Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Paid To Kill (1954)

aka Five Days

American James Nevill (Dane Clark) is the president of British Amalgamated Industries. He's running the company with a certain brutality and a flair for risky gambles that not everyone on the board approves of, but until now things have paid off well for everyone involved. Now, however, Nevill has miscalculated in a business project he thought important enough to not only put the company's money but also his own into, a failure that will cost the company and himself everything. Nevill realizes he has gambled and lost, and decides to cut his losses in a rather radical manner. Nevill's planning to hire his old buddy, the shady Paul Kirby (Paul Carpenter) to kill him. That way, not only will Nevill's beloved wife Andrea (Thea Gregory) be spared the shame of his failure, but she'll also be set for life with the insurance money.

Kirby isn't too willing to murder his old buddy - there's morals and risks to think of, after all - but Nevill has a way to be convincing that involves blackmail for a murder Kirby actually might have committed and a lot of punches to the face.

Once the appointed day for the murder has arrived, though, the man responsible for failure or success of Nevill's business venture changes his mind, suddenly turning Nevill's total loss into an incredible success. Triumphant, Nevill attempts to call Kirby off again, but his would-be killer has seemingly disappeared from the face of the Earth. Worse, somebody is trying to kill the industrialist, and that somebody isn't willing to talk to him at all.

Together with his secretary Joan (Cecile Chevreau) - yes, of course she's in love with her boss for inexplicable reasons - Nevill tries to uncover what's really going on (have three guesses) before he's either murdered or having a mental break-down.

Paid to Kill (for once, I prefer the US title to the British one) is another one of the films the young Hammer Films made in association with US B-movie mogul Robert Lippert. Lippert generally provided money and one or two American actors in search for a pay check for these endeavours but does not seem to have had much influence over the actual production and content of the movies, which is all for the better, seeing as Hammer's filmmakers were generally a lot more artistically successful than the sort of people Lippert tended to associate with.

Now, Paid to Kill's director Montgomery Tully is not exactly the sort of director coming to mind when thinking the phrase "artistically successful". Tully is more the kind of guy you'd connect with something like "dependable workhorse", but as it turns out, he's a dependable workhorse very much capable of making a solid, often quite exciting, Brit noir. While the film's look isn't anything to get excited about, and quite far from the expressionistically influenced shadowplay of the first wave of American noir, Tully is more than capable of using some elements of that style to further his film's mood. It surely can be no accident that the film gets darker and more shadow-heavy the further Nevill's cocksureness - well, and his life - goes down the drain until everything ends in a glass house that's all grey shadows and not much light, even though Tully isn't all that obvious about this neat trick. Clearly, it's something the audience is supposed to be subtly influenced by, and less a technique to impress, to give the film the mood of a nightmare or to be symbolic.

Tully also shows a great sense for pacing, and for the escalation - of action, of melodrama, and of the situation Nevill finds himself in - so important for a thriller like this to work. There's not a single shot wasted on anything not relevant to plot, characters, or mood, everything is tight, well thought-through, and makes sense as long as the film is going on.

Sure, the basic idea of Paul Tabori's script wasn't new even in 1954, and what's actually going on should be clear to the audience much earlier than it is to Nevill, but Tabori's focus is so clearly on showing us Nevill breaking down in subtle and unsubtle ways, seeing him having to confront the lies his self-image is built on, that originality doesn't come into play; it's not so much about surprising the audience than it is about keeping it tense and interested, and interested and tense I was.

I can't end this without at least mentioning the quality of Dane Clark's performance. If you know your noir, you already know Clark as one of the genre actors often getting the short end of the stick when it comes to critical recognition, even though he starred in films like Whiplash and Moonrise. There's a believable intensity to the actor's performance in Paid to Kill, an ever increasing tenseness to his physical acting, and an ability to convey a sense of dread as if he were a character in a horror movie once he finds out on how many false assumptions his life is based on. Clark also manages to make a character who is a bit of a jerk (though a jerk out of thoughtlessness, not out of cruelty) sympathetic enough that old, hard-hearted me actually cared for what happens to him.


No comments: