MAN BAIT. Hammer Films-UK / Lippert Pictures-US, 1952. George Brent, Marguerite Chapman, Diana Dors, Raymond Huntley. Peter Reynolds, and Meredith Edwards. Screenplay by Frederick Knott, based on The Last Page, a play by James Hadley Chase. Directed by Terence Fisher.

   A Pleasant surprise with the unlikely title Man Bait showed up on the bottom half of a double bill DVD billed as “Hammer Noir,” one of a series of co-productions between Hammer Studios and producer Robert Lippert.

BORING BACKGROUND – SKIP THIS PART: Robert Lippert was a producer of legendary cheapness and dubious ethics who churned out a slew of low-budget movies in the 1950s & 60s, mostly aimed at rural audiences and double bills. His favorite actors were Sid Melton, who didn’t need a script, and Margia Dean, whom he was sleeping with. When he hired bigger “name” actors (heavyweights like Cesar Romero or Rod Cameron) it was usually on a profit-sharing deal where the profits never materialized. As far as I can tell, the only ones who ever got a fair shake from Lippert were Sam Fuller, who carried a gun, and George Raft, who had Mob connections.

   In the early 50s, Lippert discovered that the British government was subsidizing film production in England, and he could actually make movies cheaper there in partnership with a British studio. He hit upon the ploy of casting fading second-rank Hollywood “stars” (Raft, Romero, Scott Brady, Zachary Scott, and the like) for dubious box office power in the states, and a whole new sub-genre was born: the Anglo-American B-movie, which flourished, after a fashion, until the moguls at Hammer got a grasp on Lippert’s slippery bookkeeping.

AND NOW BACK TO THE MOVIE: This one stars audience-magnet George Brent and a very capable cast of Brits, including Raymond Huntley, playing his usual nasty martinet, Diana Dors as a sensuous not-quite-innocent, and Peter Reynolds, perfectly slimy as the small-time spiv who tempts our Diana into blackmail and murder — in a bookstore.

   The plot has some surprising twists in it, but the strength of Man Bait is in the characterizations and atmosphere. Director Terence Fisher perfectly evokes the feel of a little book shop — all nooks and crannies and crowded shelves — and the writers people it with real bookstore-types if you know what I mean.

   Which leads me to speculate on where they came from. I have read some of James Hadley Chase’s novels, and I’ll be charitable by saying characterization is not his strong suit. Man Bait is based on a stage play apparently by Chase, The Last Page. I can find no more about it, but the presence of Frederick Knott, just before he hit it big with Dial M for Murder leads me to suspect he played a strong hand in fashioning this film, and perhaps the play as well.

   Whatever the case, Man Bait zips along suspensefully, with Brent framed for murder and the police oh-so-slowly figuring things out as another killing looms just ahead. Terence Fisher makes an impressive directorial debut, and even George Brent, never terribly exciting, lends a surprising inner strength to his quiet role. This one’s a winner.