Assignment Redhead – 1956 | 79 mins | Thriller, Crime | B&W
Allied Occupied Berlin. Two men dump the body of a British major in the rubble of a bombed out church. The next morning at the Templehoff USAF aerodrome a group of passengers, both military and civilian, are waiting to catch the next flight to London. Among them are a British officer called Ridgeway, Digby Mitchell, a civil servant and an American airman named Gudowski who happens to be a keen amateur photographer. All three are drinking buddies. Gudowski tells the others of a stunning female redhead he has seen outside and hopes that she is getting the same flight as them. Just then the woman appears with a Major Scammel at her back. The airman makes a move on the redhead who rejects his advances. He does, however, manage to take her photograph, much to her chagrin. Scammel has appeared in shot and apologises to Gudowski. Talking briefly to the woman it turns out that she is a German musician called Hedy Bergner who is heading to London to take up an engagement at a nightclub.
Just as the flight is about to leave Gudowski receives a telegram. In London, Major Gregory Keen reports for duty at MI5 where he has been seconded as part of an Anglo-American initiative. There he discusses with his superior, Fentriss, the growing use of forged passport and other papers allowing Nazis, Communists and other undesirables to move freely about Europe. It appears that the scam has now spread to the UK and those behind it are involved in a much more lucrative area of criminal activity, probably currency fraud. Keen is somewhat sceptical of this new development but is told by Fentriss that the source of information behind this new development is entirely credible. In fact the man involved in the investigation, Scammel is due to fly into London that night and will get in touch with MI5 first thing the next morning. The aeroplane carrying Scammel and the other passengers arrives at the airport. Gudowski and Ridgeway make plans for their weekend leave. The former suggests a night on the town and explains that the telegram he received was confirmation of the booking of a double bedroom at a hotel in Knightsbridge.
Hedy Bergner then appears and apologises to the airman for giving him the brush-off earlier on and suggests that they meet up later on. Guodwski tells her where he is staying. Ridgeway is highly sceptical of this sudden change of heart from the woman and agrees to a wager from his friend that she is on the level. Back in Berlin, the body of the Major is discovered. Military Intelligence arranges for passengers on all flights that left the city in the last 24 hours to be thoroughly checked. It turns out that an impostor has replaced Scammel and is now at large in London. It also seems likely that the person impersonating the Major is none other than a master criminal called Demetrius who Intelligence services across Europe have been trying to positively identify and capture unsuccessfully for many years. Keen and his assistant Sergeant Coutts are assigned the task of interviewing the other passengers on the flight in order to obtain some sort of description of the fake Scammel. Their first port of call is Hedy Bergner. Unfortunately, she is unable to recall much about the man only that he was a British officer. She does invite Keen to see her act at a nearby nightclub which the officer says he would like to do. After Keen and Coutts leave, Bergner picks up the telephone and reports the visit by the two men.Review
The 1950s proved a precarious time for the producers and distributors of low-budget independent features. Although attendance figures had yet to begin their rapid and almost interminable decline thanks to the advent of the commercial television network, these companies faced a variety of other problems. Among them were a revised quota system introduced at the end of the 1930s which not only saw their costs increase dramatically, leading in many cases to bankruptcies or absorption by larger entities, but actually favoured the small group of corporations along with the British production arms of the Hollywood studios like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
While some companies like Mancunian Films managed to survive by virtue of a large and loyal audience base in the regions, most had to rely on the surviving independent cinema chains like Granada or Classic to showcase their films. For large-scale exposure and the accompanying ticket buyers, independents had to rely heavily on the goodwill of the two major players in the British film industry, the Rank Organisation and Associated British Pictures Corporation (ABPC), who between them controlled, directly or otherwise, much of what filmgoers could see at their local picture halls, especially in the profitable major urban conurbations.
Some of the more ambition production houses like Exclusive’s production unit Hammer Films opted to make their product more attractive to the major exhibitors by joining forces with fellow American independent filmmakers like Robert Lippert which not only allowed them access to better production values but more importantly to American second or third rank talent. The presence of Hollywood actors and actresses along with the choice of genres popular in across the Atlantic including murder mysteries and science managed to secure these companies bookings on the major UK circuits and helped them when it came to sales to the burgeoning and voracious American television networks. The ideal of course was to land a theatrical distribution deal in the States, the best example of this being Val Guest s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) which pulled Exclusive/Hammer out a financial hole.
A number of other filmmakers from the period followed Hammer s by importing North American talent for their ventures of which the film under review here, Assignment Redhead, is a fairly typical example. The company behind the picture is one of the longest-surviving names in British independent cinema. Butchers origins seem to go back as far as the end of the 19th century and the birth of film in this country, and continue as a production entity (under various owners) until the mid-1960s while operating as a distributor until at least the mid-1970s, which is something of an achievement. It is probably best known in its capacity as a distributor of material from other independent sources, with its heyday being seen as the era of the explosion in quota quickies of the 1930s and 1940s. These impossibly cheap efforts were mainly musicals and comedies based on popular music hall acts and theatrical workhorses of the day. Examples include early entries in the Old Mother Riley series.
For the purposes of this work (which some sources suggest received additional funding in the form of pre-sales from its American distributor Richard Gordon) Butcher s managed to obtain the services of two Hollywood performers in the form of Richard Denning and Carole Matthews. A former Paramount contract player for some ten years from the late 1930s, by the mid-1950s Denning was working on a freelance basis for a number of studios. He had appeared in the successful sitcom Mr & Mrs North but today he is best known for his presence in science fiction epics like Jack Arnold s The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Roger Corman’s The Day the World Ended (1956). Also freelancing during this period was Matthews, previously a Columbia starlet in the 1940s and latterly appearing as hard-boiled female leads mainly in westerns like Harmon Jones City of Bad Men (1953) and Roger Corman’s Swamp Women (1955) as well as occasional thrillers like her other British movie, Montgomey Tully’s Strange Awakening (1958).
One of the most commonly recurring names seen in the bargain basement of British cinema, represented by quota quickies, programmers and B-movies, is that of MacLean Rogers. A former film editor, Rogers began working as a director toward the start of the 1930s and worked almost continuously until the early 1960s in virtually every genre in low-budget filmmaking, including mystery (The Feathered Serpent 1934), comedy (Gert and Daisy s Weekend 1942) and adaptations of popular radio serials (Calling Paul Temple 1948) as well as the occasional kiddie film (Noddy in Toyland 1957). He also helmed the film version of The Goon Show entitled Down Among the Z-Men (1953). Interestingly, Rogers was a hyphenate filmmaker, very much a rarity at the time, often acting as his own screenwriter. Sometimes his work also included an additional credit as producer. More importantly, much of his output (now irretrievably lost or held in inaccessible vaults) had featured the participation, in some form, of Butchers Films and so by the time of the appearance of Assignment Redhead, they had already established a strong working relationship.
What is the probably the most surprising aspect of MacLean Rogers feature is that, unlike the majority of product in a similar vein from the 1940s and 1950s, it is not based on an existing theatrical play, but rather the novel Requiem for a Redhead from expatriate Australian thriller writer Lindsay Hardy. The impression that the work began life as a piece of theatre is underlined very early on and throughout by Rogers decision to film the large majority of the dramatic action as if the camera represented an audience member sitting in the front stalls of such a venue. Visually, Rogers and cinematographer Ernest Palmer employ only a small variety of camera set-ups, mostly medium close-ups and two-shots, with only a very few cut-aways and pans to break up the monotony, reinforcing the theatricality of the whole enterprise. Although there are occasional attempts to make use of deep focus and offbeat composition, Rogers’s direction could be best described as static. John Stoll’s rather flimsy three-wall settings also would not look out of place in a provincial theatre.
In most other areas of execution, Assignment Redhead is deeply flawed as a piece of cinema. A major drawback is that rather than flowing as a single narrative MacLean Rogers screenplay is made up of a series of dramatic vignettes linked by a thematic thread. Once again the airs of a stage play become apparent with many of these scenes featuring an entrance and/or exit for the performers. This fragmented narrative does seriously compromise the pacing of the piece, making it far outstay its welcome even at a meagre 79 minutes.
Other problems inherent in Rogers’s writing include uncertainty about where the emphasis of the plot should lie, the plight of the framed Ridgeway (Brian Worth) and his relationship with the cigarette seller (Jan Holden) who befriends him (implying the influence of Alfred Hitchcock, in particular his 1935 work The 39 Steps on the production), or the investigation of the case by Major Keen (Richard Denning) being compromised by his affair by the duplicitous refugee Hedy Bergner (Carole Matthews).
Matters are not helped by underdevelopment of a number of plot elements notably the main reason for the actions of the main villain being his desire to obtain $12 million dollars in high quality counterfeit currency created by the Nazis and Ridgeway s friends in the security services of more than one country who join forces to help him, both of these rather important developments becoming merely incidental to the overall story. In addition, even the least aware of viewers will take notice of a number of gaping plot holes, among them the fact that MI5 are desperately seeking a description of master criminal Demetrius even though it is said that he is a master of disguise and so will have changed his appearance almost immediately after arriving in London, the complete lack of urgency in the intelligence investigation which allows the villain to pursue his activities and brings other characters into harm s way and most obvious of all why Jan Holden s match seller should, almost without hesitation, befriend self-confessed prime suspect in a murder Ridgeway, and allow him to stay at her home. Also working against the movie is a lot of quite incredibly banal dialogue that is often hard on the ear.
Against such material and with apparently no help from the director, the cast stand little chance. Both imported leads, Richard Denning and Carole Matthews both come across as stolid, with very little in the way of screen chemistry between them, meaning that their romance, which is an important part of the plot, completely fails to convince. The script ensures that Denning s character appears foolish and ignorant, missing obvious clues and evidence and easily falling for the machinations of Matthews’s redhead and her masters. In what may be considered a big musical number for a Butcher s production (with similar sequences turning up in a lot of their efforts) Matthews look extremely uncomfortable, not to say embarrassed, playing a large and unwieldy accordion in a tatty London nightclub. Many of the supporting cast attempt to obscure the inadequacies of the material by hiding behind a variety of outrageous foreign accents, with Peter Swanwick and Danny Green being the worst offenders as a French secret service agent and Demetrius’s chief henchman, respectively.
A bizarre feature of Assignment Redhead is the setting the action is purported to be taking place. Although the few exterior shots shot on the almost deserted streets of London, with its architecture, advertising billboards and motor cars, suggests the latter half of the 1950s, much of the dialogue makes references to refugees and other displaced persons as a result of World War II and makes it appear as if that event was a far more recent event than the 1956 copyright date would suggest. In fact, with its austere settings, generally miserable tone and indeterminate period trappings, MacLean Rogers movie seems to be at least five years older than it actually is, in fact a product of the late 1940s or early 1950s.
Amongst all the dreariness, there are some attempts by the makers to liven the proceedings up somewhat, with variable success. A fight between Denning and two of Demetrius’s henchmen in an office again echoes a theatrical experience. Surprisingly, given Rogers background in film editing this is rather poorly executed and often rather amusing. An earlier car chase through the streets of London following an apparent murder attempt on Matthews ends before it can build any momentum, while the villain s disposal of a victim by launching his car off a cliff is marred by mismatched stock footage from another picture. Frustratingly, one of the more potentially entertaining sequences where Ridgeway has to fight for his life against a gang of assassins is merely mentioned in the script and not actually shown.
Things pick up significantly at the movie s climax, taking place in a deserted dockside warehouse. Here Rogers and Ernest Palmer bring a distinctly expressionistic style to the sequence with much use being made of big shadows and oversized sets which easily dwarf the actors. This also features probably the most elaborate piece of action seen in the entire film involving a shootout, during which Demetrius cold-bloodedly shoots Matthews, the building being set on fire and a rooftop fistfight between the hero and villain with the latter eventually falling to his death. The bleak ending has Denning mourning the death of his lover while his superior congratulates him on ending Demetrius’s activities.
Overall, Assignment Redhead could be charitably described as mediocre. However, it is not without some minor redeeming points. Arguably the most notable feature of product from Butchers stable is the opportunities they gave to bit part and other supporting players to obtain more substantial roles than they would normally be allocated in mainstream productions. A number of these actors made the most of the opportunities these modest efforts offered and stood out from their fellow thespians and MacLean Rogers film is no exception. Amongst the talent who particularly impress here are actor/playwright Ronald Adam who easily dominates every scene that he appears in, Elwyn Brook-Jones as a continually hung-over, bowler-hatted civil servant, Hugh Moxey as Denning s sidekick and Ronald Leigh-Hunt as the hero’s no-nonsense boss. All of them combine to make the material they are working with far better than it actually is, no mean achievement.
Quota quickies and their successor programmers and B-pictures were often seen as a useful training ground for up and coming talent, both behind as well as in front of the camera. Here art director John Stoll managed graduate to the art department on major productions like David Lean s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dick Lester s How I Won the War (1967) and Lewis Gilbert s Shirley Valentine (1989).
©Iain McLachlan 2005
Maclean Rogers: Director
John Stoll: Art Direction
Ernest Palmer: Cinematography
Peter Mayhew: Editing
Gerry Fairbanks: Makeup Department
Doris Pollard: Makeup Department
Wilfred Burns: Original Music
William G Chalmers: Producer
Maclean Rogers: Script
Sid Squires: Sound Department
Richard Denning: Major Gregory Keen
Carole Mathews: Hedy Bergner
Ronald Adam: Scammel/Dumetrius
Danny Green: Yotti Blum
Brian Worth: Capt Peter Ridgeway
Jan Holden: Sally Jennings
Hugh Moxey: Sgt Tom Coutts
Peter Swanwick: Monsieur Paul Bonnet
Elwyn Brook-Jones: Digby Mitchel
Ronald Leigh-Hunt: Col Julian Fentriss
Robert O’Neil: Capt Hank Godowski
Paul Hardtmuth: Dr Buchmann
Bill Nagy: Marzotti