Director: John Lemont
Screenplay: Leigh Vance
Based on a Story by: John Lemont, Leigh Vance
Starring: Herbert Lom, Sean Connery, John Gregson, Alfred Marks, Yvonne Romain, Olive McFarland, Kenneth Griffith
Running Time: 97 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
When Sean Connery died at the end of October last year, there were many tributes in the press and, as you might guess, a lot of focus on his iconic role as James Bond. There have been numerous actors that have taken on that world-famous persona, but arguably none are as fondly remembered as Connery, who played Bond in his first cinematic outing.
Connery had a long-lasting career though that spanned far beyond the seven Bond films he starred in. He remained a bankable star from Dr. No back in 1962, all the way up to his final (albeit poorly received) major outing in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in 2003.
Less well-known though is his work prior to becoming 007. Connery was working in TV and film 8 years before Dr. No, mainly in smaller roles, but he gradually built up to become a leading man, ready for his breakthrough. 1961’s The Frightened City saw him take one of the chief roles in a gritty crime drama. It was a surprise success, becoming the second highest-grossing British film of the year, so may well have been the title that made Harry Saltzman and “Cubby” Broccoli sit up and take notice.
Studiocanal are releasing The Frightened City on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms in the UK. Connery’s presence and the noir-like look of the film intrigued me, so I got hold of a copy and my thoughts follow.
The Frightened City focuses around the schemes of crooked accountant Waldo Zhernikov (Herbert Lom). He’s been working with gang-boss and nightclub owner Harry Foulcher (Alfred Marks), and sees a potentially profitable enterprise in Foulcher’s protection-racket.
The gangster is getting pretty easy money from strong-arming local pubs and restaurants into paying to prevent any trouble in their establishments (usually from the gang-members themselves of course). However, with other gangs doing the same, squabbles over territory make it an expensive and messy business.
Zhernikov has the idea of forming a cartel between the gangs, dividing up the West End of London evenly between them and sharing the profits. The gang bosses agree (though one, Alf Peters, takes some convincing) and the operation thrives.
To also help smooth over the operation, Zhernikov and Foulcher decide to hire a less hot-headed man to lead their team of heavies. They approach Paddy Damion (Connery), a cat-burglar who’s initially not interested. However, when he discovers his good friend and long-time criminal partner Wally (Kenneth Griffith) has become disabled in an incident, Paddy decides to take on the job to help keep both of them afloat.
Paddy indeed does very well from this new line of work, but as he gradually steps away from those close to him, including his girlfriend Sadie (Olive McFarland), and Zhernikov’s plans grow more ambitious, he begins to question his priorities.
During this time, the police, headed by Det. Inspector Sayers (John Gregson), slowly close in on the criminal operation and Paddy must decide on which side of the law he stands.
On the whole, The Frightened City is a fairly unexceptional example of a 60s crime movie. The direction is rather pedestrian, though there are a few nice visual touches here and there, particularly in some of the scene transitions. There’s a nice one when a punching bag is hit towards the screen to mark the cut, for instance.
The writing is a bit hit and miss too. Though there’s some fun hard-boiled banter between the criminals (and sometimes the police), the overall plot is fairly predictable and characters aren’t particularly fleshed out. It’s this latter fact that I feel keeps me from labelling The Frightened City a British noir. Film noir tends to draw much of its darkness from the troubled psychology or morals of its characters, whereas here everything is fairly black and white. Paddy faces a dilemma towards the end of the film, but it’s not capitalised on.
However, as middle-of-the-road as much of the film is, it remains a solid and enjoyable crime drama. This is largely due to the cast. Though some of the minor characters, particularly the policemen, are a bit wooden, the main cast are largely very good. Lom is particularly scene-stealing as the cool, calculated villain who gets too greedy as the film goes on. Gregson is decent too, as the detective who doesn’t play by the rules. Connery doesn’t quite have the suave confidence he would later show in the Bond movies, but that quality is beginning to emerge here and his star power is present.
The film moves along at a fair pace too, grabbing the attention with a shocking opening murder followed by a cool ‘car-cam’ shot running under the credits that ends in a crash. Also running alongside the credits is the film’s excellent theme tune, which was performed by none other than The Shadows, headed by Hank Marvin. His ‘twangy’ guitar sound pitches the film firmly in the 60s, but it works a charm. The title track was even a hit in the charts in the UK, peaking at number 3.
So, though The Frightened City is a fairly standard crime movie, it’s solidly made and enhanced by a few decent performances and a great soundtrack. Connery would do better work in later years, but this is early proof of his talent, which likely helped point him towards the massive success that would greet him only one year later.
The Frightened City is out on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms on 12th April in the UK, released by Studiocanal. I watched the Blu-ray version and it looks great. There was a wobble on the picture for a short while and some faint lines in a couple of places but other than that it looks very sharp, detailed and natural. Audio is strong too, with no notable issues.
The only special feature of note is an interview with journalist and film historian Matthew Sweet. Running at around 25 minutes, it’s a decent piece that fills you in on the history behind the film and Sweet offers his personal thoughts on it.