Richard Attenborough plays a man falsely accused of a child’s murder in this 1950s courtroom drama, recently shown on TV in the UK, and also available here on DVD from Network. I had high hopes of this British Lion production from under-rated director Lance Comfort, which is based on a true story, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Despite some powerful moments, Attenborough doesn’t get enough scope to portray a man under pressure as memorably here as he does in The Angry Silence . This is an anti-capital punishment film, and the main question is whether innocent man Tom will take the “eight o’clock walk” of the title” (I won’t give away the answer!) – yet the tension never really builds to breaking point. Despite a short running length of under 90 minutes, the film moves at a slow pace.
At the start, kindly London taxi driver Tom Manning (Attenborough) is delayed on his way to work by Irene Evans, a little girl from the neighbourhood, who pretends she has lost her doll on a nearby bomb site. She persuades him to go to the wasteland with her, but then announces that it was all an April fool and runs away, giggling. After briefly giving chase, an indignant Tom heads off to work and forgets the whole thing. But, as Irene lingers by the riverside, a shadow looms behind her and the jingling nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ sounds. This whole scene is excellently done, creating a tense and creepy atmosphere, and child actress Cheryl Molineaux is very good as Irene. The fact that we never see her attacker makes the whole scene all the more disturbing and memorable.
Later, when Irene doesn’t return home, Tom is questioned, because he was the last man to see her. That is just the start of his nightmare, however. As circumstantial evidence builds up against him, he finds himself under arrest – and nobody except for his adoring Canadian bride, Jill (Cathy O’Donnell) seems to believe in his innocence. Attenborough even has one great scene in the prison cells where he starts to doubt it himself, and to wonder if perhaps he blacked out and committed the murder. But this is all too short-lived, giving way to several over-sweet scenes between him and O’Donnell, whose character stays very two-dimensional throughout, giving little hint of the actress’s power in films like The Best Years of Our Lives.
However, my main criticism of the film is that, except for the bereaved mother, nobody really seems worried enough about the little girl’s murder. Jill and Tom happily head off for a romantic evening out after hearing that the child is missing, rather than changing their plans to help look for her, and in general there doesn’t seem to be enough fear or anger in the air within the local community. I couldn’t help but think of how much more compellingly a similar storyline is treated in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M. Of course, tackling this kind of subject matter was daring anyway, and I’m sure it had to be handled in a restrained fashion at that period.
I don’t want to be too negative, though. The whole gradually unfolding courtroom drama is absorbing, and in many ways this is the best part of the film. It shows how Tom’s ordeal is everyday fare for many of those around him, including the father and son lawyers who take on the prosecution and defence (Ian Hunter and Derek Farr). Many of those in court are distracted by other matters, including the judge, whose wife is seriously ill in hospital, and, on a lighter note, a witness who is having problems finding long underwear for her husband. There are also disturbing glimpses of the jury room, with jurors who are jumping to conclusions which have little to do with the evidence – and one who is mainly interested in tucking into free meals.
All in all, I’d say this is worth checking out if you get a chance, but not up quite up there with Attenborough’s greatest roles. Anyway, here is the trailer to give you a taste.