(5/10) In a nutshell: A proto-James Bond battles an evil villain set to rule the world with his secret weapon that turns brains into jelly in this first science fiction entry by Hammer Films in 1949. It’s a juvenile quota quickie with an often less than perfect script, and some hammy acting, but with surprisingly solid production values, great atmosphere and good pacing.
Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949). Directed by Godfrey Grayson. Written by Elizabeth Baron and Ambrose Grayson. Starring: Don Stannard, Bruce Walker, Sebastian Cabot, James Raglan, Jean Lodge, Peter Wyngarde. Produced by Anthony Hinds and Mae Murray for Hammer Films. IMDb score: 5.9
We have another British sci-fi(ish) film! After years of licking their wounds from the financial disaster that was H.G. Wells’ Things to Come (1936, review), the British film industry rediscovered the genre in the late forties. After the time travel comedy Time Flies (1946, review) and the robot bedroom farce The Perfect Woman (1949, review), we get Dick Barton, special agent, in this 1949 mystery thriller, Dick Barton Strikes Back, featuring a James Bond-styled villain with a secret futuristic weapon.
Dick Barton – Special Agent was a BBC radio show that ran between 1936 and 1951 and was extremely popular with the juvenile audience, boys in particular. Dick Barton was an ex commando who solved crimes with his trusty sidekick Snowy White, and was famous for the ease with which he got himself out of the most impossible situations. The target audience was clear: the focus was on adventure and sensationalism, there was seldom any doubt of who was the good guys and the bad guys, and in case there were, ample clues were always given. More than a whodunnit, it was a howdunnit. There was also a strict code of conduct for the screenwriters of what Barton could or could not do, including the famous statement that ”Sex plays no part in his adventures”.
The British equivalent of the American B movies of the era was the quota quickies. These came about because of the country’s film legislation that stated that a certain quota of films showed in UK cinemas had to be British. In 1935 the quota was increased from 10 to 20 percent, which gave rise to an artificial demand of British films that the major studios weren’t capable to fill. This gave rise to a number of both bloated bank-and-bust companies and small American and domestic studios focused on making cheap, quickly made B grade films in order to fill the said quota. The increased quota allowed the bankrupt Hammer Films to make a comeback as a quota quickie company. And the rest, of course, is history.
Hammer acquired the rights to a number of BBC radio shows, including Dick Barton – Special Agent, in 1947, and the same year released the first Dick Barton film, the originally named Dick Barton – Special Agent. All in all three Dick Barton films were made, and there is some confusion regarding the timeline. Dick Barton at Bay (review) was the second film to be produced, but actually the third to be released. The last Dick Barton film made was Dick Barton Strikes Back, but Hammer released it as the second film, because it was vastly superior to the other two, and the studio hoped to win a bigger audience for the franchise before releasing the third film. A fourth film, Dick Barton in Africa, was already in the pipeline, but Hammer terminated the franchise after its star Don Stannard tragically died in a car accident.
The first two Dick Barton productions had been studio-bound productions, but the third movie called for a large country estate as a backdrop, and that was when Hammer realised that it could make its films a lot cheaper by renting abandoned country estates than by renting a studio. This was to become the operating standard for Hammer for years to come. Most of Hammer’s legendary horror films were made in a large, derelict London estate that the company fixed up and adapted to a de facto studio.
According to accumulated internet knowledge, the first Dick Barton film was a comedy-heavy pile of turd, and Dick Barton Strikes Back is said to be in a whole other league. The film follows Barton (Stannard) and Snowy (Bruce Walker) on the tails of international arms dealers Fouracada (a beardless Sebastian Cabot), who serves a master villain who uses a secret weapon to kill entire towns at a time, by turning the resident’s brains into jelly. The two agent set up shop near the village at the mansion of a Lord Armadale (James Raglan) and his secretary Tina (Jean Lodge), the latter who seems to be connected to the murders.
Despite the jelly brains, the film is decidedly non-gory, and we don’t even see many bodies, as the authortities have conveniently emptied the whole town of dead people when the agents arrive. Some of the best scenes of the movie are of Barton and Snowy inspecting the deserted town. This is probably the first sound film to play around with the ”empty world” idea, which would become increasingly popular through the fifties and particularly the late sixties and seventies. The only feature film to take the notion to its full potential before the fifties was the Danish meteor disaster film The End of the World (1916, review). In Dick Barton Strikes Back it’s just an empty town, but the scenes have a very eerie quality nonetheless.
The scenes in the mansion play heavily with the horror genre and the mood and lighting anticipate the Hammer horrors of the future, in particular The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, review). The use of music and sound is also outstanding. First there is the superb title theme Devil’s Galop by Charles Williams, which was also used as the theme for the radio show. The sense of urgency and drama in the piece makes it feel like a light version of Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries. Then there is the clever use of a dramatic ”gypsy tune” as a central plot element, and as a theme played throughout the movie in different incarnations, and becomes a leitmotif for approaching doom. Some critics have complained about the too obvious use of music as emotional cues in the movie, but this, I think, is completely acceptable in a movie like this. Then there is the use of a specific sound effect that overpowers much of the ending of the movie, as well as the highly dramatic end scene itself where a wounded Dick Barton climbs a tall tower to save a town from utter destruction and battle it out with the deranged mastermind trying to take over the world! Awesome stuff.
The end scene where Barton fights for his life while climbing up the Blackpool Tower is a highlight of the film, featuring some nice fistfights up in the air, a wrestling match in an elevator and death defying climb, actually shot on location in Blackpool. It’s sometimes easy to forget that you are not watching a James Bond movie. Even the rough but sophisticated agent Barton is a direct predecessor of Sean Connery’s James Bond, much more so than Ian Fleming’s colourless literary original.
The film is well-paced as a juvenile adventure story and has a clearly defined dramatic arc divided in distinct segments on different locations, many shot ”on location”, rather than being cramped in small studio spaces as so many American serials and B movies of the time were. The set designs are also impressively detailed and well-executed, maybe in part thanks to assistant art director Ken Adam, who would later go on to win two Oscars for his design on Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Madness of King George (1984). He also worked with Stanley Kubrick on the masterpiece Dr. Strangelove (1964), for which he won a Bafta. The Art Directors Guild gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2002 and he won a special prize along four other art directors in 2013 for their combined work on the most successful and long-running franchise in movie history: the James Bond movies. More on Adam in a later post, though.
This said, the film is still unable to completely overcome its quota quickie limitations. The main characters sometimes act excruciatingly stupidly and much of the dialogue makes you cringe in your seat, it’s so badly written by Elizabeth Baron and Ambrose Grayson (brother of director Godfrey?). Some scenes are filmed in no more than a few takes, giving the setup a static feel, and there is little grace or fluidity in the camera work. There are, however, some really nicely done shots with beautiful angles and the ending scene at the tower is especially well filmed. Some scenes feel like they have been stretched to their limit to meet the duration requirements and the acting is so-so.
Don Stannard had a couple of leads in quota quickies behind him when he started filming the first Dick Barton film, and he is by no means a great actor. His straight-faced no-nonsense demeanor feels a bit strained. But he brings great energy to the role when he gets going and is very believable as an action hero, and has the right clean-cut, strong features and the commanding presence to make the role believable. According to information on Hammer’s own website, Stannard died in a car accident of the way home from the wrap party for Dick Barton at Bay, but this is incorrect, as that film was made before Dick Barton Strikes Back. Since Sebastian Cabot was also in the car, one would assume, then, that it was the wrap party for the latter film. Stannard was the first real movie star of the reformed Hammer company, and could probably have continued to even greater acclaim through a continued Dick Barton franchise, but alas, we will never know how his career might have taken shape.
The young Sebastian Cabot, sporting a moustache, is almost unrecognisable without his trademark beard, but does some superb hamming as the arrogant arms dealer. Cabot might best known for his role as Mr. Giles French in the popular sitcom Family Affairs (1966-1971). He is also beloved by millions and millions of children as a voice actor. He voiced Bagheera in The Jungle Book (1967), Sir Ector in The Sword in the Stone (1963), and narrated the animated Winnie the Pooh short films in the sixties and seventies. He had a brief encounter with sci-fi in 1960, when he played Mr. Pip in the episode A Nice Place to Visit of The Twilight Zone and played the sceptical Dr. Hillyer in George Pal’s hugely influential adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
B movie actress Jean Lodge is stiff and overacting, but has some nice moments as well. She is perhaps best known as Queen Guinevere in the 1954 film The Black Knight, starring Alan Ladd. Her last films were all horror cheapos, and she even got the chance to work with legendary cheapo director/producer Roger Corman in The Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price (1964). Her last film was the little known sci-fi movie Invasion (1966). After that she wisely chose to retire. She is still alive in 2015.
In a small role as a henchman we see swarthy, gap-toothed Larry Taylor, who was destined to play henchmen and bandits throughout his long career, appearing in such diverse films as the classic Zulu (1964) and the 1962 nudist romp Nudes of the World. Taylor had a bit-part in First Man Into Space (1959), appeared as an Arab in an episode of the TV series The Invisible Man (1959), as a Mexican in the series UFO (1971) and had another bit-part in Christopher Lee vehicle The Creeping Flesh (1973). Friends of really bad eighties sci-fi may know him as King Marlenus in Gor (1987) and Outlaw of Gor (1988).
In a really small part as a soldier handing Dick Barton a pair of strange ear muffs we see character actor and flamboyant personality Peter Wyngarde. Wyngarde had a number of high-profile supporting roles in the sixties and seventies and became a household name as the womanising Jason King in the spy series Department S (1969-1970). He headlined one episode of the Boris Karloff-presented series Out of This World (1962) and appeared on one episode of R3 (1965), and starred as Timonov on four episodes of Doctor Who in 1984. He will forever be remembered by sci-fi fans, though as Emperor Ming’s commander-in-chief, the cyborg Klytus, in Flash Gordon (1980).
There’s also allegedly a cameo by well-known Irish comedian Jimmy O’Dea.
The producer for the film was Anthony Hinds, son of Hammer Films founder William ”Hammer” Hinds, and produced most of Hammer’s legendary horror movies in the fifties and sixties, including The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), X: The Unknown (1956), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Quatermass 2 (1957), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), and the TV series Journey to the Unknown (1968).
The other key Hammer player involved in the film was Jimmy Sangster, here on duty as assistant director, a role he would have on a number of movies, including his second run-in with sci-fi, Spaceways (1953, review). Encouraged by Hinds, Sangster tried his hand at writing in the mid-fifties, and the result was another science fiction film, X: The Unknown. The studio liked his writing so much that Sangster got the job of writing most of Hammer’s classic horror movies, including The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959). Growing tired of horror films, he decided to focus on mystery thrillers in the sixties, but agreed to re-write a Frankenstein script for Hammer in 1970, on the term that he got to direct it. The result was the crappy horror comedy The Horror of Frankenstein. In the early seventies he relocated to Hollywood, where he wrote mostly for TV, including some episodes of Wonder Woman in 1976. Of his Hollywood films the 1978 horror thriller The Legacy is probably the best known.
Even though commercially highly successful, the Hammer horrors were still cheap B grade movies that received little love from British critics. Sangster has repeatedly said that he originally had no intention of writing in general or writing horror films in particular, and was quite happy as production manager or assistant director. Nevertheless, he turned in the script for X: The Unknown when asked to come up with one, and the rest is history. When asked in later years what inspired him to write horror films, he said ”Wages”. Perhaps it was his disinterest in horror as a genre that helped Sangster redefine the modern horror movie. Less interested in the monsters than the people surrounding them, he helped re-invent and invigorate the monster movie genre that had fallen into bad decay since its prime in the thirties. In the fifties, though, he received little recognition from others than die-hard fans, and it wasn’t until later years that his worked started to get praised in the press. In 1977 The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films in the US awarded him with the Golden Scroll for his career as a writer. In the eighties he started to be invited to horror film conventions and with home video a new audience found the old Hammer Horrors. Prestigious filmmakers who were kids when the films were originally aired spoke high praise of his work, and with the advent of DVD he found himself doing audio commentaries, flabbergasted at the fact that he was now a cult figure. He passed away in 2011.
I’ll let Dan Stumpf at Mystery*File sum it all up, because I couldn’t have said it better myself: ”This is a little kid’s idea of a Spy Movie, with transparent trickery, obvious “surprise” villains and character development just below the level of a CLUE game, but it was clearly also the precursor of the James Bond films, with the suave, hard-fighting hero flung in and out of the clutches of sinister villains and predatory females with equal aplomb. It’s a time-waster, sure, but a fun thing, with death rays, a sinister carnival and a really gripping final set-to up and down a (rather unsettlingly phallic) tower.” (And by the way, I just adore the word “aplomb”.)
Dick Barton Strikes Back. Directed by Godfrey Grayson. Written by Elizabeth Baron and Ambrose Grayson. Starring: Don Stannard, Bruce Walker, Sebastian Cabot, James Raglan, Jean Lodge, Morris Sweden, John Harvey, Humphrey Kent, Sidney Vivian, Tony Morelli, George Crawford, Larry Taylor, Jimmy O’Dea, Peter Wyngarde. Music: Rupert Grayson, Frank Spencer. Cinematography: Cedric Williams. Casting: Edgar Blatt. Art director: Ivan King. Make-up: Jack Smith. Production management: Donald Wynne. Editor: Ray Pitt. Produced by Anthony Hinds and Mae Murray for Hammer Films.