Friday, January 31, 2014

Paid To Kill (1954)

In the first half of the 50s, British studio Hammer Films cranked out quite a number of noir-ish thrillers, a lot of them in association with US movie producer Robert L. Lippert, who brought in an American lead to star in these movies. These movies were usually fairly average but still entertaining, and while never truly great they also rarely were disappointing enough to not watch from start to finish. One of the better ones is 'Paid To Kill' from 1954, which was released in the US with the far less exciting title 'Five Days'. It was directed by Montgomery Tully who directed a couple of these Hammer noirs including 'Terror Street' and 'The Glass Tomb', with Hammer regulars Walter Harvey handling the cinematography and Ivor Slaney providing the musical score. Paul Tabori wrote the screenplay.

Dane Clark plays James Nevill, the American president of Amalgamated Industries. Through his willingness to take big gambles, he's helped make the company become an international company of considerable size, much to the pleasure of most of the company's board of directors. But his latest, and biggest, gamble does not pay off when investor Cyrus McGowan (Howard Marion-Crawford) backs out of the deal at the last moment. Nevill had put everything on the line for this deal, and faces certain financial ruin and a bankrupt Amalgamated Industries. To at least help his wife Andrea (Thea Gregory) he enlists the help of his long-time loser friend Paul Kirby (Paul Carpenter). Where James worked his way up to become a successful businessman, Paul never got out of the gutter, and James once helped Paul beat a possible murder-rap. He now uses this against Paul to get Paul to kill him. That way Andrea will collect his life insurance and won't be left behind empty-handed. Paul reluctantly accepts, and they set a date. Soon after they make the agreement however, McGowan changes his mind and the deal is on again, saving Amalgamated Industries and more importantly, Nevill's neck. However, no matter how hard he tries, he can't get in touch with Paul to call off the murder-pact and several attempts on his life are made... And that's not all, Paul's disappearance might be the least of his worries as there's also an unsuspected femme fatale lurking in the shadows...
'That's it, Paul, feel that hatred. You're doing fine, work on that hatred for a few days and you'll have no trouble in killing me. No trouble at all.'
Dane Clark played in a couple of these Hammer noirs, and this is his best effort. Clark had a natural talent for playing a seemingly tough but emotionally desperate and tormented man who's a sucker deep down, which made him perfect for film noir. He was not a charismatic leading man however, so he never really became an A-list actor, and he was rather underused in noirs. His finest moment came in 1948's 'Moonrise', playing a guilt-ridden accidental killer, but he does a really solid job here as well. Dane Clark was born Bernard Zanville and claimed Humphrey Bogart gave him the stage name Dane Clark, who knows? What's funny however is that Dane Clark played Slate Shannon in the televised series of 'Bold Venture', the same character Bogart played in the earlier syndicated radio series (together with Lauren Bacall). I haven't seen Clark's version, but I can recommend the radio series.

The rest of the cast does a good enough job but are given fairly flat characters that don't need a lot of imagination to pull off. There's a big part in the movie for Cecile Chevreau as Nevill's personal secretary Joan, who's also, of course, in love with Nevill despite his rather crass & temperamental character (which is not exactly soothed by him being the target of a would-be-killer). Chevreau was primarily a stage and radio play actress, with only about a dozen movie credits to her name, but I rather enjoyed her performance here. Paul Carpenter was a Hammer regular and while not standing out in any way, he's always solid and dependable. Thea Gregory does what she should as the other half of James Nevill who loves him far less than he loves her. But she's the weakest link here unfortunately, her performance never rises above the level of 'adequate'.

The movie's plot is not really original, similar plot devices had been used before, for instance in some other noirs, 1944's 'The Whistler' and 1947's 'The Pretender'. But Paul Tabori's screenplay does not feel like a complete carbon copy of older scripts, it's got enough elements to distinguish itself. Visually the movie starts out pretty bland, but things gradually become darker and more shadowy, progressing along nicely with James Nevill's predicament. I wouldn't say this is a chiaroscuro masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but there are some nice visual set-ups, including a chase down a dark alley leading into an even darker tunnel, and a finale inside a greenhouse at night. The movie also has a pretty good build-up of tension, and Nevill's paranoia is visualized well, for instance when he spots a suspicious-looking man in a public park. Nevill is a temperamental person and his high strung outbursts only increase as his desperate attempts to find Paul keep hitting brick walls.

All in all, 'Paid To Kill' is what one would expect from Hammer Films, at least in the thriller department, of course Hammer would become much more famous for its string of horror movies. But when it comes to these noir-ish thrillers, with its protagonists who end up in a situation, usually due to their own bad choices, that they cannot control nor can escape from, Hammer did alright. No classics but also no real duds either. And of the bunch, 'Paid To Kill', is definitely a top-contender.


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