Dead Men are DangerousDirector: Harold French
Screenplay: Victor Kendall, Vernon J. Clancey and Harry Hughes
Starring: Robert Newton, Betty Lynne, John Warwick
Year: 1939
Country: UK
Running Time: 66 mins
BBFC Classification: PG

Aylmer Franklin is an unsuccessful writer with lots of debts, who lives a very much hand-to-mouth existence, and is about to be evicted from his sparsely furnished cottage. His pretty girlfriend, Nina, comes from a wealthy background and offers to help, but Aylmer has his pride and doesn’t want her to think he’s only after her for her money. Things finally get too much for Mr Franklin when he goes to visit his Uncle James who turns him down when he asks to borrow some money to pay his rent and then his uncle’s son makes some lewd comment about Aylmer’s girlfriend resulting in our hapless ‘hero’ hitting the son and storming out.

Returning to his chilly digs he finds another rejection letter for his last novel, which sends him over the edge, resulting in him writing Nina a suicide note before heading out into a wind-tossed storm to post said note. As he walks he hears a tree fall down and a cry and heads towards the noise to investigate. He finds a man seemingly squashed by a fallen tree and, after trying to get through to the police in a nearby phone box, he decides to change places with the deceased man and make a fresh start for himself. After swapping clothes and leaving his inscribed watch (from Nina) on the body he flags down a bus and ends up at a back street hotel in a neighbouring town.

Having changed his name to Mr Jones and trying to keep a low profile he sees his own obituary, and reads that the police are treating his death as suspicious and are looking for a man wearing a checked jacket who was seen in the area shortly before the body was discovered; that man being himself, wearing the dead man’s clothes. He becomes nervous, hides the jacket under the floorboards of his room and then becomes even more agitated when he reads in the paper that his last manuscript is to be published and it looks like he’s now being hailed as an undiscovered great author in the wake of his death (life’s a bitch sometimes eh?).

Later he attends his own inquest and discovers that the dead man had been killed prior to the tree-fall, by a knife to the head. A local postman saw the mysterious man in the check suit throw something away, which looked like a knife or a pistol. It was actually a notebook that Aylmer had found on the body and had decided to discard. The judge declares that they are now looking for a fugitive wanted for murder. Aylmer determines that he needs to find out who really killed the man in order to clear his own name and be able to return to Nina, who he has realised he can’t be without.

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Dead Men Are Dangerous belongs in the ‘wrong man’ subgenre of thrillers, which seemed to be especially popular during the 50s and 60s. In this case Robert Newton, playing Aylmer, is a rather unusual hero as he initially comes across as being a bit of a loser who is obsessed with his writing at the expense of all the other relationships in his life. He comes across as very self-centred and as something of a loner. It’s only when he is forced to decide what is really important in his life that he becomes a more sympathetic protagonist.

Based on a story called ‘Hidden’ by H.C. Armstrong, Dead Men Are Dangerous holds one’s interest throughout its relatively short running time and demonstrates some nicely moody black and white photography. The sounds design is pretty decent too with some nicely realised wind noises during the storm sequence and most of the dialogue nice and crisp. There’s some good usage of close-up shots, including close ups of fists clenching, which I’d imagine might be an early example of such a shot. Interestingly there is also a scene where voices fade out, which again is probably an early appearance of such a sound technique. There’s also a decent fight scene towards the end of the movie, where objects get thrown and blows actually look like they might have been painful.

Although the ending is a bit contrived, with things tied up a bit too quickly, Dead Men Are Dangerous is still a fairly decent watch and is good fun throughout. My only real criticisms are that some of the characters’ reactions to things are a bit dated now and it is easy to pull apart the central concept of the plot when considering body identification, which, even back then, would have been a bit more sophisticated than being down to whether someone was wearing the ‘right’ clothes or not!

Reviewer: Justin Richards

Dead Men Are Dangerous has recently been released on DVD and is being distributed by Network Distributing who are currently releasing lots of these rarer British film titles, many of which are pretty decent.

Extras consist of three photos from the film and an alternative title sequence, which is actually, to my mind, better than the one they eventually used.

About The Author

Justin Richards is a journalist by day and a scriptwriter by night. His work has appeared in the darker recesses of the internet and in various niche publications including ITNOW, The Darkside, Is it Uncut?, Impact and Deranged. When he’s not sitting hunched over a sticky, crumb-laden keyboard he’s paying good money to have people in pyjamas try and kick him repeatedly in the face.

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