UK / 73 minutes / bw / London, British Lion Dir: Guy Hamilton Scr: Val Valentine, Lesley Storm Story: The Gaunt Stranger (1925; vt Police Work; revised vt The Ringer 1926) by Edgar Wallace Cine: Ted Scaife, John Wilcox Cast: Herbert Lom, Donald Wolfit, Mai Zetterling, Greta Gynt, William Hartnell, Dora Bryan, Norman Wooland, Denholm Elliott, Charles Victor, Walter Fitzgerald, Campbell Singer, John Stuart.
Herbert Lom, in supreme form.
Feared internationally, the crook Henry Arthur Milton, better known as The Ringer—because he could ring the changes with his disguises—finally met his end in Australia. Or did he? According to his wife Cora Ann (Gynt) he somehow escaped and has now made his way to London. That’s what the cops think too, and the slightly sinister Chief Inspector Bliss (Wooland), recently returned to Scotland Yard from a somewhat mysterious secondment in New York, is put in charge of the case. He liaises with Inspector Wembury (Victor) of the Met, whose Deptford territory includes the home of powerful criminal lawyer Maurice Meister (Lom). It’s thought that the reason The Ringer has come back to London is to seek vengeance on Meister, whom he blames for the suicide some years ago of his (The Ringer’s) sister Gwenda.
Mai Zetterling as Meister’s secretary Lisa Gruber.
Wembury enlists the aid of cheery Cockney burglar Samuel “Sam” Cuthbert Hackitt (Hartnell), who has just been released from prison; although too terrified to give a description, Sam once met The Ringer. Meister agrees to hire Sam as a servant and as a consultant on the urgent task of burglarproofing his home in hopes of keeping The Ringer out. Also in Meister’s household is his pretty secretary Lisa Gruber (Zetterling), whom he’s housing while she waits for her fiancé Johnny Lenley (Elliott) to be released from prison so they can marry; until that marriage, she’s technically an illegal immigrant and thus very much in Meister’s thrall. It’s obvious that Meister fancies Lisa for himself, and is quite happy for Johnny to remain in stir.
Charles Victor as Inspector Wembury, Herbert Lom as the shyster Maurice Meister, and Norman Wooland as Chief Inspector Bliss.
Complicating matters are Dr. Lomond (Wolfit), an elderly Aberdonian criminologist who’s hanging around Wembury’s nick doing research for his latest book—and who, along with Sam and Sam’s common-law wife Bella (Bryan), provides the humorous interludes deemed desirable in so many supposed suspensers of the day—and The Ringer’s beautiful wife Cora Ann, freshly arrived from Australia. Perhaps the biggest complication of all is that Johnny is released early for good behavior; as he and Lisa plan their future together, Meister sets Johnny up to be rearrested, framing him for an office burglary, while abruptly deciding himself to flee to the Americas . . . and take Lisa with him.
By this time we’re positively hoping that indeed The Ringer will strike, both to save Lisa from a fate worse than death and because Meister has proven himself in our eyes to be a cad beyond all hope of redemption.
The “comic relief” referred to above is the main weakness of this movie. William Hartnell (later to become the first Doctor Who) and acclaimed comic actress Dora Bryan were as skilled at this sort of stuff as any you could find, but the material they’re given to work with here is pretty jaded—you’ve heard it before in a thousand rote sitcoms. Meanwhile, Wolfit’s quavering Scottish physician is just as profoundly irritating as he’s supposed to be to the other characters; Wolfit could have done a lot with this part, but instead chose to play it as if for a pantomime. A further weakness of the movie is that it’s pretty obvious from fairly early on who among the various possible suspects is actually the disguised Ringer.
Denholm Elliott as romantic lead Johnny Lenley.
But there are strengths, too. The shady, utterly corrupted shyster Meister is the kind of role that Herbert Lom was born for, and he makes the most of it; what makes the portrayal so effective is that we’ve all, in real life, met “respectable”—and highly successful—leeches like this one. Zetterling plays the ingenue perfectly, and Elliott complements her just fine. Wooland chills efficiently.
But the performance that really balances Lom’s is Gynt’s, as The Ringer’s charmingly, flirtatiously ruthless grass widow. Gynt was an extraordinarily lovely woman even on her off-days, but here she really switches it on, electrifying the screen. Although she was a stalwart of UK cinema for some decades, her brief attempt to break into Hollywood in the early 1950s was unsuccessful. Hollywood’s loss was the UK’s gain. That said, after her retirement from the movies in the mid-1960s she fell into obscurity, and it’s only really in the current century that, thanks to the explosion of digital entertainment and the consequent availability of so many once-forgotten movies, we’re beginning to appreciate once more what a phenomenon she was.
Sam Hackitt (William Hartnell, the future Dr Who) plays the innocent when stopped by a copper with a bagful of swag.
The movie’s ending is entirely amoral, which is very much in the Edgar Wallace style. I’m not sure what this did for its fate in the US, where such things were at the time frowned upon by the motion picture industry.