Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Blue Lamp (1950)


Basil Dearden's The Blue Lamp became the most successful British movie of 1950 and has gone on to be the most famous, most influential of all the British police films. Scripted by ex-policeman T.E.B. Clarke (from a story by Ted Willis and Jan Read), the film is a perfect example of Ealing and the studio's consistently effective depiction of postwar Britain, helped in no small part by an almost pseudo-documentary style in its examination of the police force and a new and terrifying breed of young criminal, reckless and violent as a result of the hardening influence of the war years. 


Personifying Tom Riley, the loose cannon criminal representing this new world, is a wonderfully edgy Dirk Bogarde in a performance that launched his career, but the film's heart is lies in perhaps the old world that collides so devastatingly with this new, in the shape of  Jack Warner's morally pure PC George Dixon. The cataclysmic meeting between the pair results in Dixon being shot dead in the film's most unexpected and most sobering of twists.


Warner's Dixon remains one of British culture's most enduring creations; an ordinary and unassuming everyman hero with a strong sense of morality, he's a character who is beyond reproach; utterly trustworthy and reliable and a figure of upmost reassurance and kindliness. It's not by accident that one feels this is the last of a dying breed.


Captured between both worlds is the more interesting supporting characters; there's the way the film explores a kind of unspoken hierarchy within the criminal fraternities of London, with more established, older villains having little time or respect for Bogarde's Riley, and his fellow punk partner Spud (Patric Doonan) who they view as being immature and troublesome in the way their behaviour  draws attention to themselves. It's these older crooks and cons who rally around the moral compass in the film's final reel, shot atmospherically at the old White City dog track, and help bring the cornered Riley to justice.  Then there's Jimmy Hanley as young probationer PC Andy Mitchell who could be viewed as the new generation of policeman but who falls under Dixon's twinkly spell, learning much from his mentor in the process. Dixon may not reach the film's closing titles but, with Mitchell pounding the beat, you get the feeling that the man's spirit, his methods and his ethos, will live on. And there's something immensely reassuring about that. 


That reassurance was subsequently capitalised on when the BBC sought to resurrect Dixon from the dead for a spin-off television series Dixon of Dock Green. Beloved by millions, it became as much a staple of Saturday night TV as Doctor Who and the teleprinter, and ran from 1955 to 1976, with Warner finally hanging up his helmet and bidding 'evnin all' for good (and long past police retirement age) at the grand old age of 81.


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