Friday, November 3, 2023

Hue & Cry (Great Britain, 1947)

Hue & Cry
is the tertiary feature film project of British director Charles Crichton (6 Aug 1910 – 14 Sept 1999), a former film editor (on many an English classic) who had, only three years earlier, made his directorial debut with the war-time propaganda film For Those in Peril (1944 / trailer), assuming that one does not count his co-direction of the decidedly comic The Golfer's Story segment — "the weakest entry but still charming in its own way [Horrified]" — of the famed anthology horror film Dead of Night (1945 / trailer) as a full directorial credit. It is perhaps the propensity for humor, combined with the obvious talent for shooting on location displayed in his second feature film, Painted Boats (1945 / scene), that led to this project, a film commonly touted as the "first" Ealing comedy, although to simply label the film a comedy does this oddly schizophrenic movie injustice.*
* Despite forays into other genres, today Crichton is above all remembered as a comedic director. His best-known films remain, arguably, the classic Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951 / trailer) and his final movie, also a classic comedy, A Fish Called Wanda (1988 / trailer). The Lavender Hill Mob was likewise written by the same screenwriter as Hue and Cry, T.E.B. Clarke (7 Jun 1907 – 11 Feb 1989): he won the 1951 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his script to the movie.
At its core, Hue & Cry is very much a close relative of Emil and the Detectives — which had already been filmed twice by 1947: in Germany in 1931 (trailer) and in Great Britain in 1935 (full film) — if not the multitude of cheaper, mostly less-interesting flicks from the US featuring the likes of the Little Tough Guys, the Dead End Kids, the East Side Kids and/or the Bowery Boys. Here, at least for the poster the youths are given the moniker Blood & Thunder Boys, though we really cannot remember if the name is ever used in the film.
In any event, while the narrative initially concentrates on a smaller group of youngsters, in time of need that group easily expands into an inordinately well-organized and tightly knit swathe of young boys, all of whom are willing to swarm together to work in unison for a common cause — even if, only a few hours earlier, some among them were exchanging fisticuffs and pulling hair in a personal fight. The setting this time around, however, is neither the big bad world of Berlin or NYC, but a post-WWII London caught midway between in-ruins and rebuilt.
Trailer to
Hue & Cry:
The basic plot is not the most original of narratives, and is very much of the type only found in kiddy adventure flicks or books of the Hardy Boys or Three Investigators ilk. The narrative is that of a young lad named Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler [10 Dec 1926 – 4 Jan 2012]*) who comes to realize that a story serialized in a popular weekly penny dreadful is secretly being used by an unidentified master criminal to convey instructions to his cadre of professional criminals. As to be expected, Joe cannot find an adult who believes him, so he and his gang decide to put an end to the criminals and their robberies by themselves.
* Though displaying less than stellar acting chops in Hue & Cry, Harry Fowler went on to an acting career that lasted more than six decades and over 200 screen appearances, including Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956 / trailer), The Nanny (1965 / trailer) and Start the Revolution Without Me (1970 / trailer). Four years after the release of Hue & Cry, his married fellow actress Joan Dowling (6 January 1928 – 31 March 1954), who played Clarry in that film, the only female girl to be grudgingly accepted by the gang of boys and who often proves herself very much their equal in mettle, stamina, courage and intelligence. Three years later on 31 March 1954, at the age of 26, she killed herself by gas poisoning in the kitchenette of their home in Farmer Street, Kensington.
While the plot may not be of any true note, it is the rest of the movie that makes the entire package so watchable, enjoyable and entertaining — not to mention extremely intriguing as a historical document. The last is due in particular to the filmmakers' decision to film most of the movie on location in post-WWII London. Street scenes show a London long gone, be it the markets where the early morning laborers toiled, the rebuilt streets and brick houses long replaced by sleek skyscrapers, or the bombed fields of ruined structures and rubble. The last often calls to mind the ruins of Berlin as seen in Roberto Rossellini's homophobic, pessimistic and melodramatic neo-realist fiasco (and "classic"), Germany, Year Zero (1948 / scene). Interestingly enough, while Germany, Year Zero tries to affect by means of moral corruption and child suicide, there is an almost in-passing short scene in Hue & Cry that is far more affecting and unnerving than Rossellini's entire movie. Prior to, during and after Joe and some of his pals stand amidst the ruins of the Blitz discussing their plans, a young boy happily plays in the ruins by imitating, to the point of aural perfection, the sounds of an air raid, complete with planes, sirens, bombs falling and bombs exploding — something that everyone in the movie was surely familiar with from real life.
It is an oddly unsettling scene, one of many moments in the movie when it becomes rather hard to simply label Hue & Cry a comedy. For though there are many moments of humor in the movie, and one character that is played purely for laughs, Hue & Cry is an interlacing of elements from and references to a variety of genres: comedy, thriller, adventure, domestic drama, horror, suspense and more. It is an amazing feat that such a schizophrenic films nevertheless remains both coherent and grounded, offering a little of everything to make something well worth watching and never boring.
Of the three stars blazed across the movie's posters, only two are arguably remembered today. The forgotten name, Valerie White (26 Dec 1915 – 3 Dec 1975), plays Rhona Davis, a hardened bad gal with a fear of mice. Jack Warner (24 Oct 1895 – 24 May 1981), a name perhaps best remembered from The Quatermass Xperiment (1955 / trailer), plays Joe's boss, Jim Nightengale, who has more to him than just his annoying laugh and humor would indicate. But the name at the top, and the face the hogs up most of the poster, belongs to the Scottish character actor Alastair Sim [(9 Oct 1900 – 19 Aug 1976) of the lesser Hitchcock film Stage Fright [1950 / trailer]), in a guest appearance as Felix H. Wilkinson, the author of the penny-dreadful stories that are subsequently altered to convey the criminal's instructions. 
Sims role is short, perhaps five to eight minutes in total at best, and he makes an impressingly effective if somewhat hammy impression, coming across (at least by modern standards) as a man you might not want to leave your children alone with. Within seconds, he goes from batty to pleased to threatening to swishy to fawning to flattered to terrified in an oddly campy turn that any and all fans of the German Rialto Edgar Wallace krimis will recognize as the performance that Eddi Arendt (5 May 1925 – 28 May 2013) obviously based most of his Wallace krimi performances on.*
* See, for example, Inn on the River (1962), The Indian Scarf (1963), The Red Circle (1960), The Black Abbot (1963), amongst other films.
One of the better vignettes of the movie concerns an escape through the sewers of London, the result of the failure of the less-than-thought-out plans of out intrepid youngsters, and there is a "torture" scene that is oddly funny, but it us surely the big showdown at the end of the movie, in which apparently every working class youth in London shows up to battle the bad guys as Joe faces off with the top honcho, is a doozy.
In the end, Hue & Cry might never truly lose the feeling that it is less a comedy than a pre-teen suspense film, but the movie is very much worth watching as an adult because it offers so much more than simple family entertainment. Give it a go.

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