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The Great Ealing Film Challenge 94: Nowhere to Go (1958)

Posted: 20/08/2012 00:00

Nowhere to Go was the second-last Ealing film produced and, suitably, is also the second-last film to be viewed and written about for this challenge. Erstwhile Ealing editor Seth Holt made his directorial debut in a crime thriller which he scripted with Ealing script editor (and theatre critic) Kenneth Tynan (from a book by Donald MacKenzie). The hiring and influence of Tynan is covered in more detail by Charles Barr in the new collection Ealing Revisited (out in November!), but of the seven films Balcon produced after selling the physical studio in Ealing, this is often seen as the film that offered one potential (and unfulfilled) new route for Ealing Films in the late 1950s.

Canadian thief Paul Gregory (George Nader) pursues Harriet P. Jefferson (Bessie Love) in order to steal her rare coin collection. Having sold the coins, he puts the money in a safe deposit box and waits to be arrested, expecting to be out in five years. Sentenced to ten years, and with the help of Victor Sloane (Bernard Lee), Gregory breaks out of prison and plans to collect the money, and leave the country. A series of accidents and double-crosses sends Gregory spinning through London's criminal underworld, before he ends up on the run with socialite Bridget Howard (Maggie Smith) through the Welsh countryside.

There is a visual confidence on display in the film from the opening images, underpinned with a jazz soundtrack (by Dizzy Reece), that makes it feel like an early 1960s film rather than one from the late 1950s. Given its interest in interior spaces, and cool London locations, the film resembles later films like The Ipcress File (1965) more than earlier Ealing crime thrillers The Blue Lamp (1950) or Pool of London (1951). There is no dialogue in the first nine minutes of the film, as Victor arrives at the prison, throws a rope over the wall, climbs in and sets in motion Gregory's escape; Gregory, in reverse, heads over the wall, changes his clothes, and takes the car Victor left for him, before ending up in a borrowed flat. It is a meticulous and well-staged sequence and, perhaps because of Holt's work as an editor, there is little excess fat here or, indeed, elsewhere in the film.

Camerawork and set design remain strong throughout, with composition in depth that sets up complex scenes that reward extra attention. The apartment where Gregory stays for the first half of the film, for example, is a precise and controlled environment: we see it shot almost exclusively from one direction (a decision that could - unfairly - influence accusations of theatricality), but this is a complex and deeply layered space, with layers of information and narrative detail built on top of each other. Some images are dominated by the white telephone that sits on a side table, or his bag: both act as barriers to our ability to view the action, with Gregory often relegated to the background of the room. Given this isn't a space Gregory is familiar with, but a borrowed location, it sets him adrift in a supposedly safe place: the idea of lacking roots or a solid base recurs throughout. (Bridget's apartment, by contrast is a lived in space, more bohemian, with classic statues and arched window frames).

Gregory is not the only character to be trapped or positioned through such camera compositions: after being attacked, he lies unconscious on the floor, his head taking up the bottom left of the foreground of the frame, while Victor, in the deep background of the image, searches the apartment for the money. In each case, the space of the apartment, and the arrangement of the characters, is a bravura attempt to use location thematically. Forced perspectives also crucially link character and event: Gregory in the background of the coin dealers, with the bag (containing the coins) looming large in the foreground; or an image outside Rosa's flat, with a cat in extreme left of image, and police cars pulling up in the mews below (the cat, disturbed, wakes Gregory, who is able to escape across the roof). Some of these effects also suggest generic identity: when Victor enters the apartment, the film uses canted camera angles, and a streaming light from outside that casts diagonal venetian blind shadows across the ceiling: both hark back to American (and British) crime films and film noir from the past two decades, an acknowledgement of how crime thrillers had changed since the 1940s.

The narrative remains solid and well-paced throughout, with Gregory running from club to apartment, to the apparent safety of Bridget's flat and, later, her family's country house. Yet Bridget remains an opaque character, a narrative prop as much as a strongly psychologised (or even thematically useful) presence. Maggie Smith gives a solid performance, suggesting an occasional wildness or ingénue quality (most obvious when talking to Inspector Scott - Geoffrey Keen - in the final minutes of the film) but the film fails to explain why Bridget would be attracted to, never mind help, Gregory. She also appears at useful moments for the narrative (arriving at the flat Gregory is staying in, within hours of him escaping from prison; leaving the club that Gregory's criminal connection runs) but these coincidences are seemingly explained away by a line that she is a home for lost causes and lame ducks: neither of which Gregory falls into, as a thief and murderer.

There is a claim here that the film is interesting because it lacks the moral centre of previous Ealing productions, but is Gregory any better / worse / different than psychotic Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness, The Ladykillers, 1955), Irish terrorist Matt Sullivan (Dirk Bogarde, The Gentle Gunman, 1952), or German spy Davis (Mervyn Johns, The Next of Kin, 1942)? Gregory is ultimately punished - shot while committing the minor crime of stealing a bicycle - but as his actions devolve from meticulous planning to kneejerk responses, he becomes a less fascinating character, and Nader's performance is largely one-note. Most of the time he is surrounded by characters actors like Bernard Lee or Maggie Smith who disguise the lack of personality in its star.

Nowhere to Go opens with the shriek of a steam train as it rumbles past camera, and ends with Bridget walking down the hill, with a cloudy sunset in the distance, jazz drifting over the imagery. It is tempting to read more into those images than Holt (and cinematographer Paul Beeson) intended. A sunset on Ealing Films, perhaps, given their final film would be the Australian-set The Siege of Pinchgut (1959)? A shift from the traditional (steam trains, moral certainty, metropolitan, jazz) to regional British spaces that the British New Wave and rock 'n roll would soon begin to colonise? Ealing Films would never contribute to that version of British cinema, but Nowhere to Go suggests they might have had interesting things to add...

[Nowhere to Go is not currently available on DVD from Studio Canal]

Next time, the Great Ealing Film Challenge finishes with one of the studio's best-loved productions, Passport to Pimlico (1949)...

 

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