(3/10) In a nutshell: The second of the proto-James Bond films featuring Dick Barton, special agent pitches Dick and sidekick Snowy against a megalomaniac villain with a stolen death ray machine. A weak script, bad acting and clumsy filming are not quite weighed up by some campy humour, moments of cinematographic noir-delight and a thrilling ending scene at a lighthouse. Watch out for The Avengers star Patrick MacNee.
Dick Barton at Bay (1950). Directed by Godfrey Grayson. Written by: Ambrose Grayson, Jackson Budd, Emma Trechman, Ted Kavanagh. Starring: Don Stannard, George Ford, Tamara Desni, Meinhart Maur, Joyce Linden, Percy Walsh, Patrick MacNee. Produced by Henry Halstead for Hammer Productions. IMDb score: 4.9
This was the second Dick Barton film made in Britain, but it was released in 1950 as the third, as the up-and-coming low-budget studio Hammer Films thought the third one was superior and wanted to get it out on the market fast to drum up more interest in the franchise. I reviewed that film, Dick Barton Strikes Back, earlier, so I won’t go into the particulars over Dick Barton and the franchise, but the short-short version is this:
Dick Barton, Special Agent was a popular BBC radio show aimed at a juvenile audience, about a proto-James Bond and his sidekick Snowy White. During the tightening of the British film quota system, which required 20 percent of all films in British cinemas to be British, the already defunct Hammer Films re-emerged as a ”quota quickie” company and bought the rights to a number of BBC radio shows, including Dick Barton, Special Agent. Thanks to the good audience reaction to Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949), the franchise might well have become long-lasting, but tragically the lead actor Don Stannard lost his life in a car accident on his way home from the wrap party of the movie.
This film is said to have been a great improvement on the first movie of the series, which was lambasted as a dumbed-down version filled with gags and slapstick, but had not yet reached its full potential. One of the reasons as to this was that Dick Barton at Bay didn’t have the luxury of having as producer Anthony Hinds, who produced Dick Barton Strikes Back, and some of the studio’s later great horror movies. Here producer was still Henry Halstead, a man with very few gems to his name, who was let go from Hammer in the fifties and tried to continue making quota quickies with his own company, of which the best known is probably the comedy Up the Creek (1958) starring Peter Sellers. Hinds also brought in a whole new artistic crew for the third film, some of whom found cult fame with the Hammer horror films and beyond. In Dick Barton at Bay we are still stuck with a rather anonymous and inexperienced crew, many of whom don’t have more than a handful film credits to their name.
Among the few who were left when Dick Barton Strikes Back was made are director Godfrey Grayson and writer Ambrose Grayson. The latter is joined here by a team of fairly anonymous writers, including Ted Kavanagh, who wrote the original radio episode. And for a long period of time, it does feel like a televised radio show.
The film opens promisingly, with a well-filmed and atmospheric murder of a British undercover agent (Patrick MacNee) who is protecting a scientist (Percy Walsh) who has come up with a death ray machine that can shoot planes out of the sky. As dfordoom puts it at Classic Movie Ramblings: “The British know the invention works because the professor has demonstrated its ability to disintegrate a small model aeroplane at a range of several feet – clearly a most formidable weapon!” The professor and his daughter Mary (Joyce Linden) are kidnapped by the evil super-spy Serge Volkoff (Meinhart Maur) and his femme fatale assistant Anna (Tamara Desni), who threaten to hurt the daughter unless the professor teaches him to operate the ray. Of course Dick Barton (Stannard) and Snowy White (George Ford) are immediately on the case.
And then the film moves into standby mode, and there it stays for quite some time. The film treads water for a good 30 minutes, which leaves about 15 for the final showdown, which is better than the middle of the movie, but unfortunately not quite convincing and not very well shot. The agents get kidnapped and tied up in the basement of a lighthouse, when Volkoff anticipates an airplane at the top, waiting to shoot it down. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that Barton breaks loose, and then he proceeds to the stairs, where he encounters about 40 bad guys, and proceeds to knocking out three at a time with single blows. Some of them seem to simply faint because their comrades get knocked down. And then we encounter the final death match between Barton and Volkoff – and (spoiler warning!) Volkoff tries to climb up on top of the lighthouse, as the police are phoned in. Barton vigorously tries to prevent Volkoff from reaching the rooftop of the lighthouse, and a wrestling match ends in the villain falling to his death. Now, all I’m asking is this: why was Barton so adamant about Volkoff not reaching the rooftop? The police are on their way, they are surrounded by the cliffs and the ocean. And the villain tries to climb up on the roof. Let him! It’s not like he’s going anywhere!
The sci-fi element here is of course the death ray, which is actually used twice in the movie, so it’s not really just a MacGuffin, but not far from it. The death ray shooting down airplanes was old hat even in the late thirties, I’ve reviewed a number of films with the same premise. By 1950 it feels like the screenwriters might have come up with something slightly more imaginative to do with a death ray. The death ray had been a staple in sci-fi films in the twenties and thirties, and even more so in cheap film serials, spilling over into the forties, after the 1923 case of Harry Grindell Matthews. Matthews was a British inventor who claimed to have invented a ray that could stop an entire army, and tried to sell it to the British army, who demanded proof that he refused to deliver. For some years to come newspapers and magazines speculated that Matthews was then trying to shop this death ray around to enemies of Britain, which of course made for great spy stories with the death ray as a MacGuffin. The death ray stuck around in one for or the other in B movies for decades, but didin’t really make the A list until the the films featuring Dick Barton’s heir to the British spy novelty throne, James Bond, and was first seen in Dr. No in 1962, and really came into its own in 1971 with Diamonds are Forever.
Most of the film is studio-bound, and the low budget shows in the sparsely decorated sets. A highlight is the ending, which is partly filmed at an actual lighthouse. The acting is mediocre or bad throughout. Don Stannard seems stiffer than in the later movie and his rapport with Snowy actor George Ford isn’t as good as with Bruce Walker, who took over the role Dick Barton Strikes Back. Hungarian actor Meinhart Maur (described by one reviewer as a ”poor man’s Erich von Stroheim”) simply goes through the motions as yet another European villain, struggling with with the lines in his thick accent, sometimes looking as though he was reading them off cue cards. Maur had a long career in German theatre and did some fine work as a character actor in a number of German silents, such as Harakiri (1919) and the influential proto-noir movie The Spiders, Part 2: The Diamond Ship (Die Spinnen, teil 2: Das Brillantenschiff). With the rise to power of the Nazis, he emigrated to Britain, where he found himself playing ”European” villains or other ethnicties, mostly in B films.
Tamara Desni as the black-clad, mysterious femme fatale Anna does a brilliantly hammy job, picking up the slack left by Maur. Desni was a stage actress in Germany, but did most of her film work in Britain, although mostly in forgotten low-budget productions, with the exception of the historical drama Fire over England (1937). By 1950 she had practically retired three years earlier, and Dick Barton at Bay was her last movie.
Percy Walsh as the scientist is neither good nor particularly bad, doing a staple portrait of a good scientist, but remains bland in the movie. Walsh was a noted stage actor, who appeared in a substantial role in a number of high-profile plays, including the 1928 premier of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, the lauded play that brought Frankenstein (1931, review) director James Whale to America. His film appearences include A-listers like Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937), Adventures of Tartu (1947), Mr. Scott of Antarctica (1948) and The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950).
In the role as Phillips, the agent who gets murdered in the beginning, we get to see a later sci-fi star, Patrick MacNee. MacNee played the main hero Agent John Steed in the British ”spy-fi” series The Avengers in all of its six seasons (1961-1969). Though immensely popular in Britain, the show never got past the cult stage in the US, since it was sometimes heavily censored and pushed out of prime-time, because of its violence and the occasionally skimpy outfits of its female stars.
MacNee continued his sci-fi adventures by reading the opening credits, as well as providing the voice for the villainous Cylon Imperious Leader on the original Battlestar Galactica series (1978-1979) and appeared in the decidedly unfunny space comedy The Creature Wasn’t Nice (1983) alongside Leslie Nielsen and Bruce Kimmel. He played Professor Plococtomos on another sci-fi comedy, Lobster Man from Mars, in 1989. From 1990 to 1992 he played the computer simulated inventor E.B. Hungerford on the TV series Super Force and he had a small role in Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992).
He appeared in 6 seminal episodes of the Batman ripoff Night Man in 1997 and 1998 as Dr. Walton, mentor of the said Night Man. In a nod to his earlier fame, he appeared as the invisible Invisible Jones in the star-studded, but critically panned 1998 big budget movie remake of The Avengers, and in 2003 he played the lead in the comedy The Low Budget Time Machine. He is memorable as Sir Godfrey Tibbett opposite Roger Moore in the Bond film A View to a Kill (1985). He also had supporting roles in a number of cult films such as The Howling (1981), This is Spinal Tap (1984), Waxwork (1988), and played the lead in the low-budget Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Masque of Red Death (1989). He played Sherlock Holmes once, a man who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes once and Dr. Watson three times, mostly in TV movies or series, and appeared in guest parts in a wide range of TV series. Someone may know him as Cecil Headly in the 2001 Episode The Show Must Go Off of Frasier. Wikipedia tells us: ”Later in life, MacNee was an enthusiastic nudist”. MacNee sadly passed away in June 2015.
In a tiny role we see Fred Owens, who would later become part of Russ Meyer’s production team (production manager, electrician, etc.), responsible for sexploitation films like Lorna (1964), Motorpsycho (1965), Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), Supervixens (1975) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), and he also appeared in front of the camera in a number of them.
George Ford (Snowy) has only two other screen credits, and it shows. Joyce Linden is a quaint choice for the damsel in distress, because she is terrible and she can’t act herself out of a paper bag.
The movie has it moments and as a time-killer it is quite watchable. Don Stannard, though a bit stiff, does his thing with class. The ending scenes have some nice tension and fast-paced action, and the special effects are passable. The noir-inspired lighting provides nice atmosphere. It is hampered, though, by bad acting, a sagging middle section where everything comes to a stand-still, horrible dialogue and an overall bland and fairly stupid script.
Dick Barton at Bay. Directed by Godfrey Grayson. Written by: Ambrose Grayson, Jackson Budd, Emma Trechman, Ted Kavanagh. Starring: Don Stannard, George Ford, Tamara Desni, Meinhart Maur, Joyce Linden, Percy Walsh, Campbell Singer, John Arnatt, Richard George, Beatrice Keane, Patrick MacNee, George Crawford, Paddy Ryan, Fred Owens, Yoshihide Yanai, Ted Butterfield. Music: Rupert Grayson, Frank Spencer. Cinematography: Stanley Clinton. Editing: Max Brenner. Casting: Edgar Blatt. Art direction: James Marchant. Makeup artist: Teddy Edwardes. Hair stylist: G. Hollis. Sound: Charles Hasher. Produced by Henry Halstead for Hammer Productions.