Monday, 23 March 2015

The Man In The Back Seat (1961)

The Man in the Back Seat is such a clever, terse and well crafted slice of British B movie Noir that to actually call it a B movie feels like a great disservice.

Written by Malcolm Hulke (a staunch Communist who would go on to write many politically heavy parables and satires for the Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who) and Eric Paice and directed by B movie and supporting feature master Vernon Sewell, The Man in the Back Seat is a swift 57 minutes and sadly half-forgotten film that still manages to give considerable pleasure today, thanks to its effective Noir atmosphere, tight, restricted setting and a trio of central performances that haven't dated in the slightest.

Derren Nesbitt and Keith Faulkner star as small-time crooks Tony and Frank who, one ill fated evening, jump a greyhound track bookie (Harry Locke - a familiar face in British cinema) only to find that the loot they desire is in a security bag chained to his wrist. Piling the unconscious victim into the back seat of his own vehicle, the pair take off in panic determined to first free the bookie from his money and then free themselves of him altogether. 

But, as with the traditions and tropes of the best heist-gone-wrong movies, Whenever the two try and ditch their unwanted and silently oppressive charge, some accident or twist of fate intervenes, making them go on with their burden, descending further into guilt, desperation and ultimately tragedy.

Benefiting from some truly atmospheric, night-time location shooting in London, The Man in The Back Seat delivers an increasingly fraught, anxious and nightmarish tone that climaxes with the ultimate nightmare which sees the titular bookie haunt the pair, staring in silent accusation much like Banquo's Ghost at Macbeth's feast.

At the centre of the film is a trio of truly strong performances from Nesbitt, Faulkner and, as the latter's wife, Carol White. Nesbitt delivers his usual charismatic and icy characterisation that ensures, despite his soft spoken manner, that he is the more dominant and dangerous of the two crooks. He displays a wholly immoral nature and uses gallows humour to alleviate his situation, whilst his leg in plaster delivers a potent metaphor for his crippled morality. Faulkner has more morality and, as such, has more of a guilty conscience; he's been persuaded into the heist by his smooth talking friend and the rest of the film sees him trying to be talked out of his fate by his wife Jean, played by a superb eighteen year old Carol White in a naturalistic performance that ranks alongside her impressive work in later years with Ken Loach.

The Man in the Back Seat is a half forgotten gem that comes highly recommended from me and, despite or perhaps even because of its enforced budget and great imagination, it can easily hold its own with many other, more celebrated examples of fatalistic British Noir from that era.

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