“Samantha…..what a beautiful name”. A seemingly innocent sentence, of the type one would expect to find in an old Gainsborough romantic comedy or drama, or a half-remembered whisp of some old Children’s Hour production one vaguely remembers in the pub a decade or two later. But in the context of Pat Jackson’s superlative thriller, it takes on an altogether more sinister significance.
Anyone in the UK who has ever been off work, ill or just a late sleeper will have experienced at some point the delights of 50s and 60s black and white crime thrillers on TV – in the late 80s they were regular fixtures on ITV schedules round the country, often augmented on a double bill with an episode of Scotland Yard or The Mysteries Of Edgar Wallace (both German and British versions). They vary in tone, subject matter and quality, my personal favourite being anything produced by Poverty Row maestros Butchers Film Distributors and featuring such a dizzying array of unknowns and also-rans one often feels one has stepped into a parallel world. Filmed at long-lamented studios such as Merton Park, Walton and Teddington, they occupy a place in the hearts of television viewers of a certain age that they probably never gained during their cinematic lifespan. Most of them were B movies anyway, sadly forgotten by the time the (often) American-made main feature had played and the public were wending their way home from their respective fleapits. Quite often the acting, plot and production values leave a lot to be desired. However, they share the same sense of accidental beauty, the same mixture of iciness and cosiness and downright olde worlde charm (it was olde worlde even by the mid 80s when I was growing up) as any product of the monochrome era, and once one has developed a passing interest, it can turn into something of an obsession. Just ask anyone who knows me personally….
Now that I’ve whetted your appetites, I’ll throw a spanner in the works by pointing out that Don’t Talk To Strange Men, regardless of its low-budget status, is one of the few films of its kind not produced or distributed under the Butchers’ corporation’s aegis: in fact, they seemingly had nothing to do with it whatsoever. The party concerned seem to be the similarly obscure Bryanston Films; one wonders if they ever knew what a masterpiece (OK, a minor one, but a masterpiece nonetheless) they had on their hands. In short (the film itself only runs at 65 minutes, the definition of a ‘quota quickie’, so ‘long’ is out of the question) the story concerns, as these stories often do, a family living in a small village ‘somewhere’ in the Home Counties, which, considering the paucity of the budget and the need for fuel-friendly locations situated not far from the aforementioned studios, would have been somewhere in Middlesex, Berkshire or Surrey, and as usual, there’s something sinister lurking in them there suburbs.
The family are as normal as normal could have been back then, all cosy firesides and oak beams juxtaposed with ‘modern’ furniture and fashions. We have middle-class, well-spoken Mr Painter (Cyril Raymond) his wife (Gillian Lind, one of those character actresses who seemed to crop up in practically everything at one time or another) and most importantly their two daughters – flighty, daydreaming, burgeoning adult-in-child’s clothing Jean (Christina Gregg, who seems to have disappeared soon after the making of the film) and grounded, cynical and infinitely more sensible Ann (Janina Faye) who, despite being several years her sister’s junior, seems to be of advanced intelligence, even to the point of berating her father for eating meat, writing anti-bloodsport letters to the local huntmaster and attempting to convert to Buddhism. Seriously, if you want to see dialogue way ahead of it’s time; you won’t believe the conversations between father and daughter here. But other than that, the girls are fairly conventional- they bicker like sisters, their walls are adorned with Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele posters (pre-Beatles, remember) and they collect small fluffy objects which bedeck their bedroom the way a young boy’s room of the time would have been festooned by posters of Geoff Hurst. So far, so nothing out of the ordinary there.
Except that Jean, who has a part time job in her dad’s mate Ron’s pub (they didn’t half start them off young in the early 60s) is given to flights of fancy and wonderment way above her station, one of which is to answer a ringing telephone in an empty public call box (I would say something facetious like ‘as you do’, but maybe people were just unusually polite and helpful back then), and, pretending for some reason best known unto herself to be called “Samantha”, begin a conversation with an unknown man she has never seen, who tells her what a lovely voice she has and how much he’d like to speak to her again, same time tomorrow. And in the time that it takes for my girlfriend to say ‘Ye stupid bun’ in her best Glaswegian brogue, she agrees and we have the core of our basic plot.
All this may sound somewhat disparaging – not at all, I absolutely love this film – but I do believe that the basic premise of it is rather flimsy and even unbelievable by the standards of 1962- I mean, OK, maybe people were more innocent and trusting then and we didn’t have the ridiculous peado-hysteria so wonderfully satirised by Chris Morris in Brass Eye, but there must have been some gauge of the ‘done thing’ and some indication that mysterious strangers weren’t to be trusted, otherwise… well, they wouldn’t have made a film with such a title, would they? Unless it was the first to prove this particular point. Nevertheless, once we suspend our disbelief at Jean’s outright naivety (and to be honest, Gregg is a convincing actress enough for this to work) we are hooked into the story until the very finish. Day by day, she returns to the phone box, each time revealing a little more about herself to the mysterious man she even refers to as her ‘boyfriend’, day by day her sister becomes increasingly worried at her behaviour, as do her parents who believe she has a crush on Ron (especially as she is keen to work there, near to the box, as often as possible) and day by day she relates more of her fanciful dreams concerning her mystery paramour to jaded bus conductress Molly (Dandy Nichols – was she EVER young?) who, understandably, thinks her young charge is several hops short of the full pint. As this develops, with the subtext of her father’s increasing concern for his daughters’ safety in light of the ever-changing world and “upsetting things he reads about in the local papers” (which presumably refer to the discovery in the pre-credit sequence of the body of a recently murdered woman by several children playing in a barn) growing ever-pervasive, the previously innocuous figure of the telephone booth, merely a man-made invention of steel, paint and glass, becomes an almost portentous totem, a harbinger of the evil and untoward.
Every time we see it we become a little more disturbed: a purely accidental trick of the camera that reflects either Gregg or a member of the film crew makes it seem as if a human face can be seen visibly lingering in the window. It’s elements like these that have led some fans to elevate the film’s status above mere crime thriller to that of horror movie: the effective use of wind, a chase through fields into a shed (whereupon the heroine hears a number of characters’ voices echoing in nightmare fashion) which predates The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by about thirteen years, and a downright terrifying encounter with what is revealed to be nothing more than a local village tramp (still make me jump out of my seat, anyway) are all further grist to this mill. And that’s to say nothing of the look of sheer terror on Jean’s face when she recognises the voice of her mystery lover as he approaches her, unaware, in a public place and asks her for change for the telephone….not that we can see what’s wrong with him, of course, like all the best mysteries his face or identity are never revealed- but it’s enough to get the imagination flowing. Definitely a contender for the ‘isithorror’ subgenre, if nothing else.
To spoil it for those unlucky enough not to have seen it by telling them the ending would just be unfair: suffice to say, it races towards a climax quickly in the way that all the best films of its kind do: and yes, there is a car chase and a punch up somewhere along the way, not to mention a genuine nail biting moment involving Faye which leads to one of the best twists in a tale ever thought of. This, of course, was familiar territory for our Janina (late of Terence Fisher’s Dracula, still her best known performance) who had recently been menaced by leering Felix Aylmer in Hammer’s little-seen but highly recommended child abuse drama Never Take Sweets From A Stranger (Cyril Frankel 1960) and would go on to a series of ‘victim’ roles in both film and TV over the years, most recently alongside Ingrid Pitt and Robin Parkinson in Paul Cotgrove’s Green Fingers (2000). Such is the stuff that cult fame among genre fans is made of.
Don’t Talk To Strange Men will never be regarded a classic, although it’s high time someone credited it for the amount of influence it has had on the more grand guignol and contemporary – set horrors and thrillers of the last 40 years: from its opening shot (beautifully photographed by Derrick Williams, also the producer) of an unknown female waiting on a rainy street corner to be approached by ‘the’ oncoming car, through its deconstruction of cosy suburbia, right up to its final reel of incredulity (you’ll have to watch it) it seems to have been the dry run for practically everything the likes of Sydney Hayers, Pete Walker, Lindsay Shonteff and Alistair Reid – hell, maybe even Norman Warren – excelled at a decade later. Not bad for a film essentially made to fulfil the government subsidy quota for the Eady Levy. Would they make it today? They should, but they probably wouldn’t. Mind you, I always say that.