December 3, 2016

Inspector Hornleigh feature

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“One of them’s tall, bald, looks intelligent and isn’t, the other is short, bald, with a sour face, doesn’t look

intelligent, and is.” ~ Raymond Huntley in Inspector Hornleigh Goes To It.

The Inspector Hornleigh series (Inspector Hornleigh, 1939, Inspector Hornleigh On Holiday, 1939, Inspector Hornleigh Goes To It, 1941) occupy a nostalgic Canada goose Sale niche that unites the kind of gentle comedy associated with Ealing with the Agatha Christie school of armchair mystery. It’s perhaps atypical of both these traditions for the hero to be a hard-nosed professional rather than an inspired amateur, but it gives the films just the trace of an edge, preventing them from slipping entirely into the safe and soporific. All three films stress character comedy and plot twists over suspense and thrills, but through pace, inventiveness, wit and cheek, they manage to be pretty exciting anyway.

All three films star dyspeptic sourpuss Gordon Harker as the crafty Hornleigh, and a facially hyperactive Alastair Sim as gangling dimwit Sergeant Bingham, his assistant. American émigré Eugene Forde directed the first flick, while British-born Walter Forde took charge of the second and third, due, I would like to think, to a typographical error (the initials E and W are right next to each other on the typewriter…). But both directors have excellent taste in performance and balance the comedy and drama with skill. E. Forde perhaps gets most value from the thriller aspect, with some noirish shadowy suspense, but W. Forde isn’t far behind.

However, approximately 500% of the films’ considerable charm and humour derives from the casting of the central duo, with the focussed underplaying of Harker balancing perfectly the gibbering idiocy of Sim, who sports the most extreme Scottish accent of his career, and bubbles with nervous energy like a chimpanzee in human disguise.

A phantasie ~ I want to take Gordon Harker gently by those protruding, handle-like ears, lifting his head free from its cradling shoulders, and tipping it forwards until hot tea spills from his protruding, spout-like lower lip, filling a saucer with rippling reflections. When the tea is drunk, the patterns left by the leaves will spell out, not the future, nor yet a bygone age, but a never-was era of whimsy and intrigue.

The Sim physiognomy is if anything more remarkable, with his high-domed head, massive overhanging abutment of brow shading two wildly darting, watery globules nestled amid puffy, dark-ringed lids. The nose, a flared hook that insults the Creator, recedes into insignificance above the mouth, an impossibly wide labial gash which seems to exceed the boundaries of the subject’s head, opening onto a ragged diorama of dentistry seemingly drawn from a horse, a corpse, or possibly a horse-corpse. That the overall effect is quirkily adorable rather than simply terrifying is down to the ludic wit and benevolence of Sim’s playing, which not only overcomes the massive handicap of his grotesque countenance, but wrestles it around and turns it to his advantage.

The Harker-Sim partnership is at the heart of the films, which find a few small ways to test it: how much abuse from Harker can Sim stand? How much incompetence from Sim can Harker tolerate? But mainly the films are solid plot, propelling the protags through a whirlwind of settings and situations demanding disguises, dissembling and detection. In the course of this our heroes break several laws and ignore most of what we’d think of as police procedure, but it’s all in the name of justice, and more especially, fun.

A partial list of offenses committed by our heroes: breaking and entering, trespass, illegal searches, safe-cracking, grave-robbery.

The rest of the cast mainly consists of suspects, with a few witnesses and a rival for Hornleigh occasionally thrown in. Guest stars like Hugh Williams, reliable suave and untrustworthy, all hair oil and shiftiness, or the scowling bulbousness of Peter Bull, mushrooming from his trousers like a flesh bomb, face like an African mask hewn from suet and dropped. Actually, Bull’s brief, uncredited turn in On Holiday may be the best use of him in any film. Even his strangely precise, petulant e-nunc-i-a-tion is explained by his speaking into, aptly enough, a ham radio.

The writers, always working in teams, include a few well-known names as well, with Val Guest and Bryan Edgar Wallace among the contributors. On Holiday appears to feature the first collaboration of many between Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. The writers’ role seems to have been not to craft a methodical whodunit in the traditional manner, but to move the leads through as many comic situations as possible, while piling on complications, with some kind of wrap-up at the end. This they do.

Goes To It, which brought the series into wartime, starts with an investigation in petty pilfering in the army, but soon there are fifth columnists, and murder, and soon Hornleigh and Bingham have dropped their military disguises and must masquerade as dentists, schoolteachers, and postal workers on the night mail (Harry Watts’ celebrated documentary is the perfect supporting short for this main feature). The film packs all this into a nifty 87 minutes (all three films are exactly the same length) through economy and restless energy.

Goes To It is probably the most convoluted of the films, with On Holiday the funniest (a scene where Hornleigh and Bingham communicate by phone using false names and voices, each unaware of the other’s identity, is an unknown classic of comedy screenwriting), while the first film actually does the most with the characters. Bingham has messed up – again. Hornlegh chews him out furiously: “You pestiferous, elongated, flat-footed, bald-headed bunch of haggis.” But when the upstairs brass comes calling, Hornleigh protects his friend and takes the blame himself. It’s a touching moment.

Elsewhere, sentiment is held at bay and instead we can enjoy Hornleigh’s “posh voice” (used when in disguise or talking to superiors), his heavy lower lip (flapping like a spaniel’s ear and able, by its height and angle, to express any emotion), and his ability to command attention even as his faithful sidekick is chewing the scenery to ribbons by his side.

I wish there were more than three films in the series. Perhaps Alistair Sim got tired of his role: he would later show reluctance to reprise the role of Miss Fritton for St Trinians sequels, and refused outright to repeat his brilliant performance as Inspector Cockrill in Green For Danger (1948). A shame his artistic temperament deprived us of more Hornleighs, but at least we got a plethora of other great roles from great eccentric, and Harker too was able to carry on in other parts, an unlikely but entirely compelling leading man.

David Cairns Shadowplay film blog

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About David Cairns

David Cairns has written 54 post in this blog.

David Cairns is a filmmaker, teacher and critic. As writer-director, he was responsible for the short comedy smash Cry for Bobo (2001), and since then has written several unproduced feature screenplays and worked in kids' TV. He teaches film at Edinburgh College of Art. As critic, he writes the blog Shadowplay and contributes to various online publications, including a regular column at Mubi.com, The Forgotten. He has provided essays for DVDs and BluRays of Rififi, Stagecoach, and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?