Mark of the Phoenix (1958)

UK / 62 minutes / bw / Butcher’s Dir: Maclean Rogers Pr: W.G. Chalmers Scr: Norman Hudis Story: The Phoenix Sings (1955) by Desmond Cory Cine: Geoffrey Faithfull Cast: Julia Arnall, Sheldon Lawrence, Anton Diffring, Eric Pohlmann, George Margo, Michael Peake, Martin Miller, Bernard Rebel, Roger Delgado, Frederick Schreicker.

In Belgium, the scientist Van de Velde (Schreicker) has developed a marvelous alloy that is impervious to nuclear radiation. His lab is invaded by the crooks Emilson (Margo), Koos (Peake) and Fyodor Vachek (Rebel); Koos shoots Van de Velde dead and the trio escape with a small container of the alloy in liquid form. They take the alloy to the Brussels jeweler Brunet (Miller) and demand that he “turn the alloy into metal”—a puzzling request, since the alloy obviously already is metal; they appear to be asking him to transform it from liquid to solid. (Since the alloy is elsewhere described as “atomic” we sense that science was not scripter Hudis’s strong point.) That solid should take the form of a cigarette case in a design that Brunet has been making for sale in his shop. The process complete, they ask him to electroplate the case in silver. The scheme, we’re soon told, is smuggle this sample of the alloy behind the Iron Curtain, where a government customer is prepared to pay $1 million for it.

Meanwhile there arrives in Brussels the international jewel thief Chuck Martin (Lawrence). He calls with the proceeds of his latest heist on his old fence, who just happens to be the jeweler Brunet. Vachek, who clearly has an agenda of his own, engineers the transfer of his own suite at the Plaza Hotel to Chuck, then places the cigarette case inside it. (It’s not 100% clear why he does this, but it serves to get Chuck involved in the plot.)

Chuck calls on shady gem collector Maurice Duser (Pohlmann) with a necklace that he held back from the consignment he gave to Brunet. Duser buys this as a gift for his fiancée, Petra Charrier (Arnall). During the transaction, Duser sees and recognizes the cigarette case Chuck is using; he sends Emilson to Chuck’s hotel room to steal it, but Chuck wins the ensuing punchup . . .

Schell (Anton Diffring) takes Petra (Julia Arnall) into his confidence.

And so this meanders amiably along. Brunet is knocked off by Koos when Duser fears the old man knows too much. Trying to find out why the cigarette case is such a hot property, Chuck manages with ease to break into Brunet’s shop (apparently there’s no alarm system) and Duser’s safe (apparently there’s again no alarm system). Later Koos—a sort of walking lesson in why stupid people shouldn’t be given guns—shoots dead Vachek before Duser and Emilson have learned the information they’ve been trying to torture out of him. Petra dumps Duser with an excellent line—”If I ever want a second-hand ring and you want a second-hand girl, let’s get together”—and her interests are clearly drifting toward Chuck instead. The able Belgian policeman Inspector Schell (Diffring) is hot in pursuit of the bad guys, assisted by police scientist Gavron (Delgado), who speaks the kind of language that B-movie boffins speak: “It is a certainty that Van de Velde had discovered a metal completely unaffected by radioactivity!”

The moronic, trigger-happy Koos (Michael Peake) kills Vachek (Bernard Rebel) just to show he can.

In addition to the scientific puzzlers, there are various other places where you sense that, if someone in the audience should sneeze, the whole plot might fall apart: Chuck is lured by a typewritten note from his hotel room to a nearby café where he’s given another typewritten note; when he returns to his hotel room he finds there Vachek, presumably the author of those notes, who proceeds to tell him again what was in them (so why bother with the notes?). And there are some silly inconsistencies: Duser’s name is pronounced either Doozer or Dusay, depending upon who’s addressing him at the time, and he himself appears to have no preference for one pronunciation or the other.

Way down among the uncredited actors there lurks Jennifer Jayne as an airline ticket clerk. In a more prominent but still minor role—at least he has a screen credit—is Roger Delgado, beloved by Dr. Who fans for his depiction (1971–3) of The Master during the Jon Pertwee era. Delgado died at age 55 in a car accident.

Cory (real name Shaun McCarthy), upon whose novel this was based, was a first-rate thriller writer in the Ian Fleming vein, arguably the better stylist and storyteller of the two, and certainly the wittier. It’s hard to believe that one of his tales could have been at the heart of such a drab movie. Budget considerations and the need for compression into such a brief running time must take part of the blame, but not all of it; Lawrence’s milkwater central performance must take a further share (the other cast members vary from adequate to moderately good). It’s as if Poverty Row studio Butcher’s was addicted to mediocrity, and imposed it on even the potentially most promising of projects.

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