MARGERY ALLINGHAM Tiger in the Smoke

TIGER IN THE SMOKE. J. Arthur Rank, UK, 1956. Donald Sinden, Muriel Pavlow, Tony Wright, Laurence Naismith and Beatrice Varley. Screenplay by Anthony Pelissier, from the novel by Margery Allingham. Directed by Roy Ward Baker.

   First off, you should know that I watched this quite by accident. Maybe even by mistake; after reading Never Come Back, I ordered the movie supposedly made from it (Tiger by the Tail) but the dealer sent me this instead — and I’m very glad he did.

   Fans of Margery Allingham (I know you’re out there; I can hear you knitting your tea-cosies) may be disappointed to find that the makers of this film dispensed completely with Albert Campion, but lovers of tricky, off-beat movie-making will be delighted by it—or at least the first half, which opens with a visual symphony worthy of Welles or Vorkapich.

   It’s all set in a thick London smog, through which the characters pursue one another, appearing and vanishing at odd moments, lurking half-seen, or unseen, or maybe-seen with eerie precision. Director Baker (or maybe Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth deserves the credit) knows just when to generate suspense by looming a shifty shape up in the background, and just when to lose it in the mist. And there’s a remarkably fine extended business with a band of sinister performing street beggars, who wander in and out of frame in movements that look to have inspired the opening stretch of Touch of Evil.

MARGERY ALLINGHAM Tiger in the Smoke

   The film itself is as intriguing plot-wise as visually: As the story opens, Meg Elgin (the delightful Muriel Pavlow) is being escorted by the police to rendezvous with a mystery man who may be her presumed-dead-in-the-war husband. Her helpful/hopeful fiancé (Donald Sinden) is also along, as the party make their way through the treacherous smog, dogged by those oddly menacing (and horribly off-key) street performers, and discover that the man who arranged the meeting is an only actor who resembles her late husband — but he’s wearing the dead man’s coat!

   From here things diverge, with Sinden trailing the actor and getting caught up with the malignant cacophonists, while Pavlow and the cops try to find out how the actor got the coat. Along the way we find that a bad guy called Jack Havoc has broken jail and is out there searching for… we don’t know for what yet, but we do know it has something to do with the late husband, and Havoc is willing — even eager — to kill for whatever it is. As one of the detectives comments, “He’s pure evil.”

   Eventually Jack Havoc makes his appearance, and at this point the film falters badly. Tony Wright, who plays the part, may have been a capable actor for all I know, but he simply doesn’t project the menace we’ve been led to expect. Moreover, the fog dissipates and the visuals quiet down as the plot eventually moves off to sun-drenched Brittany and a conclusion that recalls the endings of Saboteur and North by Northwest.

MARGERY ALLINGHAM Tiger in the Smoke

   There’s a surprising scene at the three-quarter mark where the heroine’s vicar father tries to reclaim Havoc’s soul, intelligently done and well-played, but it somehow misses the pathos and emotion it should have carried.

   Ah well. There is, however, one surprisingly effective character: one Lucy Cash, a respectable, church-going and totally repellant creation who sucks blood out of the local poor people, and she’s played with quiet assurance by Beatrice Varley, whom you may remember from Horrors of the Black Museum. At any rate, she leads us to a minor plot twist where (SPOILER ALERT!) it turns out she’s Jack Havoc’s mum. Which makes his real name Johnny Cash, so you can see why he changed it.

Editorial Comment: David Vineyard reviewed both the book and the film nearly four years ago on this blog. Check out what he had to say here.