Friday, 17 February 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 45: The Blue Lamp (1950)

There are so many existing associations with The Blue Lamp that it is almost impossible to watch it with a fresh eye: George Dixon’s life and death in film, then rebirth in the television hit Dixon of Dock Green; the menacing youthful swagger of Dirk Bogarde; British cinema’s delight in such ‘social problem’ films through the 1950s and early 60s; the underlying assumptions around youth as a problem, with tradition offered as the ‘obvious’ solution; and the assumption (often problematic) that all policemen are good and trustworthy.

Those elements and that reputation are here, obviously, but it would be wrong to allow them to blind us to what works so well about this film: like The Long Arm (1956) it is a police procedural done with great skill, yet also a film that isn’t afraid to explore the bleakness and violence of late 1940s youth. In many ways The Blue Lamp exists as a companion piece, or contemporary parallel, to Brighton Rock (1947): Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) contains the same combination of menace and guile as Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough). Here, Riley’s apparent descent into paranoia and guilt after killing PC George Dixon (Jack Warner) is laced with cunning (as he tries to distract the police) and anger (when he thinks he is betrayed by those closest to him).

The film opens with a quickly-cut car chase (with the camera alternately ahead of the car, behind the car, and from the car’s point-of-view) that sets a pace for the film that rarely lets up. We get a familiar story: traditional street copper George Dixon is near retirement, but remains on the beat, showing new PC Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley) the ropes. A parallel storyline involving young crooks Riley and Spud (Patric Doonan), and Riley’s girlfriend Diana Lewis (Peggy Lee), collides with the main narrative in murderous fashion when Riley shoots Dixon during a cinema robbery. As the police force mobilises to track Dixon’s killer (the procedural is in full swing here: fingerprints are taken, the murder scene is photographed, clues are traced and followed up by CID), the film builds to a final car chase (a fast-paced, location heavy, visual echo of its opening scenes) and then a final hunt through White City Stadium where local criminals help the police capture Riley.

Dixon is the archetypal good cop: he knows everyone on his beat, and even the petty criminals and illegal traders seem to like him. Indeed, most of the policemen we see are presented as nice blokes who’d rather be sitting together in the canteen practicing in their male voice choir and listening to Dixon’s made up songs. Ealing has been accused of favouring male camaraderie over female (or, as in films like The Cruel Sea (1953), of trying to avoid women wherever possible) and many familiar male faces crop up in the police ranks, including PC Hughes (Meredith Edwards) and Inspector Cherry (Bernard Lee). Each policeman gets a minor character trait – astronomy, football pools, gardening, poetry – but is largely defined by their job, and their commitment to it. Of course, this blog has attempted to challenge and open up the debate around gender in Ealing – Turned Out Nice Again (1942), Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and The Feminine Touch (1956) are obvious examples here – but it remains true that The Blue Lamp offers limited scope for female roles. Although women are seen working within the police station, they are rarely the centre of attention and largely answer phones. Equally, Mrs Dixon (Gladys Henson) may verbally spar with her husband, but she remains visually restricted to domestic duties and interests; while Diana may run away from home, she runs straight into the arms of the violent and jealous Riley.

Visually, the place of drama-documentary within Ealing’s aesthetic is secure: the film relies on location-based imagery (including bombed out streets and areas) such as the montage that opens the film, newspaper headlines are used to frame the social ‘problem,’ and there is a recurring male voiceover that asks questions like ‘What protection has the man in the street against the armed threat?’ Yet while the film may rely on these visual cues, it can also be playful with composition, particularly around the younger characters: a shot from above Peggy Lee’s head as she powders her face (an angle that stresses the obvious ‘clue’ of her compact); Bogarde in the foreground of the picture as he fills the chambers of a gun; framing an argument between Riley and Spud with Bogarde and Doonan in the background, in focus, with Diane, out of focus, dominating the left of screen; or Bogarde’s haunted face as he shaves in front of a mirror. The film may ultimately side with Dixon and tradition, but it has great fun dramatising and presenting its younger criminal characters.

And there is throughout a sense that the film enjoys its darker, criminal side a little more than it should – Dixon is comfortable and safe, but Riley gets all the attention-grabbing scenes; Dixon likes to potter in his garden, Riley hangs out in coffee bars; Dixon favours a stern word, Riley gets his hands on a gun; and, ultimately, Warner is a solid screen presence, Bogarde is a compelling one.

The Blue Lamp deserves the reputations and associations I listed above, but it shouldn’t be reduced to simple ideas of good and bad, or tradition triumphing over youth ‘problems’. There is light and dark throughout the film, and that might be its most interesting legacy.

Next time, Tommy Trinder takes on a German destroyer in Sailors Three (1940)...

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