Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 7: The Long Arm (1956)

This entry follows Jack Hawkins from the under-whelming The Cruel Sea to the solid and (for me) more enjoyable The Long Arm, a police procedural that avoids feeling like a by-the-numbers effort through good casting and fun plot twists.
First, though, we need to talk about that poster. It’s eye-catching and more than a little disconcerting: Hawkins’ anguished face as he grips on to a car bonnet, as a mysterious woman tries to shake him off. There has been good work written on the ways in which film ephemera like posters, trailers, press books etc help set up audience expectations – and this is a strong example of that. The DVD makes good use of those images, continuing the same intrigue across box art and on-screen menus. From that poster, through the opening scenes at the information room at New Scotland Yard, stabs of dramatic music, dimly lit offices, shadowy figures and talk of automatic alarms, and W cars, the genre is set up nicely.
There’s a point at the beginning of the film that reminded me of The Cruel Sea (and Tynan’s comment about male professional narratives), where Detective Supt Tom Halliday (Hawkins) goes back to his wife, Mary (Dorothy Allison) and small son, and where the talk is almost all about his job, and how he isn’t on the front lines but ‘directs, controls and administers from an office chair.’ Like Captain Ericson in the naval drama, however, Halliday leads from the front, involved in every aspect of the investigation of a series of robberies. Unlike Ericson, this film is interested in the interplay of home and work, rather than focusing entirely on work.
The final Cruel Sea echo is the presence of Halliday’s new officer, Det Sgt Ward, played by John Stratton (Ferraby in the earlier film): but the characters are markedly different, with Ward an encyclopaedia of criminal behaviour, willing to challenge and talk back to this boss. There is that classic convention of what we’d now call the ‘buddy film’ as the two policemen learn how to work together, with both learning lessons from each other: there, for example, a great moment where Ward leaves the train to phone his girlfriend; Halliday is scornful of the idea, then sneaks off the train to make a call to his wife. Her reaction – assuming he is injured – tells us so much about his usual attitude to marital communication, and his excitement over learning about a possible scholarship for his son almost makes him miss the train – here, the Ealing hero cannot be defined simply as a distant professional, but a family man struggling to balance work and home.
Hawkins is impressive again: while Supt. Halliday is less dramatically complex than Captain Ericson (there is no anguish or haunted questioning of actions here), Hawkins shows an ability to balance the drama and comedy that the film requires, barking orders to Ward and others, but also tetchily amused by a Welsh garage owner who holds a crucial key to the mystery (played by Meredith Edwards, from A Run for Your Money). It is hard to watch the relationship that develops between Hawkins and Stratton and not think of Morse/Lewis or other great police partnerships. Halliday is the more driven of the two, while Mary notes that Ward will have to get used to not seeing his girl as often if he follows in Halliday’s path. The film is happy to make such comments on a humorous level, but it is clear that dedication is what solves cases.
The film’s police procedural focus, the emphasis on the routines of detection and investigation, is one of its stronger aspects: a 1950s CSI with forensics pulling finger prints, comparing swatches of material, looking at documents under microscopes and in different light filters, checking physical filing systems full of criminal photographs and descriptions of their physical type.  There’s even a scene that ‘demonstrates’ how a single newspaper can be traced to the location it was sold based on the presence of certain numbers, late stories and type-setting on the front page – a stretching of credibility that would feel perfectly at home in any of the CSI franchise. Alongside that, however, there is an element of 1950s day-to-day policing, where Hawkins and Ward, while out and about, comment on various crooks they pass, noting they’ve put on weight, or just got out of prison. It shows the need for humanity as much as science.
Narrative concerns aside, the film looks great – as one of the final Ealing films made at the classic studio location in Ealing itself, the art and lighting departments really excel. The file room at Scotland Yard has real scale to it, stacked with drawers and racks of files, while stretching way back into the background of the scene (and achieved by physical set size, rather than optical illusion – policemen bustle back and forth); while the shadowy design, particularly in a series of otherwise plain offices, sells this as a crime thriller. The location work builds on this, particularly during an early hit-and-run, and then the climactic chase scene in and around the Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. This is where the fateful ‘Hawkins on car bonnet’ moment happens – not entirely worth the wait, but a good dramatic end nevertheless.

Like A Run for your Money and The Cruel Sea (other films directed by Charles Frend), there’s nothing particularly showy about the filmmaking: most of it is solid, with some subtle camera movements that allow for reframing of important information (the burglar climbing the stars). There is a moment of point-of-view camera from a hit-and-run victim: we ‘see’ his view of Hawkins waver, dim and fade, with similar rising and falling effect on the soundtrack, but it is a momentary flash of something different. As noted above, some of the set pieces work well largely because of their choice and use of locations – the South Bank at night looks very different from modern times.

Another solid entry here, and one that demonstrates how strong Hawkins can be – a good thing, given his presence in so many of the later Ealing films I’ve still to watch. On that note, one line of dialogue stands out here: Halliday notes that his son wants to be either a policeman or a test pilot. Given Hawkins' next film for the studio would be 1957s Man in the Sky, and saw him play a test pilot, was this a little Ealing in-joke?

No comments:

Post a Comment