Saturday, 9 July 2016


“It appears we are in for a basinful of pictures about spivs, smash-and-grab raids and West End ‘wide boys’, with a bunch of murder dramas thrown in as light relief.”  Reginald Whitley, the Daily Mirror

In the years before WWII, the British Board of Film Censors came down hard on what it saw as the corruptive influence of 1930’s American gangster films on British crime dramas. After the war, it was a different matter. Changes in societal outlook and a more liberal Board make-up made it difficult for its policies to be applied as rigorously, despite its Chair, Andrew Harris, insisting that gangster movies were “Hollywood at its worst”.

A chorus of British film critics echoed Harris' sentiments, taken aback by the number of violent crime thrillers they were being asked to review, especially ones portraying ‘spivs’, the all-present black-marketeers and small-time hustlers occupying territory on the underworld’s tattier fringes. Though the origin of the term spiv is as obscure as the provenance of the goods they were selling, by the end of the war both the use of the word and the men it described were everywhere, including on the big screen.

To some, the spivs represented a greater threat to British society than more established villains because their illicit enterprises intersected with the everyday lives of a population deprived of basic necessities and sought-after luxuries. The spiv also held a certain rogue appeal to many Britons. In an article, ‘Meet the Spiv’, playwright Bill Naughton (Alfie), wrote, “Londoners and other city-dwellers will recognize him and so will many city magistrates – the slick, flashy and nimble-witted tough, talking sharp slang from the corner of his mouth…the counterpart to the zoot-suited hooligans of America.”

The popular allure of the spivs gave post-war British cinema an excuse to produce its own version of Hollywood gangster movies – enjoyed as much in the UK as anywhere else. The cinematic clothing – the garish ties, and striped shirts, worn with sharply-cut suits with wide lapels – did hark back to that worn by Cagney and Robinson, though Dan Duryea’s modish garb in Scarlet Street (1945) comes closer to the mark.

In the end, the post-war ‘spiv cycle’ generated many of British film noir’s most memorable titles. Among them: Waterloo Road (1944) with Johns Mills and Stewart Granger; Night Beat (1947) featuring Maxwell Reed and Anne Crawford; It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) starring Jack Warner and Googie Withers; Brighton Rock (1947) headlining Richard Attenborough, Willam Hartnell, and Carol Marsh; They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) with Trevor Howard, Griffith Jones,  Sally Gray; Noose aka The Silk Noose (1948) starring Derek Farr, Joseph Calleia, and Carole Landis; Good Time Girl (1948), featuring Dennis Price, Herbert Lom, and Jean Kent; Night in the City (1950) with Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Googie Withers; and Wide Boy (1952) starring Syd Tafler and Susan Shaw.

Of these, the cycle’s best-known entry would be John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, which made it clear that post-war British cinema could be as effective in expressing the conventions and concerns of what we now call film noir as the signature American releases of the period. Based on the book by Grahame Greene and with a screenplay written by Greene and playwright Terence Rattigan, the densely-plotted film primarily concerns itself with the last days and final maneuverings of an amoral young spiv, Pinkie Brown. Attenborough’s performance in Brighton Rock is decisive, bested only by his portrayal of serial killer John Christie in Richard Fleisher’s chilling 10 Rillington Place (1971). Though Brighton Rock’s fired-up director John Boulting sometimes strained too visibly with his overly-pushy compositions, the film stands as an otherwise unqualified classic of British cinema.

Preceding the release of Brighton Rock by only two months was Dancing with Crime, also starring Attenborough. Although a lesser-known spiv film, Dancing with Crime was an all-important transitional title. It was more graphic and violent than anything seen on British screens and also the first of the post-war films to deal explicitly with the kind of low-level criminality that was beginning to impact upon parts of English life as the war came to an end. Conjuring up a nocturnal half-world that reflected the anxiety and dissolution of the period, Dancing with Crime embodies the urge to escape from the chafing restraints of post-war existence by whatever means. As one Scotland Yard inspector observes dryly, “Civvy Street seems pretty strange to some of the boys”. 

Attenborough, 23 years old and looking much younger, plays a recently ‘demobbed’ soldier, Ted Peters, now working as a taxi driver trying to get ahead and save enough to be able to marry his childhood sweetheart, Joy, played by Sheila Sim (in real-life, Mrs. Richard Attenborough). Meantime, Peter’s boyhood friend and army buddy, Dave Robinson (Bill Owen) is only out for easy money and dealing in “this and that – everything a rich man wants and can’t get”. After pulling a jewel heist, Robinson runs afoul of gang leader, South London dance palais owner, ‘Mr. Gregory’ (Barry Jones) and his henchman and club manager, Paul Baker (Barry K. Barnes). Leaving the club one night, Robinson is shot in the back but manages to crawl into the backseat of Ted’s unattended cab. Ted and Joy later find Robinson dead and Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. However, Ted sets out on his own to find out what happened to Robinson, endangering both himself and his fiancĂ©e who takes a job at the dancehall hoping to find evidence against Gregory. 

Dancing with Crime was based on a screenplay by Brock Williams, whose list of writing credits would grow to include crime thrillers The Night Won’t Talk (1952); Three Steps in the Dark (1953); Meet Mr. Callaghan (1954), featuring Slim Callaghan, a fictional PI in the American hard-boiled style, based on books by Peter Cheney; The Gilded Cage (1950); The Pleasure Lovers (1959); Strictly Confidential (1959); and Young, Willing and Eager (1961). 

Williams’ stories and efforts at character development tend towards the schematic and the familiar. In Dancing with Crime, it comes down to two life-long friends who go down different roads, one straight and one crooked; a returning soldier unable to negotiate the demands of civilian life who turns to crime; criminals who attempt to frame the protagonist for murder; a self-styled sleuth who feels he has no choice but to act in order to clear himself and bring the real criminal to justice; a female who goes undercover in order to help ferret out the criminal. 

However, even if the film makes little effort to upset some of the standard noir tropes and conventions, Dancing with Crime has no end of things to really like about it, beginning with its cast. Though the characters may be typed, the actors bring a vivid fleshiness to each, all of whom are searchingly real in their Englishness. Baby-faced Richard Attenborough with his youthful appeal and vulnerability can be swallowed 'smooth as margarine’. Bill Owen as the stylish and voluble Robinson shines every moment of the too few that he’s on screen, as do Barry Jones as the fastidious, ruthless criminal mastermind and Barry K. Barnes as the suave floor boss easily attracted to both women and violence.

Among those women is Toni (Judy Kelly), one of the club’s ‘professional partners’, who suffers at the hands of Barnes and whose despair is practically a living presence; also, the uncredited Diana Dors as Annette, another of the floor dancers at the night club. The dark-haired Dors was only 15 years old at the time but the cool self-awareness and intelligence that would win her praise for her performance in the much-nominated Yield to the Night (1956) was already apparent. Look too for Dirk Bogarde in an unbilled, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him bit as an earnest young police constable.  

Dancing with Crime's director,John Paddy Carstairs, was a producer's friend who turned out well-crafted pictures, mostly thrillers and comedies, on time and on budget for over 30 years. Notable among his crime films, apart from Dancing with Crime, were The Saint in London (1939), Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948) and his final film, The Devil’s Agent (1962), a superior hard-edged Cold War thriller starring Peter van Eyck and Macdonald Carey. Carstairs also became well-known as a painter and he brought an imaginative eye to his trade. Dancing with Crime though made on a modest budget by a minor studio is far more ambitiously directed than many second-tier British noirs of the period – witness the unreserved brio of the elaborate boom shots in the dance palais. 

Capturing this blithe elegance as well as ominous night-time exteriors was the ardent camera of cinematographer Reg Wyer. Wyer was a contemporary of Otto Heller, the man responsible for lensing the now noir-enshrined They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), Robert Siodmak’s Portrait of a Sinner (1959), Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), and the groundbreaking Victim (1961). However, the cumulation of Wyer’s efforts over the same period was at least as consequential in terms of craft. Besides Dancing with Crime, his on-screen credits included the critically-awarded The Seventh Veil (1945), The Upturned Glass (1946), Daybreak (1948), So Long at the Fair (1950), Never Look Back (1952), Eye Witness (1956), The Weapon (1956), Across the Bridge (1957), Violent Playground (1958), and The Man in the Back Seat (1961).  

Dancing with Crime, which far outperformed Brighton Rock at the box office, is enlivened further by an array of ‘forties British big band classics like the hit ‘Bow Bells’ and an atmospheric score by composer/musical arranger Ben Frankel. Frankel’s music graced over a hundred films including film noirs The Seventh Veil; Dear Murderer (1947), Mine Own Executioner (1947), Night Beat, Bond Street (1948), Sleeping Car to Trieste, Night and the City (British release), Double Confession (1950), The Clouded Yellow (1950), Footsteps in the Fog (1955), Libel (1954) and a dozen others.

But by 1950 and with the weakening of austerity measures and rationing, the sympathetic relationship between the public and the small-fry spivs was coming to an end. While Richard Widmark’s finely-attired Harry Fabian is desperately trying to find a way to “live the life of ease and plenty without working for it”, British audiences, looking ahead with greater hope, were no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to such fecklessness.

Three years later and just months after the last ration book was withdrawn, The Bells of St. Trinians, an antic comedy starring Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell, was released which featured an over-the-top caricature called ‘Flash’ played by George Cole. The movie was a sensation and almost overnight the spiv and his lot had become but a joke.  

Gary Deane     


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