UK / 83 minutes / bw / Gibraltar, Grand National Dir: Lance Comfort Pr: Charles A. Leeds Scr: Guy Morgan Story: He Was Found in the Road (1952) by Anthony Armstrong Cine: Stan Pavey, Eric Besche Cast: Derek Farr, Ella Raines, Donald Wolfit, Lisa Danielly, Karel Stepanek, Cyril Cusack, Olive Sloane, Bruce Beeby, Russell Napier, Frederick Piper, John Welsh, Alfred Maron.
Dr. James Paxton (Farr), a prominent scientist (although his specialty’s never identified), is out driving a country lane at night when, turning a corner, he finds a man lying in the middle of the road. He gets out to offer help, whereupon he’s immediately knocked unconscious. His clothes are swapped with those of the dead man, whose corpse is put into Paxton’s car and the vehicle set alight.
Days or longer later, we find him waking in a nursing home, Downview Hall, near Medworth, run by the sinister Professor Cattrell (Wolfit). Cattrell and his staff—Dr. Manning (Beeby) and the saucy Nurse Mitzi (Danielly)—use a mixture of drugs, hypnosis and, in Mitzi’s case, blandishment to persuade him that he’s really a faceless accountant called Ivan Mason, found lying in the middle of a country road having obviously been run down in a hit-and-run accident. “Ivan” is persuaded—especially by Mitzi, with whom he becomes infatuated and who pretends to reciprocate the feeling—that, yes, indeed he must be suffering amnesia after his accident.
Dr. Cattrell (Donald Wolfit) wields his hypnotic cigarette lighter.
It doesn’t strike Ivan as strange that Cattrell is going to odd lengths to try to reconstruct his past, such as ferrying out from London Ivan’s supposed old Clapham Common landlady, Mrs. Lemming (Sloane) and tracking down the man at the Soviet Embassy, Dmitri Balinkev (Stepanek), who supposedly has been giving Ivan bits of—perfectly legitimate—work. It seems, although Ivan has—as with everything else—no memory of this, that he was planning soon to go to the USSR to visit his dear old mother, who has taken a turn for the worse, poor dear.
Mrs. Lemming (Olive Sloane) acts all plausible.
There’s a loose cannon in Downview Hall in the shape of Dr. Charlie Kelly (Cusack); at one point Ivan says he can’t work out if Kelly is on the staff or a patient, and it’s a confusion we share. Certainly Kelly’s a qualified physician; certainly also he’s an alcoholic who requires treatment. Kelly manages to set up a rendezvous at a local pub with Ivan, and there explains to him that the injuries Ivan supposedly received in the accident were trivial, most of them being faked after Ivan had been brought unconscious to Downview Hall. Also, Kelly’s pretty certain that “Ivan” is not really our hero’s name . . .
After dropping a drunken Kelly back near Downview Hall, Ivan makes the acquaintance of local resident Rhona Ellison (Raines), a professional mystery novelist and daughter of a diplomat at the US Embassy. She’s wary of him, assuming he’s an escaped loony, but it’s obvious they’re attracted.
Ivan (Derek Farr) reckons Nurse Mitzi (Lisa Danielly) is the only one he can trust.
When Ivan discovers that Kelly has been found dead, supposedly the victim of yet another hit-and-run accident, he decides it’s time to go on the lam from Downview Hall. Improbably escaping pursuers and dogs, he makes it to Rhona’s cottage, where she swallows her fears and becomes his staunch ally. Together they go to London, where she enlists the aid of Superintendent Davidson (Napier) of the Yard while Ivan is with some ease coaxing out of Mrs. Lemming that she was lying through her teeth when she identified him as her ex-lodger Ivan Mason.
Rather than hole out in London, the pair imbecilically head back to Medworth where, obviously, they’re immediately seized by Cattrell and the rest of the gang of Commie spies who want to get James Paxton behind the Iron Curtain so they can squeeze all his scientific secrets out of him. But the bad guys reckon without the resourcefulness of our hero and heroine, not to mention that of Superintendent Davidson . . .
Charlie Kelly (Cyril Cusack), in characteristic pose.
Aside from the major imaginative hole at the plot’s center—exactly what are these scientific secrets that the Russkies want to get from James Paxton?—this is a movie, albeit a minor one, that has many strengths.
One joy is to see Wolfit in a role that he can get his teeth into: the part of Cattrell is hardly a gem from Shakespeare but, looking at so many of the dead-end supporting movie roles this distinguished stage actor was generally offered (plug his name into the Search box on this site for at least a couple), he’s at least able to give us a hint of his capabilities.
This was by some years the last big-screen hurrah for Ella Raines. She’d had a distinguished career in Hollywood, notably in film noir. It seems odd to see her looking so much older here than in her classic roles—like PHANTOM LADY (1944), The STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945), The SUSPECT (1945), The WEB (1947), IMPACT (1949), and A DANGEROUS PROFESSION (1949)—but she undeniably retains her wonderful onscreen charm and likability; it’s no wonder Ivan falls head-over-heels for her, even though he’s just emerging from Mitzi’s clutches. At the same time, I felt more than a frisson of annoyance that Rhona’s apparently distinguished career as a mystery novelist seems all but submerged by her desire to become, sometime after the end-credits, Mrs. James Paxton.
Rhona (Ella Raines) begins to realize that Ivan (Derek Farr) may be a runaway loony.
I can’t remember where first I came across reference to The Man in the Road during the long period of research for my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir; as far as I could work out, the movie appeared to have been lost, and eventually I gave up all hope of finding a copy I could view for inclusion. And then, in February 2015, up suddenly pops Jimbo Berkey’s site with an mp4. I’m not sure, now, that the movie would have made the cut—it has lots of noirish tropes but at the same time it’s not avowedly a noir. Even so, I’m glad that finally I can add it to, as it were, the database.
The standard brief synopsis that appears on Wikipedia and elsewhere—”A brilliant scientist suffering from amnesia is hunted by Communist agents in search of a secret formula”—is nonsense.
There are some fun moments in the screenplay. As Ivan and Rhona are on the train up to London they go through a stack of newspapers to see if there’s any coverage of Ivan’s escape from Downview Hall. As Ivan picks up a tabloid, Rhona says with a laugh, “Don’t kid yourself, mister. You wouldn’t be in that one unless you had a 37-inch bust.” Foreshadows of Rupert Murdoch’s flagship, the Sun. And there are also a few Choprafundities like, from Cattrell, “For those who are chosen there is no choice.”
There’s a certain Nigel Balchin feeling to the movie, were it not for that dreadful lacuna noted above: the science is missing. Even if the science at the heart of a Balchin tale was often dodgy (he was, after all, interested less in the science than the scientists), it was still actually there. Here we’re supposed just to take it for granted. “Oh, yah, he’s a scientist, a scientist, no wunner them Russkies’d want to seize him and, ah, yah, right.”
There are similarities between this and A STRANGE AWAKENING (1958), a movie based on a Patrick Quentin novel that likewise has a hero trying to come to terms with fake amnesia after an accident, while those around him are doing their best to persuade him he’s someone else. The Man in the Road is the better of the two movies, hands-down.