From police procedurals to heists, American film noir and French policiers via South Korean serial killers, Criminal Record is a new column on Flip Screen, delving into the rich and heady cinematic history of crime films. This time around, a trip back to a forgotten noir that presaged the Bond films.
The history of crime cinema is riddled with interesting obscurities, tossed out as quick money-makers and primarily built out of formula. But taking a closer look at these films and how they were made, marketed and the connections that resulted can tell us a lot about how the cinema developed over the 20th Century.
Pickup Alley – marketed as Interpol in the UK – is precisely one such film. It did not have much of a budget and it was produced by Warwick Films, a production company formed by two Americans, Irving Allen and Arthur ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, who had pitched up in the UK as a result of the Eady Levy, a tax break that made the UK an attractive place for American producers. British actors and crew were also cheaper to hire than their American counterparts whilst still having a reputation for being excellent craftsmen and professionals. As Warwick Films, Allen and Broccoli spent the ‘50s making a series of genre pictures in the UK, from action-adventure capers (Safari, Odongo, both 1956) to WWII firefights (The Red Beret, 1953; The Cockleshell Heroes, 1955). Most of these were made on the cheap, but often marketed by the presence of a big American star or two – Alan Ladd, Rita Hayworth, Robert Mitchum – shooting on location and surrounded by a slate of British character actors.
Pickup Alley, in this sense, ticks all the boxes. Victor Mature stars as Charles Sturgis, a detective on the hunt for Frank McNally (Trevor Howard), a drug smuggler who has murdered Charles’ sister before she could identify him. Meanwhile, Frank’s girlfriend, Gina Broger (Anita Ekberg) is implicated in an attempted murder and runs away to Lisbon. Sturgis gets put in touch with the then-new Interpol; together they track Gina and Frank in a continent-trotting police procedural that finds time to visit Rome, London and Athens.
Directed by journeyman director John Gilling (whose most famous film is probably The Plague of the Zombies, made for Hammer Films in 1966), the film is handsomely shot, getting the most out of its modest budget. Expressionistic noir lighting abounds, as do plentiful canted angles: a scene set in the catacombs of Rome provides plentiful opportunity for chiaroscuro lighting. The film pumps along at a fair pace – each stop at a new destination culminates in a frantic action sequence, such as a rooftop chase across Athens.
Victor Mature, never the most convincing of actors even in the sword-and-sandal films that gave him the greatest box office successes, spends his time looking stoic and worried, and Anita Ekberg is mostly cast for her glamour and sex appeal – but it’s Trevor Howard who provides the most fun here. He’d long been one of the best leading men of British cinema, the personification of dependable and honest across classics like Brief Encounter (1945) and The Third Man (1949) – here he plays against type as sadistic, elegant, bleakly funny and loaded with slimy charm. His introduction in the first scene is a lesson in how to set up a character in a handful of lines and a shot: we see him eavesdropping in the dark as Charles’ sister unwittingly blows her cover before strangling her with her scarf, menace and reptilian charm personified.
With the film’s travelogue of sunny locations and a plot that rests on international co-operation (Mature’s detective is given a firm dressing-down by an Italian colleague for acting on his own, instead of with the help of Interpol, which gives the character with a moment of epiphany through which he’s able to catch the baddie), Pickup Alley speaks to a sense of late-50s moral optimism feels very Eisenhower-esque, with post-war prosperity boosting the middle classes. The world at this point was becoming increasingly international, with commercial airline travel increasing (although still way out of reach for most people). The film lacks the morally ambiguous, tortured protagonists of ‘40s noir – Sturgis is driven by revenge for the death of his sister, but this is eventually superseded by international co-operation, when an Italian officer slaps him down for acting individualistically, leading to the epiphany that solves the case. Marketed by the simpler title Interpol in the UK where it was pitched as a police procedural, that central point of co-operation feels distinctly of its moment. It’s somewhat at odds with the grimy, sensationalistic movie promised by the film’s American posters, featuring taglines like “This is a picture about DOPE!” and “She looks like an angel…does the work of the devil!”.
Warwick Films had a run of profitable films in the ‘50s but their luck ran out eventually. Irving Allen and Arthur Broccoli went their separate ways afterwards as the ‘60s swept in. A few years later, Broccoli teamed up with another producer, Harry Saltzmann, who had brought the rights to a number of novels by Ian Fleming about a spy called James Bond, kicking things off with Dr. No in 1962. A stoic male star alongside a glamorous and sexy female lead? Check. Slick, charming, sadistic baddies? Check. Exotic locations spanning the globe? Check. Broccoli had learnt from Warwick Films what elements sold well and put them together to birth what would become cinema’s longest-running franchise. Pickup Alley may not be as glamorous, as smooth, or as spectacular as the Bond films, but you can still see the connecting threads.