Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Tread Softly Stranger (1958)

The definitive whole heap of trouble herself, Diana Dors, melts the screen in this sizzling British noir from 1958.

George Baker stars as Johnny Mansell, a ne'er do well, albeit one who possesses a certain honourable code, with a fondness for the race track. He is forced to flee London in the pre credit title sequence after running up one too many gambling debts. Returning up north to his native Rawborough (in reality Rotherham) he looks up his kid brother Dave (Terence Morgan) who he would have previously considered the sensible one (hey look, he even wears glasses!) but things seem to have changed since Johnny's been away. For one, Dave is living with a drinking club hostess who goes by the name of Calico. No prizes for guessing this is the role inhabited by the delectable Dors, whose pneumatic presence is used to full effect throughout the movie but perhaps none more so than in her opening scene, exercising in the shortest shorts imaginable on the rooftop of Dave's flat. 

Dave's other big news comes in the shape of a guilty secret; he's so enamoured with Calico and desperate to keep her on his arm that he's literally bought her love and affection, thanks to £300 he's embezzled from his employer. With the auditors due in in a few days, Dave has to repay the money before anyone at the firm realises its been taken. Johnny believes that he can win enough money at the races and sets off to do just that, but Calico manipulates Dave into a daring, armed nighttime robbery on his workplace, stealing enough money to cover his previous fraud. Johnny returns too late to halt Dave's plans and the pair soon find themselves caught redhanded by the nightwatchman. Disaster strikes and the rest of the film explores their guilt and how they desperately try to evade suspicion.

Tread Softly Stranger is a typical late 50s noir with its dangerous dame with a past and the men in her life doomed to have no future but, unlike American noir, the British variety would often excel in painting a vivid gritty monochrome picture of the UK landscape of the day, with its smoking chimney stacks, factories and low rent drinking clubs. Tread Softly Stranger is a prime example of this and develops its narrative with an almost symbiotic relationship with its northern industrial location; as the net closes in on the Mansell brothers and Calico, her allegiance shifting from Dave to Johnny, the endless thumping of the steel press in the local foundry begins to reverberate dramatically in the background. There really is no escape  on offer and the closing scene is one so deliciously ironic that it lingers long in the memory.

Whilst George Baker delivers a strong noir hero here as Johnny and Terence Morgan is suitably jittery as his younger brother, Tread Softly Stranger belongs to Diana Dors. The hourglass figured goddess really came into her own in crime drama (look at Yield To The Night, a prime example) and when given such strong material defied critics quick to pass her off as nothing more than the UK's answer to Monroe or Mansfield. If she has to be a British antidote to any Hollywood actress then it is films like this that prove she was more on a par with those who thrived in noir, like Lizbeth Scott. As Calico, she oozes sex appeal combined with a mercenary, amoral and self centred personality. Caught helplessly in her web, Dave and Johnny, pay heavily for her wicked ways.

It's a shame that the film's support isn't as strong. Cast as the doomed nightwatchman's son Paddy is the lantern jawed and likeable Patrick Allen, owner of such an extremely distinctive voice that earned him a lucrative side career in voice overs for everything from Barratt Homes to the shittifying Protect and Survive PIFs, but he totally and hilariously fails to nail the Irish accent expected of him here. 

Almost 60 years on, Tread Softly Stranger remains a strong sweat inducing crime drama and classy British noir.

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