UK / 74 minutes / bw / Hammer, Exclusive Dir & Story: Francis Searle Pr: Anthony Hinds Scr: John Gilling Cine: Cedric Williams Cast: Sidney James, Betty Ann Davies, Sheila Burrell, Hazel Penwarden, Anthony Forwood, Valentine Dyall, Courtney Hope, Lawrence Baskcombe, Mollie Palmer, Gerald Case.
Valentine Dyall is The Man in Black.
This was a Hammer-produced spinoff from the BBC radio series Appointment with Fear, which ran for ten seasons 1943–5 and then reappeared for a single season as The Man in Black in 1949. Each episode comprised a half-hour tale introduced by a character called The Man in Black—much as the character The Whistler introduced the US radio series The Whistler (1942–55) and the series of eight WHISTLER B-movies spun off from it (see the Encyclopedia for more details of these). In these original Man in Black series the “storyteller” was played by Valentine Dyall, as he is in this movie; when the radio show was resuscitated much later by the BBC, first as Fear on Four (1988–92) and then as The Man in Black (2009–11), the “storytellers” were, respectively, Edward de Souza and Mark Gatiss.
All of which background is to a certain extent irrelevant because really, aside from Dyall’s brief introduction to the tale and even briefer concluding remarks, essentially this is just a cheaply but quite adequately made psychological thriller. Burrell (especially) and Davies are in stunning form, while James, better known as a comic actor, shows yet again that he’s perfectly competent in dramatic parts—here in fact playing dual roles.
The first of these is as Henry Clavering, well heeled master of stately pile Oakfield House and, we’re told, an internationally renowned yoga expert. His second wife Bertha (Davies) and her adult daughter Janice (Burrell) are each more venomous and mercenary than the other; they’re eagerly awaiting the day when the old codger will pop off and leave them his fortune.
One night Henry announces he’s going to put on an extra-special—and extra-specially dangerous—display of the yogic arts. Thanks to “years of arduous training” he’s going to cast himself into a condition of “physical catalepsy” . . . although the purpose of this exercise remains carefully unstated. His physician, Doctor Wainwright (Case), advises against the stunt, but Henry is adamant. He does warn his audience, however, that they must beware of making the slightest noise as puts himself into this perplexing trance as otherwise they could endanger his life. Naturally Brenda rigs it so that at a crucial moment Henry’s portrait falls with a loud crash from the wall, and Henry keels over dead.
The fatal portrait.
Henry’s beloved daughter Joan (Penwarden) returns from her studies—and boyfriend—in Belgium just too late for the funeral and the placing of Henry’s coffin in the family mausoleum on the Oakfield House estate, but she’s there to witness family lawyer Sandford (Baskcombe) read the will. After minor bequests to Brenda and Janice, the entirety of Henry’s wealth goes to Joan . . . but with the proviso (and we’ve been here a million times before) that it comes to her on her 21st birthday; should she die before then, Brenda gets the loot, and should Joan become physically or mentally incapable beforehand, the management of her affairs passes into Brenda’s hands.
So, no surprises, Brenda and Janice set out to try to drive her mad, mad, MAD, I tell you, deploying the usual techniques used in movies of this kind: creaking doors, inexplicable noises, bits of Spiritualist mumbo jumbo, unearthly footsteps following her up the graveled drive as she returns home late at night from the cinema . . . That last sequence is really quite neatly done; although it’s corny as all getout, it does make the pulse stir.
Joan (Hazel Penwarden) is awakened by spooky noises — and it’s not just the plumbing.
By this time Janice’s slimy cad fiancé Victor Harrington (Forwood) has arrived on the scene, and has noticed Joan as a potential damsel in distress: “She’s got everything in the right place, hasn’t she?” Briefly it seems as he’ll be her knight in white armor, saving her from the evil machinations of the wicked stepmother and stepsister . . . but no such luck, as she finds out the night when, having put back a few, he attempts to force his clumsy attentions upon her. She flees through the darkened grounds and Victor lurchingly follows. The disreputable old boatman Hodson (James again) attempts to intervene. Victor beats him savagely and, it proves, to death. In panic, Victor drags the corpse to the family mausoleum, where he discovers that, puzzlingly, Henry’s coffin is empty. (Equally puzzling is that the interior of the mausoleum is well lit despite this being at nighttime.) So he pops the dead Hodson into the vacant coffin and stumbles back to the house . . .
Wicked stepsister Janice (Sheila Burrell).
So far this has been entirely standard fare. However, from here on we see a nice piece of table-turning—and not of the Spiritualist type!—as suddenly it’s Joan in the driving seat, with Brenda and Janice having to stretch their credulities to encompass a series of seemingly inexplicable events. Finally Brenda, still hoping to drive Joan certifiably bonkers, determines to hold a séance in hopes of summoning the spirit of the dead Henry . . .
“We have made contact!” Brenda (Betty Ann Davies) begins the phony séance.
Great artistry Man in Black isn’t but, for all its creaks and groans of cliché, it’s a very enjoyable offering, primarily for the performances of—and the interplay between—Davies and Burrell as the two poisonous women. Davies portrays Brenda as, if you will, the moral arbiter and pillar of rectitude who’s in fact pilfering the church silver, while Burrell, a much underestimated actress, is clearly enjoying herself thoroughly as a femme fatale who, with a single curl of her lip, can manage to be both repellently toxic and beguilingly sexy at the same time. Together the pair achieve some sinister moments but can also be very funny together: At one stage Brenda reveals to Janice that Victor, her intended, has a track record as a forger of checks. Janice responds in evident shock: “To think, I nearly married a crook!” The glance that Brenda gives her is priceless.
Joan (Hazel Penwarden) is muggins enough to think Brenda (Betty Ann Davies) is her friend.
Penwarden is listed in the credits under an “And Introducing” byline. This, her first screen outing, was more or less the pinnacle of her career; she had a dozen or so sporadic TV roles but her sole other big-screen appearance was an uncredited one. Forwood’s screen career wasn’t a whole lot more successful, at least on paper, but his face is instantly recognizable through his having played Will Scarlet in the perennial favorite The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952) alongside such stalwarts as Richard Todd (as Robin), Joan Rice (as Marian), Peter Finch (as the Sheriff) and James Robertson Justice (as Tuck).
It’s sometimes claimed that John Dickson Carr had a hand in the screenplay for Man in Black, but this seems to be false. Carr wrote many of the episodes for the original Appointment with Fear radio series, but the movie’s credits quite specifically state that the screenplay was by Gilling, based on an original story by director Searle. Besides, the tale doesn’t seem very Carrish—to be honest, it’s not clever enough.
On Jimbo Berkey’s site here.