US / 81 minutes / bw / Universal Dir: Tim Whelan Pr & Scr: Dwight Taylor Story: Philip MacDonald Cine: George Barnes Cast: Diana Barrymore, Brian Donlevy, Henry Daniell, Eustace Wyatt, Arthur Shields, Gavin Muir, Stanley Logan, Ian Wolfe, Hans Conried, John Abbott, David Clyde, Harold de Becker, Ivan Simpson, Keith Hitchcock, Lydia Bilbrook, Pax Walker.
Gambler Dan Shane (Donlevy), homeless while waiting in London during the Blitz for the chance to take a boat home to sign up for the US armed forces, opportunistically enters the servants’ quarters of a house in Crescent Gardens that he believes to be empty, and purloins a couple of eggs for a meal.
But the house isn’t empty. Suddenly he’s confronted by the occupant, pretty young Leslie Stafford (Barrymore), who makes him a deal: if he’ll somehow remove the just-discovered body of her murdered husband, Captain Edgar Stafford (Daniell), from the house, she’ll not only neglect to report his breaking and entering to the cops but also give him plenty of money for his trip home to enlist. Down-and-out as he is, he accepts the deal: with the unwitting help of a cabby (de Becker) and a railway ticket seller called Ronald (Simpson), Dan dumps the corpse in a phone booth on the far side of town.
Leslie (Diana Barrymore) spells things out to Dan.
The trouble is that, when Dan calls back the next day to suggest Leslie might put him up for the few days until his boat sails, she discovers that the body of Edgar is once more, just as she initially found it, slumped over his desk with a big knife sticking out of his back.
And just then the cops start beating down the doors.
Deciding that discretion is by a long way the better part of valor, the pair scarper out of the back of the house, jump into Leslie’s car, and make a break for it. Leslie’s sure she can get help from her cousin Lord Abbington (Muir), who lives on a grand estate in the north of Scotland on the profits of the family’s Highland Bell distillery. Every time Dan threatens to break off this dangerous partnership, Leslie points out that he has as much to lose as she has if she calls the cops.
Dan (Brian Donlevy) does his best to look cool.
The car that they leapt into at the back of the Stafford home proves not to be Leslie’s. We discover this when the couple stop at the Fisherman’s Rest inn, seemingly somewhere in the south of Scotland:
Leslie: “Don’t you think we’d better put the car away? After all, we don’t know whose it is.”
Daniel: “Why, I thought it was yours.”
Leslie: “I never saw it before in my life.”
Daniel: “That’s a fine thing. Here I’ve been driving around all afternoon in a hot car.”
Leslie: “Mr. Shane, if the car was hot it was entirely in your own imagination.”
That night at the inn Leslie comes to Dan’s room—they’ve booked in as man and wife but with separate rooms because of Dan’s hay fever, or so she informs innkeeper Angus (Wyatt)—and tells him what she claims to be the truth about Edgar’s murder. The couple had been long estranged when one night he reappeared, drunk, and told her there was something wrong about her cousin Lord Abbington. She told Edgar to sleep it off and locked herself in her bedroom; in the middle of the night she was awoken by his dying gasp: “S–I–10.”
Edgar, it’s evident, was a total bastard, who reveled in knocking Leslie around. At one point during their brief reunion he explains:
“A little beating once in a while is as good for a high-strung woman as it is for a horse.”
Yup. Not too many regrets that he’s a murder victim.
We very soon discover—although it takes our leads much longer—that SI 10 is the numberplate of the car they stole. After Dan has dropped Leslie at her cousin’s mansion and started heading in the car for Liverpool, he accidentally finds that the car has a hidden radio receiver, tuned for messages that seem to be from Nazi sources. He heads back to the Abbington estate, is told by butler James (Wolfe) that Leslie is unknown there, and breaks into the castle.
Abbington (Gavin Muir) expounds his Nazi sympathies.
Abbington, the epitome of privileged English aristocracy, initially pretends that Leslie is not in the castle. Pushed by Dan, who knows very well that she is, he brings in his pair of killer hunting dogs—German, of course. Here’s the conversation the two men have:
Abbington: “You know, for all their faults the Germans understand the value of biology and the lessons taught us by evolution.”
Dan: “Well, personally I think a little strain of mongrel mixed with the best dog on earth gives greater stamina, and a stronger bite.”
Abbington: “Well, of course, being an American, such a philosophy, coming from you, is, ah, not entirely surprising.”
The sequence is perhaps the most effective in the movie, and especially surprising in that, by 1942, the Allies did not yet know the worst of what the Nazis were doing in the name of eugenics: mass-murdering the “inferior peoples.” At the same time it’s full of nonsense: the Nazis rejected the idea of evolution, preferring various loony pseudosciences of their own. The racism of Abbington’s final line is evident, as is the irony: at the time, the UK, and especially Scotland, was a far better place to be black or of “mixed blood” than was the US.
This is acknowledged in a later exchange between Dan and Leslie, whom by now he’s regularly calling “Butch” (on the basis that she’s already got a boy’s name, Leslie):
Dan: “Seems hardly possible, though, that a member of an old Scotch family . . .”
Leslie: “Oh, but he isn’t Scotch. He was adopted by my uncle at the age of 12. You see, the old man wanted someone to carry on the family name.”
Dan: “Where’d he come from originally?”
Leslie: “Germany. But if you think that just because . . .”
A clever part of this exchange is that it’s calling the Nazis out on exactly the kind of blood-heritage garbage they promoted. Leslie’s quite right: being born a German by no means determined that someone subscribed to a murderous fascist ideology. Dan has been making the same thought error as the Nazis, in their assumption that accidents of birth are important.
The final showdown occurs in that northern Scottish village where the Highland Bell distillery is located. It’s a most unusual Scottish village. Just about all of the inhabitants whom we see, like Inspector Robbins (Logan), have broad English accents. But there’s a notable exception: Robbins’s sergeant (Shields) has a broad Irish accent!
Inspector Robbins (Stanley Logan) confronts Dan (Brian Donlevy).
There are lots of minor blemishes we can identify in this movie. It’s wartime Britain, yet there seem to be no petrol/gas shortages. (There’s a sort of oblique reference at one point, but it only works if one assumes a fairly cumbersome car has so far been doing maybe 90 to the gallon!) The vicious dogs conveniently vanish when their role in the plot is done. Leslie’s lipstick has a habit of remaining impeccable under the most surprising of circumstances. The scientific explanation of the vile Nazi plot—masses of Highland Bell bottles, filled with explosives rather than the good stuff, will be loaded into troop convoys and set to explode when they’re in midocean—has a sort of loony charm, but it’s not something that we suspect even the Nazi High Command would invest too much in. (On the other hand . . .) It also seems quite unrealistic—crivvens ma boab!—that any Scottish distiller would permit such a blasphemy.
Nightmare was apparently designed as an upscale B-movie, with a decent cast and a decent running time (80 minutes rather than the usual ~60 minutes). In that respect it’s a great success: it’s not the “forgotten noir classic” that it’s sometimes claimed to be, but it’s certainly an interesting noirish spy piece to put alongside The 39 Steps (1935); it compares quite well, in fact, with that Hitchcock classic. It features one of Donlevy’s better performances; he brings far more nuance than usual to the part than he does to, for example, his Quatermas roles or to The BIG COMBO (1955).
There are plenty of good bits of dialogue in the screenplay, to the point that one wonders how much of MacDonald’s original story was simply transcribed. Take this, for example:
Dan: “Oh, you mean you’re going to shoot me in cold blood?”
Abbington: “The temperature of your blood, Mr. Shane, to me is a matter of supreme indifference.”
There’s eventually a rationalization for the reappearance of Edgar’s stabbed body at the desk. The Nasties are finally brought to book—what a surprise! By the end we don’t know if Dan’s going to catch his boat from Liverpool or spend the next couple of weeks in bed with Leslie.
Matters are complicated for our heroes by a photo in the papers — very
Hitchcock and 39 Steps!
Diana Barrymore was the daughter of the fairly brief marriage between John Barrymore and the poet and playwright Blanche Oelrichs (who wrote as Michael Strange). She barely knew her father, who by the time of her early childhood was plowing fresh furrows; her mother kept her at almost an equal distance. Diana, who manages here an admirable English crispness, went through a number of marriages and other relationships that seem to have had in common a great deal of alcohol and barbiturates. Bearing in mind her father’s fate, it’s tempting to say this was an apple that didn’t fall far from the tree. She had a fairly extensive stage career, although it became progressively less distinguished as her alcoholism took its toll; she made just half a dozen credited screen appearances. She died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1960, aged just 38.