Never Take Candy/Sweets From a Stranger (1960) ****

Banned in the U.S., box office flop in Britain, consigned to the vaults for over three decades,  and when revived and you wonder how everyone could have been so wrong. A sensitive portrayal of a family caught up in local Canadian politics when their daughter accuses a dignitary of molestation, it carefully avoids the exploitation trap. At times tense, thrilling and heart-rending, with dynamic use of sound – sirens, footsteps, tracking dogs – it’s probably the best Hammer picture of the decade.

Young Lucille (Frances Green) takes her new friend Jean (Janina Faye), daughter of newly-arrived immigrants Peter (Patrick Allen) and Sally Carter (Gwen Watford), to visit an old man Clarence Olderberry Sr (Felix Aylmer). When the child returns home, not initially perturbed by what occurred, it transpires that, in return for a handful of candy (sweets in British parlance), she danced naked.

Sally’s mother Martha (Alison Leggatt), conscious of the disruption accusations might cause, tries to play it down. Sally reports the incident to the police chief Hammond (Budd Knapp) who is reluctant to pursue a case against the town’s most important person. Clarence Jr. (Bill Nagy) warns Peter of disastrous consequences. Lucille’s parents send her away so she cannot back up Jean’s story.

There follows trial by town, the whole family receiving the enmity of the local populace, while Jean is destroyed in the witness box by the prosecutor (Michael Gwynn), ending up so distraught her parents throw in the towel, the accused walking released scot free. Rancour is such Peter quits his job but as they prepare to quit the town, Jean goes off playing in the woods again with Lucille.

Stalked by the old man, they race terrified through the woods and into a rowing boat on the water only for the assailant to grab the tow-line and pull them back.

Movie tie-in by the author of the original play.

What could have easily pandered to the worst possible taste is incredibly well done. Strangers arousing the ire of a local populace is a trope as old as the hills so none of the consequence of their action was surprising. Nor, for the time, was the disgust expressed that such an accusation could be cast, not even if the old man has a history of mental illness, a voluntary patient whose records have conveniently vanished.

Whether the son has any inkling of the truth, or whether he is equally appalled, is never made clear as he is in any case duty bound to defend the family’s good name.  But compromise is the name of the game. And whereas you can understand Lucille’s father not wanting to risk his job, Sally’s mother falls into a different category, the uptight Englishwoman who dare not challenge the existing order. There’s a terrific scene when she is suddenly made aware that she is in the wrong but is too frightened to admit it.

Jean’s experience could easily be repeated today, thousands of women refusing to accuse in case they end up slandered or defamed, or find themselves taking on powerful men with powerful friends. We all know how easy it is for an unscrupulous lawyer to embark on witness character assassination. Initial corruption of innocence can be heightened by testifying in a witness box.

The sub-text of the film, while never remotely explicit, is that adults were only too aware of the existence of paedophiles, regardless of trying to write them off as harmless as Martha does, and it was virtually impossible is those more innocent times to explain to a child the dangers of taking candy from a friendly stranger.

Director Cyril Frankel (Operation Snafu, 1961) has done an excellent job of opening up the stage play by Roger Garis, and yet imposed quite a claustrophobic feel to the enterprise. Having escaped a potential captor, Jean is a prisoner of consequence, initially disbelieved, paraded in front of a hostile town, belittled by the prosecutor, despised by the jury, and let down in the end by her fearful parents who, having put her through the court ordeal, decide it is too much. And when she is free it is only to fall prey once again.

Patrick Allen (The Traitors, 1962) is custom-made for this kind of principled role, but Gwen Watford (Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970) makes the most of a rare top-billed part, caught between conscience and status quo, battling an entrenched male hierarchy, undone by her own mother. Janina Faye (Day of the Triffids, 1963), only a couple of years older than the character she was playing and hopefully had little knowledge of the background to her role, is excellent as the young girl who discovers that innocence has a guilty side.

Well worth a watch with, unfortunately, a story that still rings true today.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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