The first thing that occurs to the viewer when watching this classic thriller is how certain similarities between the events of its plot and a more recent, high-profile British news story concerning a missing child may have been the reason you haven’t seen it on the small screen often in the last seven or so years. Let’s face it, when I myself was a child, it was on fairly regularly: but then again, so were a lot of things that they can’t be bothered to show these days.
On closer viewing, though, such surface similarities soon dissipate: not only does the baby-snatching in Lost take place at home in London rather than on holiday abroad, but the circumstances of the child’s disappearance is far less nefarious on the part of both the parent (who, in this case, had entrusted their offspring to a hapless nanny anyway) and the captor, and the Britain depicted here, the rosy-red-white picture postcard Southern England of the austerity years as seen through the eyes of those who could afford colour film stock, bears no relation to the one glimpsed through today’s media reportage. In other words, yet another case of the past being, truly, a different country, captured here for posterity by the deft direction of Guy Green, who, though later known for darker fare such as Hammer’s The Snorkel (1959) and the controversial The Mark (1961), political works like The Angry Silence (1960) and Luther (1974) and the lifelong cinematic infamy achieved with a misjudged adaptation of The Magus (1968), manages to encapsulate here the concept of perfect Sunday matinee viewing in excelsis.
Why is it such a perfect concept? Maybe cinematographer Harry Waxman, the man who would go on to lens some of the UK’s most beautiful pictures from Sapphire to The Wicker Man, has the answer- he is every bit as much the “author” of the film as Green himself, and between them, they never miss an opportunity to construct a stunning set-piece out of the many locations found in the capital and the Home Counties. Detractors have suggested- and sure, there is ample evidence to support their theory- that as a result of this, Lost, like many of its contemporaries, is little more than a series of stunning looking vignettes, all set in picturesque chocolate box locations, deliberately engineered to give a series of esteemed character players and walk-ons (Dandy Nichols, Thora Hird, Anita Sharp Bolster, Joan Hickson, Mona Washbourne, Percy Herbert, George Woodbridge, you’ve never seen a list quite like it) their moment in the sun. Yet, with the exception of Nichols, who I always found annoying, their presence is mostly illuminating, and as such only serves to propel the suspense and thrills of the story a little further forward each time.
And if they were included simply for the sake of self-aggrandisement (personally, I think the studio’s need to build as fine a cast as possible around their less-than-illustrious imported hero and heroine is closer to the mark), I’d still like to know why most of them remained uncredited at the time of the film’s release- union disagreements maybe? Someone, somewhere has to know, as Paul McCartney sang in “London Town” in 1978, which, coincidentally, is probably around the time I first saw this film. It’s also a joy, as it often is with these movies, to watch many a future star- Barbara Windsor, Joan Sims and Shirley Anne Field to name a few- making their first nascent steps to fame within these 90 minutes in roles you wouldn’t normally associate with them, and Lili Palmer’s sister Irene Prador (later known to millions as Mrs Lemenski in Dear John) also plays quite an important part in the plotline. Star cameo, though, has to go to Everley Gregg for her turn as an eccentric baroness living in Knightsbridge who oils and mends her own cars in a pair of dirty overalls: a little humanity goes a long way.
There is, undoubtedly, a faction of self-appointed arbiters who would suggest that such levity is unbecoming of a serious film grounded in such serious subject matter: but we must remember, this was 1956, and ‘variety’ performers were just as much a powerful force in drama as they were in comedy. Could it be possibly something to do with having just lived through a world war and wanting to come out the other side, triumphing over adversity and laughing in the face of the enemy? Quite possibly, but in any case, it is this very combination of elements and emotions, making the film in equal measures funny, scary, thrilling, disarming, alarming and downright upsetting, that keeps the viewer watching.
Thus, for every two-minute comedy turn comes something far more sinister and, dare I say it, sad: the subplot involving a ‘bogus’ kidnapper setting up a rendezvous in Burnham Beeches for no other reason than to con the Cochrane’s (the family in question) out of an immense amount of money has almost the aura of an Edgar Wallace krimi or a Tod Slaughter melodrama about it (also practically laying the groundwork for later masterpieces like SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON), effectively belying the film’s origins as a ‘cosy thriller’, while another sequence, in which a desperate Arnall follows a local Cockney child, later discovered to be an inveterate liar, to a tenement building where “the horrible woman lives upstairs” is simply rent with pathos, her disappointment, upset and fear almost genuinely palpable. And it’s these scenes, of course, which always stick in the mind- after all, doesn’t half the power of this stuff actually originate from the incongruity of realising that such things could be going on right under your nose, where you live, in your cosy, staid, home town? Of course it does. That’s Britain. Strange, then, that nowadays, when it’s overt rather than covert, and the idea of making a film about a ‘lost’ or ‘missing’ child in 2011 has all sorts of far grubbier connotations, especially among the hysteria-obsessed retards of certain sections of the British public, people still talk in the same coded, gossiping fishwife manner they did back in 1956, when all kidnappers seemingly wanted to do was exchange your child for a pile of cash and ride off into the sunset. Realistically, of course, everyone knows that the only genuine change is the way in which we share information (not to mention the growing inability of many to understand it) but the difference back then was that you could make a film about it….
Mind you, such a film today, or even ten years later, might not have had such a textbook ending: the primary difference between a film like Lost and the innumerable quota quickies, B pictures and Brit crime pictures which followed, is its optimistic outlook. Right from the start, we are convinced, as I’m sure everybody was back then too, that the good guys are going to win, that little Simon will be returned to his parents unharmed, and that in such a chirpily enthusiastic, even if somewhat eerie, 1950s Britain, only one body of people can do this- yes, that’s right, Scotland Yard. Enter John Farrar as the dapper, handsome, warm-hearted yet slightly careworn and concerned Detective Inspector Craig, a man overworked, unattached (yet gazed upon longingly by his WPC Eleanor Summerfield, who, in a brave move for the time from Green’s scriptwriter wife Janet, actually plays quite a large analytical part in the investigations) and very much married to his job, but who’s going to get the job done one way or the other, even if it means, as Knight and Arnall keep suggesting accusatively- “turning over trash and emptying garbage”.
Subsequent police in subsequent films would be altogether more duplicitous, but in 1956, the law was the law, and, as suggested earlier, once lumbered with quite a wooden (not to mention contractually American ‘hunka man’) hero in the shape of Knight, it was obvious that the producers were going to need someone more homely the public could identify with, and here he is- a truly ‘pellicular’ actor of his time, who makes the main body of the film come alive, not just as himself but as a character also. Like John Gregson’s very similar inspector in TOMORROW AT TEN (1965), Craig is a congenial, affable copper of the kind you’d call if you found someone had nicked apples from the tree in your garden: he may at times seem exasperated, and have no-one to reassure him, but that doesn’t prevent him from reassuring both distressed parents that their efforts aren’t in vain, and taking both the mother’s hysteria and the father’s cynicism firmly in hand, to the point that after a while, we almost stop caring about the missing boy and just want to see Farrar poring over casebooks and twatting criminals.
It’s when the parents ignore his sage counsel that they get their fingers burnt, but conversely, without that twist to the plot, we wouldn’t get to see half the wonderful locations on offer, from the village spires of Fulmer and Iver through bustling Chelsea to the final, iconic (and typically climactic for a film of this era) showdown atop Beachy Head. And anyway, full marks to Green for not filming the entire shebang in and around Black Park like everybody else!! If there is a disappointment on offer, it’s that we don’t get to see Farrar and Summerfield hit it off, even though we know they’d like to- but maybe some things, even within the context of a happy ending, are better left implicit. What is a tragedy, though, is that the actor himself didn’t get nearly enough work, and today remains largely unremembered- but the downside of a ‘golden era’ of filmmaking is that it will be filled from top to brim with those whose stars didn’t burn as brightly as others. Logically, there’s no way that they all can, even if they once scrambled up a crumbling rock face 300 ft in the air in the name of cinema…
Needless to say, I’m not going to tell you the ending. That would ruin it for you if you happen to be reading this, you’re under 35, and you didn’t see it periodically screened throughout your youth (I’m not sure exactly how often, but since having acquired my copy, I think about once every six months to a year will suffice) You might end up ignoring it completely anyway, confusing it with that pile of nonsense recently made for American television with Naveen Andrews, and many are bound to make the same mistake on casual reading, so maybe if it comes out on DVD, the American release title of Tears For Simon might serve it better. It definitely deserves a proper release, though- nowhere in one film will you see so many different sides to the England of the past, the one the extreme Left claimed for years was bigoted and imperialistic, yet which they have now started, via the cunning use of ‘irony’ (yeah, right) to wax lyrical about from the safety of their middle-class homes without realising that it was themselves who partially destroyed it. Typical. Either way, it doesn’t exist here anymore- even in the village greens- so, if to view it within the small screen is probably as close as any of us are going to get, then why not via the medium of a bona fide DVD? And seeing as Knight, Arnall and at least one other cast member are still alive, wouldn’t it be worth catching them for an interview while it remains possible?
Whatever method you choose, do try and see this at least once- it’s a charming way to spend an afternoon, will provide a welcome antidote to the winter SAD blues, a lot less depressing than The Whisperers or The Pumpkin Eater yet still as uniquely British, and has far more ‘layers’ than most of its contemporaries, initiating plot twists and conceits concerning the raising of children, the madness of women and our own prejudices towards both American and European parents (especially in the years immediately following WWII) that have since become so de rigueur everywhere else- from BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING to BAYWATCH- that it’s hard to remember that, with the exception of their semi-inception in Women Of Twilight (1952) they more or less began here. As did the career of many a great performer or technician. Those with more modern tastes may find it’s all ‘wrapped up’ too suddenly, but there’s nothing wrong, once in a while, with a linear, taut, suspenseful matinee thriller- so grab yourself a sandwich and a glass of Dandelion and Burdock, position yourself accordingly, and wait for the passive drips of someone else’s Proustian rush.