Sim Brings That Ealing Feeling



Squint, and it’s an Ealing – but it’s not, and to the American eye that makes it feel like more of a find. Muppet-eyed, buck-toothed Alastair Sim (mostly known stateside for his definitive take in 1951’s Scrooge) is the Dexter of detonators, plying his explosive trade for hire against the worst of society. Herein, he relays the tale of hapless woe that surrounded a directive to off Sir Gregory Upshott, a loathed MP-businessman whose only real sin was to be the target of successful producing-writing-sometimes directing team, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. It’s often the less-ambitious picture that trades richness for fanciful rigor to create something that feels less like a masterpiece you have to watch and more like a middle-of-the-stack that asks for less but gives you more. This is that.

The cynical treat inside all eighty minutes is nearly indistinguishable from the Ealing/Alec Guinness greats like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), if not Hitchcock’s American-but-very-British The Trouble with Harry (1955), and that is the dark assumption of the human capacity for murder and the audience’s easy identification with those who would do the killing. Here, we sidle up quite cozily with Sim’s professional killer, Hawkins, watching with faux suspense as he maneuvers through the obstacles set against him by a do-gooding door-to-door vacuum salesman, Blake, played with open-faced innocence by common Sim costar George Cole. Yet even in light of our lingering warm memories of enjoying those dark Ealing hijinks, it’s a strange experience to wade through Blake’s accidental dismantling of Hawkins’ sinister house of cards while actually rooting for the assassin. 

Call it getting our money’s worth, but if a movie puts Sim front and center, with his fluttering expressions all gangly and flummoxed, each pained reversal working itself all the way up from his plodding shoes to his wrung-out eyebrows, his picket-fence grin quivering toward the oncoming collapse, then how can they expect us to ever pull for Cole’s cookie cutter romance to win the day? When it’s curtains for Hawkins in the end, against our bent devotion, but we’ve yet to tie up the obviously looming love connection between Blake and Ann (Jill Adams), the neighbor who is his accidental partner in accidental crime-fighting, we become impatient – without Sim to hold our attention, we’re left with somewhat paint-by-numbers capering. 

A tuppence of Hawkins’ on-screen angst must be paid to the off-screen gut-punch of Sim losing his inaugural director’s chair. He wanted to direct, but the guild said not so, unless he technically shadowed a member. Enter camera operator Robert Day, himself a newbie helmer, who would share co-credit. But things went sideways, ideas were squashed, Sim departed the deal (but stayed on as actor), while tried-and-true Ealing director Basil Dearden came on as an un-credited chaperone. It’s a fun game to imagine the frustrated assassin shrieking his scripted epithets out into the studio for his non-fictional foes to hear. And another game of better-as-is, admitting one’s gratitude that Sim avoided any distraction that might sully the hunching precision of his performance.

And it’s enough. Apart from Kino Lorber Studio Classic’s bright, crystal clear 4K restoration and the adulating, Sim-centric commentary by film historian David Del Valle, we’re more than entertained as we’re brought to the other end of Hawkins’ inevitable criminal arc by way of one of the great screen comics. His undulating sad-sack of a face punctuates this slight film’s troped-out plotting with silent-film-like artistry to the point that Sim could be said to single-handedly imbue the movie with its only lasting worth. 

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