she thinks she did. They were married for just three short months before Martin left for the war serving as a commando in France. For some time into the film, Chief Inspector Luke doubts Meg’s ability to recognize her own husband, in spite of the fact that they had an intimate relationship, but at the same time, he’s willing to accept the Canon’s argument that Duds cannot possibly be Martin. If Meg is insulted by the fact that Luke implies that she can’t be trusted to know her own husband while he takes her father’s word for it, any sign of umbrage never shows, and the film takes the fallibility of women as a matter of course. Luke concedes to ecclesiastical authority at several points in the film. According to the Canon, Martin was a “gentle man” whose only crime “was a so-called poem to his dog.” The implication, of course, is that cheap lower-class hood Duds couldn’t possibly be Martin--although there are some superficial similarities. So through this sequence we see that Luke isn’t convinced that Meg knew her husband as well as she thinks she did, but on the other hand, he’s willing to concede that the Canon’s opinion can be trusted. Other scenes show Meg in perpetual hysteria while the multiple males who surround her keep her in ignorance as to the facts or else try to talk her down.

Also evident is the hierarchy implicit in military structure extending to civilian life. This is largely seen in the scenes with the motley crew of mentally unstable street musicians who are willing to concede at least some authority and rank to Tiddy Doll (Bernard Miles), their tentative leader. Through the interactions between the street musicians, it becomes clear that WWII provided a cover of sorts for various nefarious activities for these petty hoods, but also now that the war is over, these largely disenfranchised human beings still cling to their uniforms and their medals as a means of survival and also as a disguise that marks prestige or merit.

The scenes that take place in the Canon’s house underscore both the patriarchal nature and the strict hierarchy of British society. The saintly Canon talks down to his female servant rather as he might talk to a naughty five-year-old, but the very best scenes in the house take place between the Canon and old “Cash-and-Carry,” the nefarious Lucy Cash (Beatrice Varley). Beatrice Varley, a British noir regular, steals the film in her role of a sly used clothing seller, one of the film’s two completely evil characters. One scene shows the Canon questioning Lucy Cash about a coat that went missing from his house, and with barely concealed hatred, Lucy manages to answer politely while every word shows both her disdain for the Canon and her bitter awareness of her perceived station in life. At one point the Canon dismisses her to the kitchen on an errand, and this small act indicates her social standing in the Canon’s eyes--she’s not a guest--she’s an underling, and this she acknowledges with the comment, dripping with sarcasm: “I don’t mind the kitchen. I did enough work there in your dear wife’s day.” Here’s the Canon on the pariah Lucy Cash:

“I’ve seen her walk down the street and window curtains tremble. Blinds creep down and keys turn in locks. She passes like a shadow.”

Lucy Cash’s involvement with Duds is implied rather than exposed, but perhaps the most revealing scene shows her hard-as-nails poker face with its charitable and implacable veneer when she’s faced with the bloody evidence of a violent crime.

In terms of a villain, reports of Havoc prior to his presence on the screen help to create an image of an almost superhuman character. He’s capable of the most fantastic feats, and he’s also remarkably cunning--planning his escape from prison to coincide with the dense fog for example. One of the striking elements of Havoc’s character is that he believes in the “science of luck,” and he is convinced that fate threw him together with Martin for a joint raid on Martin’s old home in Brittany. Not only does Havoc break out of prison but he also breaks into and then out of Meg and Geoffrey’s future home via the second floor window which overlooks spiked railings. The police are completely outfoxed by Havoc’s physical abilities, and when Meg recalls seeing a glimpse of Havoc, her impression is of “dark wings.” The implication is of course, of evil, and so the first real look at Havoc in the cellar where the street musicians live is inevitably a disappointment. Havoc is a fearsome creation--a homicidal maniac, yet the rumours and legends don’t quite match the real man who inevitably folds like a five-year old only to be conquered by his much-more intelligent ‘betters’.

In spite of its flaws, or even perhaps because of them, Tiger in the Smoke is well worth catching. It’s an engaging story which also yields excellent social commentary in its depiction of the parallel worlds of the lower and upper classes. Naturally the upper classes are good and intelligent while the crims lurk in the ‘lower’ classes and it’s the film’s rather naive supposition that crimes erupt in the crucible created by the proximity of these two parallel worlds. Note how, for example, the servants in the Canon’s house complicate life through the sale of Martin’s old jacket and also servant Will (Charles Victor) at one point even mickey finns the Canon’s milk. While Will acts with the best of intentions, the action results in placing the Canon in danger. The film effectively diminishes class problems into simplified class resentment, so that rather than showing the working class chafing at a generalized lack of opportunity, the film portrays the ‘lower’ class lusting for the valuable objects that belong to the upper class, and subsequently engaging in a criminal life of acquisition. The subconscious patronizing of the so-called ‘lower-classes’ and the implicit snobbery which runs throughout the film is also seen through the revelation that the ill-educated crooks cannot conceive of the true nature of the term "priceless” and will always go for something cheap and sparkly every time.

British cinema fans keep your eyes open for Stratford Johns in an early role as a police constable. There’s no mistaking that voice.

Written by Guy Savage

1 comment:

  1. Cor, where do you find these films? You must be an honorary Brit! Another fine review. And Gerald Harper went on to be Adam Adamant. Yay!


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