Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Tiger in the Smoke (1956)

It’s a very foggy night in post-war London. Someone has been sending Meg Elgin (Muriel Pavlow) a series of newspaper clips from the past couple of months with photos showing her husband in the background, the final one containing the time and date for a meeting at a train station on the back. The problem: the man in the photos just can’t be Meg’s husband, for he went missing during the war, presumed death, and really wasn’t the type of man who’d just disappear only to reappear quite this mysteriously. Being engaged to be married to one Geoffrey Leavitt (Donald Sinden) now, Meg went to the police with this, and when we first encounter these characters, Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Luke (Christopher Rhodes) and company have accompanied her to that train station, as has her fiancée.

Indeed, a man looking a lot like Meg’s husband appears, but once grabbed by the police, he turns out to be an impostor wearing a false moustache and a jacket that once belonged to Meg’s husband. Because they don’t have anything on him, the police let him go.

While Leavitt starts an investigation in the man all of his own, other characters drift through the fog – a street band of dubious moral character, a freshly escaped killer with the delectable name of Jack Havoc (Tony Wright), a nasty middle-aged woman named Lucy Cash (Beatrice Varley) – all looking for each other and something that’s somehow connected to Meg’s dead husband.

In theory, this fine British post-war thriller is an adaptation of a Margery Allingham novel. Since my reading in non-noir, non-pulp crime literature is rather spotty (and my tastes in the genre not as broad as in others), I can’t say if it is a terribly close adaptation; it certainly does not feature Albert Campion, the lead series character in the novel.

As some of the Allingham novels I actually have read, the film does find the sweet spot between being a British mystery interested in crime literature as a way of portraying its contemporary society and the psychological motivations of its characters, and the sort of post-war thriller quite a few British writers excelled at. The mystery here is very deftly constructed, managing to be at once complicated enough not to be obvious but also not so contrived it escapes believable motivation. The latter, of course, is also the case because the script’s just as deft at creating broad yet not shallow characters that come to particular life through perfectly timed revelations, marrying plot development to character depth rather wonderfully.

Staying on the script level, the film does quite a few very interesting things. Havoc, for example, is at first portrayed as someone akin to today’s media’s ultra-competent serial killer, a murderous shadow with near superhuman abilities the policeman hunting him talks about in near mythological terms of evil. Yet once the film actually starts showing us the character, this mythology breaks down quickly, for while Havoc is certainly utterly ruthless, a killer, and very dangerous to everyone he meets, he’s not an Evil Monster, but a man as broken by the war and an inability to fit into the “normal” world afterwards as at least half of the street band, who has deluded himself into believing he is now fated to find the treasure everyone in the film ends up hunting. While the film never turns Havoc into an anti-hero in anything but his own mind (which would be all wrong anyway), it does treat him and most of the other characters from the poor side of the tracks with more empathy than you’d expect from a British film of its era. All of this does of course also turn Tiger in the Smoke into as true a post-war film as many American noirs, examining the social fallout of the war by way of a crime story, with rather existential ideas about life lurking only a small way below the its surface.

Among the film’s other clever flourishes is the rather dry recognition that the word “priceless” might just mean something very different to men from different classes – as it turns out to the detriment of quite a few people who could still be alive and somewhat happier if more precise language had been used. No British film, after all, is ever not about class on at least some level.

While Tiger in the Smoke’s director Roy Ward Baker (here working as “Roy Baker”) has made more than a few excellent films, I often found him to be strong at telling a story effectively but very conservative in the ways he deigned to tell it. Here, his direction is not at all conservative. Sure, there are workmanlike, relatively static dialogue-scenes, but more often, there are rapid, and highly effective, shifts in the editing rhythm and the amount of camera movement as a whole, the calm scenes always threatening to break out into expressionist close-ups of character actors’ faces, shifting to Dutch angles with the shift of a scene’s mood, or moments the when the camera takes a run through the dense fog. Baker’s really fantastic in using that fog too. Particularly the film’s early scenes take on a slightly phantasmagorical quality that suggests everything can happen in a London buried in this kind of white shifting mass, and any kind of danger could hide in it.

Which makes the shift from foggy London not to bright Brittany and broad daylight for the final couple of scenes particularly effective, on a practical level but also on the more metaphorical one of everything finally being revealed.

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