Return to Sender (1963) ***

The B-film’s B-film. Where American B-pictures invariably focused on sleaze, sci-fi, horror or violence, their British counterparts often exuded class with solid acting, clever plots, excellent though simple sets and good composition. Edgar Wallace, the world’s most prolific writer, had regained sudden popularity thirty years after his death, and movies made from his works made ideal subjects for B-pictures fed into the British double-bill system. His thrillers are all story, racing along with twist after twist.

On the verge of being arrested for fraud, high-class businessman Dino Steffano (Nigel Davenport) hits on blackmail as a means of forcing investigator Robert Lindley (Geoffrey Keen) to drop the case. He sets up associate Mike Cochrane (William Russell) to fake photographs involving sexy Lisa (Yvonne Romain) and Lindley in compromising positions. So Lisa, pretending to hold vital evidence, lures him to her flat where this can be staged.

Meanwhile Lindley’s daughter Beth (Jennifer Daniel) chats up Cochrane after overhearing him asking questions about her father’s cottage. Cochrane has history with Lindley, an 18-month prison sentence the result of a previous encounter. He also resents Steffano over previous double-dealing and is planning to take his own revenge while carrying out the master plan.

I doubt if you will be able to see the twists coming. Suffice to say, nothing is what it seems. The closer Lindley gets to uncovering the mystery, the darker it becomes and the more danger he appears to be in. Even when characters reveal their plans, you can be sure they will have a different one up their sleeve. Steffano’s exceptional charm masks his ruthlessness. While Lindley is dogged, he is no match for the slinky Lisa who can play the vulnerable female with ease. Artist Beth treasures her independence so much that it takes her down some devious alleys, especially when trying to pump Cochrane for information. And it all leads to a terrific climax, involving further twists and double-dealing.

Most of this is played out in classy apartments with log fires burning and Steffano drinking brandy and smoking cigars, or on a yacht, or Lindley’s equally splendid chambers.

The cast are either up-and-coming movie stars or destined for small-screen fame. Many of these Edgar Wallace thrillers would prove stepping stones for new talent.

Nigel Davenport (The Third Secret, 1964) is the pick and would become an accomplished supporting actor in films like Play Dirty (1969). Yvonne Romaine had already made a splash in The Frightened City (1961) and would go on to play the female lead in Devil Doll (1964) and The Brigand of Kandahar (1965). Geoffrey Keen (Dr Syn, Alias The Scarecrow, 1963) would make a bigger impact on television in Mogul (1965-1972). As would William Russell (The Great Escape, 1963) who went on to become a long-running sidekick of Dr Who (1963-1965). Jennifer Daniel became a horror favorite with the female lead in The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and The Reptile (1966).  

Making his movie debut director John Hales clearly benefits from a couple of decades as an editor in films like The Seventh Veil (1945) and Village of the Damned (1960) and he nips quickly from one scene to another to keep the plot ticking along while showing some gift for framing characters within a scene.  

I should point out you will easily find flaws. Strictly speaking, if you know your British police procedural, Lindley would not be an investigator, and it would not be too hard to find strains of implausibility showing. But that should not detract from this enjoyable movie.

British studio Anglo Amalgamated churned out these Edgar Wallace thrillers as double-bill fodder and, even though compromised in the budget department, they were generally well-made. Wallace was a brand-name, the country’s best-selling author on account of his 200-plus novels, most still in print long after his death, and a byword for a good read. American networks edited the features down to fit into a television series. So if you are hunting these down make sure you get the original features rather than the edited versions.

You could try this sampler on Amazon Prime but if you like what you see you would be better to buy one of the box sets.

The Frightened City (1961) ***

Sean Connery in an early role as a gangster is not the only reason for watching this brisk British thriller about a London protection racket. Primarily told from the point-of-view of the bad guys, this explores how a ruthless Mr Big (Herbert Lom) builds up a criminal empire. Lom, a bent accountant, brings together the six major gangs involved in extorting money from pubs and stores into a democratically-run syndicate.  Lom then moves on to demanding bigger sums from bigger enterprises such as construction businesses. However, when the gangsters fall out they go to war.  

This film is way ahead of the game in presenting gangsters as displaying any intelligence. Generally, they were depicted as brutes who ruled by force. But criminality at the top level demanded as much organization as in a legitimate business. Personalities had to be harnessed to work together rather than shoot each other on sight. Such skills had to exist in order for gangsters to operate on any scale. This picture examines how this was done.

The cops led by John Gregson are almost a sub-plot and the story would have adequately run its course without their involvement. Gregson sails close to the wind hoping to “tilt the scale of justice in our direction for a change.” Connery doesn’t appear until about 20 minutes as a karate-expert cat-burglar turned enforcer. Connery’s involvement with the syndicate ends when his code of honor is breached and he turns on his employers. His code is not so sacrosanct that it prevents him cheating on his girlfriend. But he does display the virility to fill James Bond’s shoes.

There’s far more violence that would be expected in a British crime picture. Night clubs, shops and pubs are wrecked and there’s plenty of fisticuffs and when the gangsters go head-to-head they upgrade to grenades. There’s a bit more plot than the running time can deal with so director (and producer and co-writer) John Lemont occasionally resorts to cliché devices like newspaper headlines. Canadian Lemont – most famous for writing the first serial hon on ITV, Sixpenny Corner – was an auteur of the old-fashioned (and unheralded) kind, and previously writer-director of The Shakedown (1960).  Triple-hyphenates, while rare in the movie business, were generally of a high calibre such as Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, so Lemont was in good company, and clearly, in consequence, the movie that appeared reflected his own vision.

Top billing was a step up for Lom and he made the most of it, delivering a suave villain among the thugs. Gregson (The Captain’s Table, 1959) was a solid British star and ideal cop material (he was later British television’s Gideon). Yvonne Romaine, as Connery’s new squeeze, a nightclub singer exploited by Lom more for her looks than her voice, was known to audiences after Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In only her second film Scottish television actress Olive McFarland was Connery’s dumped girlfriend. Unusually, for a British picture at this time, the theme tune written by Norrie Paramour was covered by The Shadows and turned into a hit.

At this point in his career, Connery had already had two bites of the cherry without much success – romancing Lana Turner in Another Time, Another Place (1958) and Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). This was three films before his breakthrough with Dr No (1962) but the Pressbook showed signs that he was headed for the heights.  Co-star Yvonne Romaine (and her distinctive body measurements) were accorded three separate stories in the Pressbook, compared to one each for Lom and Alfred Marks, at that point better known as a comedian, but none of Connery. But Connery (and Romaine) outshone their co-stars when it came to the advertising campaign.  

Producers were contractually bound in relation to the size of credits that appeared on any advertising. But there were no such regulations regarding the visuals of an advert. Although top-billed, Lom is  not shown on any of the adverts. Given greatest prominence was Yvonne Romaine. There were thirteen different ads and she appeared in them all. Although Connery was third-billed and she was two rungs below in the credit stakes, he was the junior partner when it came to the artwork. While, Connery appeared in eleven in only one did he overshadow Romaine and in another they were visually-speaking accorded roughly the same status. But otherwise, she hogged the adverts.  

The Pressbook was small by American standards, consisting of six A3 pages, the bulk of which was given over to adverts. But what it lacked in pages it made up for in taglines – of which there were six main types. Of course, Connery would become an “Untouchable” in the later Brian dePalma film.

The picture was not seen much in the United States, sent out in first run as the lower half of a double bill in only a handful of big cities, so there’s a fair chance it’s completely unknown except to Connery completists. But it’s certainly worth a look. New 60th anniversary edition has come out in April 2021 – that’s the top DVD, the previous one is below.