HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERon 4 October 2014
Hammer Films' history was nothing if not circular: they may have ended up sleepwalking into their own grave doing cheap movie spinoffs of TV sitcoms after their horror glory days were over, but that's almost exactly how they started, albeit with cheap movie spinoffs of hit British radio shows like The Adventures of P.C. 49 and 1948's Dick Barton, Special Agent. And cheap is the order of the day - incredibly cheap. Not only does it have a literally no name cast it doesn't even bother crediting but they didn't even send a boom man and a sound recordist on the location shoot, making those scenes look like something Doris Wishman might have cut her teeth on as dialogue is crudely dubbed over mute shots where people's mouths are either hidden by steering wheels or they only talk when out of frame to avoid pesky lip-synching problems. When they do talk outside, they're in such long shots you couldn't see their lips moving anyway. The interiors have no such problem, being merely limited by poor dialogue and bad acting. A lot of very poor dialogue and very bad acting, the latter making you wonder if most of the supporting cast made it a condition of their participation that they not be credited.
It's broad strokes stuff: unnaturally rigid thoroughly decent chap Dick Barton's sidekick Jock is introduced playing the bagpipes in a car just in case we don't know which one of them is Scottish. Like his other sidekick Snowey, his sole purpose in life seems to be to make Barton look good by comparison, worship him like a god and occasionally give him someone to explain the plot to or offer manly advice like "Take a tip, everybody. When somebody takes a pot-shot at you, play possum." The villains are similarly unsubtle - nasty Nazis who haven't got over losing the war and are using their smuggling ring in a small fishing village as a cover for their plan to infect the country with cholera smuggled into the country inside lobsters. Naturally he foils their dastardly plot even when they tie him up in a suit of armour with a vial of cholera bacteria, and manages to do it in under 70 minutes, though it seems like 700 thanks to director Alfred Goulding's abysmal direction, which seems to consist solely of making sure the lens cap was off and there was some film in the camera before shouting action, making the whole sorry mess look more haphazard and randomly thrown together on the screen than it probably was on paper (and as co-writer, Goulding can't escape the blame for that either). Pitiful stuff.
Surprisingly, the sequel, Dick Barton Strikes Back, is a huge improvement. It's not a great film, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable ripping yarn that does at least look like a professional low-budget B movie thanks to better direction, decent lighting that gives it more of a film noir feel and the addition of a competent producer in the form of Anthony Hinds (even if Hinds was so embarrassed by his profession that he always told people outside the business he made his living as a barber!). As well as very evidently having a lot more money spent on it, with some extensive location shooting, it's much better cast too, with Don Stannard making a much better job of Barton this time round and given both a new and improved Snowey in the form of Mervyn Johns lookalike Bruce Walker (Scottish stereotype Jock is thankfully nowhere to be seen) and a fine silky smooth villain in Sebastian Cabot.
There's a better plot, too, with a group of commies from an unnamed country that's obviously Czechoslovakia intent on world-domination and the odd disaffected British fellow traveller testing a mysterious weapon that kills whole villages without doing any damage to the buildings or leaving any trace. The film takes the time to build up a sinister atmosphere and throw in good setpieces, whether it's Barton and Snowey trapped in a room full of deadly snakes or the impressive use of the Blackpool Tower in the finale, with Stannard doing his own dangerous looking stunt work in a sequence that compares favourably to the climax of The Man on the Eiffel Tower. There are some interesting names in the credits, too (or would be if they weren't uncredited): legendary Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was an assistant director while Ken Adam was an assistant art director and future award-winning cinematographer Gerry Turpin (Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Oh! What a Lovely War!) was a focus puller. Where many of those who lazily threw together the first film were nearing the end of undistinguished careers, many of those involved in this one were at the start of more notable ones and clearly eager to make an impression, and the difference is immediately apparent in the finished product. It's no undiscovered gem by any means, but unlike the first film it's no chore to sit through and builds up a pleasing head of steam en route to its surprisingly gruelling climax.
Beginning with a very young Patrick MacNee (or McNee as he's billed here) being chased through the dark and mean streets of Limehouse, Dick Barton At Bay continues the film noir approach, with returning director Godfrey Grayson offering some strong visuals to offset some much weaker writing (Hinds was replaced with the first film's producer Henry Halstead this time round, which may account for the drop in quality). But he's fighting a losing battle - if the second film was a case of two steps forward, this is two-and-a-half steps back, with a poor plot, particularly bad casting, almost universally bad acting, cheap production values and action scenes so clumsy and unimaginative you're almost grateful there are so few of them. Unfortunately there's an unwelcome return for the first film's unimproved George Ford as Snowey this time too, and the lack of the comfortable screen chemistry Stannard had with Bruce Walker in the second film makes their scenes together feel even more stilted than their dialogue. Indeed, after making a likeable and rather more recognisably human hero second time out, Stannard is surprisingly terrible here, relying on an exaggeratedly rigid posture that makes his every movement look unnatural and clipped delivery of his often childish dialogue that renders him an unconscious parody of the archetypal cartoonish Boys Own hero.
It's a poor swansong for the actor, who died on his way back from the film's wrap party, putting an end to Hammer's plans for a fourth film, Dick Barton in Africa. In truth it seems that even had he lived making a fourth film might have been optimistic after the disappointing dreariness of this outing. This time Barton's on the trail of a missing death ray, stolen by a Soviet Otto Preminger lookalike who keeps on telling his bungling underlings they'll learn the price of failure before sending them off unharmed to bungle another task. He's got good company in Barton, who's quite the dullard here - much of the finale is taken up with him sitting around waiting for the police to rescue him before finally getting round to untying himself, and that's probably the smartest thing he does in the movie. Not unwatchable and thankfully not as staggeringly inept as the first film despite the very visible corner-cutting and penny-pinching, but very dull.
Icon's budget release of all three titles offers decent but not outstanding transfers but no extras (DD's original individual releases of the films had a 36-page booklet on the history of Dick Barton on radio and on the screen).