Crime Unlimited (1935)

Preamble: I never talk politics on this site but, just this once:

A moment of solidarity with Paris, please. The French are our oldest allies (despite congressional clowns and their cries of “Freedom Fries”). If we want to uphold freedom then tonight we must say, very loudly, that Nous sommes Francaises. And then, when we’ve said it, we should say it again but more loudly, and again, until eventually the message gets through to not just the death cultists but our masters, who, even while pretending not to, promote those cults.

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An Edgar Wallace-like romp that keeps us on our toes throughout.

UK / 71 minutes / bw / Warner–First National Dir: Ralph Ince Pr: Irving Asher Scr: Brock Williams, Ralph Smart Story: Crime Unlimited (1933) by David Hume Cine: Basil Emmott Cast: Esmond Knight, Lilli Palmer, Cecil Parker, George Merritt, Richard Grey, Raymond Lovell, Ben Soutten, Peter Gawthorne, Wyndham Goldie, Jane Millican, Stella Arbenina, Bellenden Clarke, Sara Allgood, Wally Patch.

Crime Unlimited - 01 opener 1

Crime Unlimited - 02 opener 2

Crime Unlimited - 03 opener 3

Crime Unlimited - 04 opener 4

The documentary evidence builds up.

An entertaining quota-quickie romp of a crime movie, very much in the Edgar Wallace mold. It’s noteworthy as the English-language debut of Lilli Palmer.

The Maddick gang has been terrorizing London with a series of ingenious jewel thefts; we see one of these, as a respectable elderly lady (Allgood), acting in obedience to (we assume) blackmail, lifts a bauble from a jeweler and then leaves it for pickup in a commandeered taxi. The gang has already killed three informants that Scotland Yard tried to milk for information, and now CID Detective-Sergeant Collins, one of the cops on the case, has been murdered. Left on his body was a scrap of paper bearing a cryptic clue:

Crime Unlimited - 05 opener 5

No one, not even Maddick’s most loyal sidekicks, has ever seen the man—all they know of him is his voice, relayed over a radio link. The fingerprints of Edgar Wallace are very clear; I haven’t counted the number of Wallace’s novels in which the identity of a criminal mastermind is completely unknown to everyone, including his supposed closest associates, but there are plenty.

The Yard’s Detective Inspector Cardby (Merritt) comes up with an out-of-the-box plan to infiltrate the gang. If someone can come up with an even more ingenious scheme to rip off jewelers, is there not a possibility that Maddick might recruit this promising talent? Step up Pete Borden (Knight). Pretending to be the secretary of the Earl of Metcalfe, he persuades a jewelry store to send valuable bracelets to the earl’s home, then uses a clever ruse to reclaim them. The theft is blamed on Maddick, who’s naturally curious as to the identity of this newcomer on the criminal block.

Crime Unlimited - 2 The Asst Commisioner goes along with Cardby's idea

The Assistant Commisioner (Cecil Parker) goes along with Cardby’s idea.

Pete, for his part, is doing everything he can to draw the attention of Maddick. Acting the part of a squiffy aristocrat, he manages to inveigle a seedy barman called Fred (uncredited) into giving him an entré to an illegal gambling club. Sicced onto him immediately is the hostess Natacha (Palmer), a Russian émigré whose job it is to make sure gullible male guests lose as heavily as possible. There’s instant electricity between them. She spots Pete as an honest man rather than a crook, and is dismayed when he tries to enlist her help in fencing one of the stolen bracelets.

Crime Unlimited - 3 Borden acts the part of the squiffy aristocrat

Borden (Esmond Knight) acts the part of the squiffy aristocrat.

Next thing Pete knows, he’s being taken blindfolded to Maddick’s HQ, where, with a bright light in his eyes, he’s interrogated by Maddick’s almost indistinguishable sidekicks Delaney (Lovell) and Clancy (Soutten); Clancy’s the one with the limp. (I’m pretty certain that even the cast and crew had the same difficulty as I had, because I could swear that at one point Pete addresses Clancy as Delaney.) Maddick tells him ominously that “Remember, once you’re in you never get out . . . alive.”

Crime Unlimited - 4 Pete and Natacha hit it off immediately

Pete (Esmond Knight) and Natacha (Lilli Palmer) hit it off immediately.

Pete manages to get news to the Yard of where the gang has lodged him, and Cardby promptly installs in the apartment opposite a deaf lipreader (uncredited) and another cop (uncredited) who between them interpret the communiques that Pete vigorously mouths from the window of his room.

Crime Unlimited - 5 How not to be noticed when conducting surveillance

Lipreading from a distance.

Crime Unlimited - 6 Pete mouthing VERY CLEARLY for the lipreader

Pete (Esmond Knight) says everything VERY CLEARLY for the lipreader.

Maddick decides to test Pete. He must use his ingenuity to help a counterfeiter allied to Maddick get acquitted in the court case he faces. Pete enlists bookie Andrew Purvis (Patch) and the accused’s lawyer Adrian D. Newall (Gawthorne) and counsel Conway Addison (Goldie) in order to secure the acquittal. The extent to which these two are enmeshed in the Maddick structure will become increasingly obvious as time goes on . . .

Crime Unlimited - 7 Newall decides to cooperate

Newall (Peter Gawthorne) decides to cooperate.

One of the movie’s major setpieces is the ball held by Herbert, Lord Mead (Clarke), and his wife (Arbenina). Maddick sends Pete and Natacha there in the guise of an Italian count and his wife and gives them precise instructions as to how they’re to filch the Meads’ fabulously valuable necklace. The pair are doing quite well until, first, Conway Addison turns up and recognizes Pete, and, second, the gossip columnist whom Cardby has sent to keep an eye on things, Sybil Kadon (Millican), proves to know the real count whom Pete is impersonating. The attempted theft proves to be a bit of a fiasco, especially when the necklace—successfully liberated by Natacha, despite everything—turns out to be a paste imitation.

Long afterwards, Pete takes Maddick to task about the failure of this venture:

Pete: “If you’re Maddick, why did you help trip me up at the Mead reception?”
Maddick: “That was simple. I wasn’t Maddick then—I was [real identity]. I had to act the part.”

That exchange forms part of an interview Pete and Maddick conduct much later in the movie in Maddick’s country house The Withies, when Maddick is proposing to kill not only Pete and Natacha but also all the rest of Maddick’s crew, he having rigged up one of the rooms in the manor as a gas chamber (a chilly reminder of what Germany was then gearing up to do).

Crime Unlimited - 8 At last Pete is to meet Maddick

At last Pete (Esmond Knight) is to meet Maddick.

In that same conversation we’re given a reminder of not just how much this movie (and presumably its source novel) owes to Edgar Wallace but how much the villains of the James Bond franchise likewise owe to Wallace’s oeuvre:

Maddick: “Of course, you think I’m mad, don’t you?”
Pete: “What else can I think?”
Maddick: “I prefer to call it . . . genius. After all, the dividing line is very thin, isn’t it? After all, if it weren’t genius I couldn’t kill you and . . . all the others in there . . . with as little compunction as I’m going to feel.”

All that’s needed is the occasional BWAHHAHHAHA. Instead, Maddick punctuates his dialogue with insane cackles, which is just about as good.

Crime Unlimited - 9 The final revelation of Maddick

The final revelation of Maddick.

Knight is a somewhat forgotten figure today, although obviously a star at the time. In 1941 he was blinded while on active service at the Battle of the Denmark Strait. This war hero later regained the partial sight of one eye, but no more than that; he continued to perform until the end of his very long acting career—his last movie was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)—as someone largely unsighted.

Palmer, a German Jew, fled her native country with her parents in 1933 as the Nazis rose to ascendance. She made a stack of movies in the UK before becoming, in 1943, Rex Harrison’s second wife (it was her first marriage). In due course the Harrisons moved to Hollywood, and she appeared in another slew of movies there as well as, with Harrison, a number of successful stage productions, such as the Broadway production of Bell, Book and Candle (1950). She and Harrison divorced in 1957 and she promptly wed the Argentinean actor Carlos Thompson, a marriage that lasted until her death in 1986. What she brings to Crime Unlimited includes not just a dubious Russian accent (there’s an enjoyable self-referential joke when, during the ball held by Lord and Lady Mead, Natacha tells Pete that his Italian accent ain’t that convincing) but also a very attractive screen persona: Natacha isn’t an outright beauty, but you can quite understand why Pete should fall head-over-heels for her so readily.

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17 thoughts on “Crime Unlimited (1935)

  1. Esmond Knight did not play only blind characters later in life. Among others, he plays Fluellen, Henry V’s Welsh admirer, in Olivier’s film and Osborne, the police commissioner in Lars von Trier’s first film, Element of Crime.

    • Esmond Knight did not play only blind characters later in life.

      Sorry: I didn’t mean to imply that he did — quite the contrary, in fact. Although he was in fact almost completely blind, he generally (and for all I know exclusively) played sighted characters.

      • Even more of a challenge, perhaps: Knight was serving on H.M.S. Prince of Wales when he was blinded by a shell from the Bismark; in the film Sink the Bismark he played the captain of the Prince of Wales. I can remember hearing a completely detached account Knight gave of the action on the radio in the 1960s or 70s. It was only at the end that he casually mentioned his on injury.

  2. Pingback: Brooklyn, Spotlight, and science fiction countdown on Monday Morning Diary ( | Wonders in the Dark

  3. I love these sorts of films – in fact, I did my Master’s thesis on the quota films of Michael Powell, many of which were made with this crew for Asher at Warner Teddington). Esmond Knight of course appeared on many of his films, most mischeviously perhaps as the director in PEEPING TOM.

    • It’s by no means a great movie, but it does have its moments and parts of it are nicely inventive.

      Esmond Knight of course appeared on many of his films, most mischeviously perhaps as the director in PEEPING TOM.

      I had completely forgotten that, if indeed it ever registered on me. Many thanks!

  4. Yes, our hearts are with the French at this awful time. Cults and barbarism have never been so relevant as they are today. I was happy to see some measure of revenge enacted yesterday, though there is no long term answer to this cancer.

    Your review is splendidly written and of a film I’d like to see at some point. Like others here, this is my proverbial cup of tea. Great description of the film’s set pieces and the ravishing Ms. Palmer.

    • To be honest, I was pretty depressed that revenge was thought to be the appropriate response — that just continues the cycle of violence, not least because the people bearing the brunt of the revenge often have little or nothing to do with the act that’s supposedly being avenged. After all, the IS killers of all those innocents in Paris claimed to be exacting revenge for France’s habit of dropping bombs on their people. A better course might have been to take immediate political and financial sanctions against those governments that are funding and supporting the extremists as a means of propping up their own domestic regimes — here’s looking at you, Saudi Arabia, Qatar . . .

      the ravishing Ms. Palmer.

      She was, somewhat, wasn’t she? And part of a very entertaining if minor movie.

      • John I certainly agree with what you say for the most part, but the people affected by the bombing in Syria would have loved to be in Paris. The mind-set is consistent – this is a cult of depravity. Dropping bombs will not remotely cure anything, but coming on the heels of this calamity it is the proper message to send. Unfortunately all matters of diplomacy have failed, and Paris has been repeatedly targeted. I am a card carrying liberal, I oppose the death penalty and I oppose all and any war like actions, but enough is enough. The political and financial sanctions simply don’t work, they have been tried – all they do is bolster the resolve of these savages. There is only one way to deal with this, and many governments are seemingly coming to their senses.

        • Actually, Sam, that wasn’t what I was talking about. As you say, there’s no point in taking out sanctions against the extremists — if such a thing were even possible. But the murderous lunatics like IS are being funded by governments, supposedly our allies, for cynical reasons of their own, mainly to do with their domestic politics. What we haven’t done is take sanctions against those governments . . . and the reason that we haven’t is, I’d suggest, solely because we’re greedy for their oil.

          The political and financial sanctions simply don’t work, they have been tried

          They haven’t, as I’ve just outlined.

          I am a card carrying liberal, I oppose the death penalty and I oppose all and any war like actions, but enough is enough.

          I don’t think it’s a matter of being liberal or conservative: it’s just a question of what might work.

  5. John, I only mention the business of me being a card carrying liberal and an opponent of the death penalty was to illustrate that I am basically a lifelong peacenik who now has reached the point of conceding that there is only one way to deal with this situation, and it is not a way I ever thought I’d support. As far as what you say about us needing these countries’ oil you are absolutely correct.

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