Operation Diplomat (1953)

UK / 68 minutes / bw / Nettlefold, Butcher’s Dir: John Guillermin Pr: Ernest G. Roy Scr: A.R. Rawlinson, John Guillermin Story: Operation Diplomat (1952 TV series) by Francis Durbridge Cine: Gerald Gibbs Cast: Guy Rolfe, Lisa Daniely, Patricia Dainton, Sydney Tafler, Ballard Berkeley, Anton Diffring, Michael Golden, James Raglan, Avice Landone, Brian Worth, Eric Berry, Edward Dain, Alexis Chesnakov, Ann Bennett, Jean Hardwicke, William Franklyn, Desmond Llewelyn, Derek Aylward.

Operation Diplomat - 0 opener

Mark Fenton (Rolfe), a surgeon at St. Matthew’s Hospital in London, is strolling along the Thames one evening when a nurse (uncredited; possibly Jean Hardwicke) leaps out of an ambulance to tell him to come quickly: there’s an urgent case he must attend to. Implausibly—but this is a Francis Durbridge tale—he agrees to climb into the back of the ambulance with her, finding not a patient but a sinister, gun-toting man called Wade (Tafler). Wade tells him they must drive a distance to where the patient is, but declines to yield up any more information.

Operation Diplomat - 1a Fenton is walking by the Thames when . . .

Fenton (Guy Rolfe) is walking by the Thames when . . .

Operation Diplomat - 1b. . . a pretty nurse leaps from an ambulance and urges him to come with her

. . . a pretty nurse (uncredited; possibly Jean Hardwicke) leaps from an ambulance and urges him to come with her.

Hours later they arrive at a mansion. Aided by a doctor who’s been struck off the Medical Register, Edward Schröder (Diffring), by the nurse we’ve already met and by a nurse with swoony eyes, Fenton operates on the man, whom we’ll discover before too long is missing diplomat Sir Oliver Peters (Raglan), Chairman of Western Defence. Afterwards, Wade gives Fenton a tumbler of Scotch, which he downs more or less in one gulp.

Operation Diplomat - 2 Schroder and Fenton reintroduce themselves, as Wade watches

Schroder (Anton Diffring, left) and Fenton (Guy Rolfe) reintroduce themselves, as Wade (Sydney Tafler) watches.

Operation Diplomat - 3 Fenton operates

Fenton (Guy Rolfe) operates.

As you’d expect, the whisky was drugged and the next Fenton knows he’s waking up on a park bench back in London. The only clues to what’s been going on are that Peters was mumbling something about “golden valley” and Wade was smoking an unusual brand of cigarettes, Mercury. We’ll encounter Mercury cigarettes fairly frequently as the story unfolds. It’s also noticeable how much the male characters smoke in this movie; Fenton and his St. Matthew’s colleagues blithely do so all over the hospital.

Operation Diplomat - 4 Fenton awakes on a park bench

Fenton (Guy Rolfe) wakes on a park bench.

Rather than go pronto to the cops, Fenton carries on with work as usual. He decides. though, to mount his own investigation, assisted by his attractive colleague Sister Rogers (Dainton). The pair seem to be an item, yet address each other as Mr. Fenton and Sister Rogers, and at the end of the movie there’s no sign of the anticipated clinch.

One of Fenton’s patients is Mrs. Terry (Landone), due for discharge from the hospital tomorrow. Going to visit her room with her nephew, Geoffrey Terry (Worth), Fenton discovers Geoffrey’s fiancée Lisa Durand (Daniely) reading a newspaper by the bedside, and recognizes her at once as the swoony-eyed nurse who assisted in the operation last night—which, of course, she denies. In a terse conversation in the corridor, he tells her to come round to his flat that night to answer a few questions and get things straightened out.

Operation Diplomat - 6 Geoffrey Terry

Geoffrey Terry (Brian Worth).

Operation Diplomat - 5 Fenton recognizes the eyes as those of last night's nurse

 Fenton recognizes the eyes as those of last night’s nurse (Lisa Daniely).

She doesn’t turn up. Instead he has two other visitors, (a) a Colonel Wyman (Berry) from the Foreign Office, who asks him when he last saw Schröder, whom the authorities suspect has something to do with the disappearance of Peters, and then, as Wyman hides in the kitchen, (b) Schröder himself. Minutes later, while Fenton is discovering that Wyman has climbed out the kitchen window and presumably scampered off down the fire escape, someone shoots Schröder dead through the living-room window. As he falls, he lands on his packet of Mercury cigarettes . . .

You may be wondering, if Wyman wanted to get ahold of Schröder, why he thought the best way of doing so was to hide in the kitchen and then scarper off into the night. Believe me, I’m wondering with you.

Operation Diplomat - 8 The mysterious Colonel Wyman

The mysterious Colonel Wyman (Eric Berry).

Enter Inspector Austin of the Yard (Berkeley) and his doughty sidekick Sergeant Lewis (Dain). Austin doesn’t have time for any of Fenton’s fancy-schmancy tales about being abducted to remote mansions to operate on missing diplomats, because everyone knows that Peters is hale and hearty and on a trip to Berlin, so there. All Austin wants to know is . . . actually, I’m having a bit of a mental blank as to what Austin wanted to know. It’s very hard to hold in the memory plots that seem to have been constructed quite arbitrarily.

Oh, and there’s no Colonel Wyman at the Foreign Office, Austin discovers.

Anyway, next day Mrs. Terry comes to Fenton’s office at the hospital to bid him farewell, and quite out of the blue starts talking about Golden Valley—she adds, with a sort of jaunty “etching” smile, that she has a painting of the landmark hanging above her mantelpiece at home, if he’d like to pop round and see it that evening.

Operation Diplomat - 7 Mrs Terry talks of Golden Valley

Mrs Terry (Avice Landone) talks about Golden Valley to Fenton (Guy Rolfe).

He does, but takes Sister Rogers with him. She initially sits outside in the car while he goes in and finds Mrs. Terry murdered on the floor. Pausing just long enough to satisfy himself that the aforementioned painting is of the Vale of Charlesworth in Berkshire, to tell Sister Rogers she shouldn’t have after all followed him in, and to place an anonymous phonecall to the cops about the murder, Fenton leaves. Oddly, during the time the pair were in the house, the car seems to have been turned to point in the opposite direction. I thought this might be a plot point, but no. Oops.

Operation Diplomat - 9 Fenton finds Mrs Terry -- dead!

Fenton (Guy Rolfe) finds the murdered Mrs Terry (Avice Landone).

Lisa Durand comes to tell Fenton that his mystery patient has had a relapse. When Fenton declines to go with her, swoony eyes or not, the gang’s chauffeur and general thug-about-town, Harrison (Golden), takes him off at gunpoint back to the ambulance and so to the mansion. This time, however, Fenton is cunningly able to let Sister Rogers know something of what’s going on. Alas, rather than call the cops she follows the ambulance out of town, only to be caught by Harrison.

Operation Diplomat - 10 Lisa begs Fenton's help again

Lisa (Lisa Daniely) begs Fenton (Guy Rolfe) for help again.

Operation Diplomat - 11 Harrison backs up Lisa's appeals with a gun

Harrison (Michael Golden) backs up Lisa’s appeals with a gun.

Fenton discovers that Peters is actually recovering quite nicely but claims the only thing that’ll save him is a few shots of a new wonder drug, creocortisone. To get the creocortisone, they’ll have to go back into London, to St. Matthew’s. Once again, it’s all aboard the ambulance. Fenton and Sister Rogers count traffic lights, etc., and hear a church clock with a cracked chime.

Operation Diplomat - 12 Fenton and S Rogers concentrate on counting traffic lights

Fenton (Guy Rolfe) and Sister Rogers (Patricia Dainton) concentrate on counting traffic lights.

Back at St. Matthew’s, Fenton contacts Austin, who promptly comes up with a harebrained, absurdly complicated scheme of nabbing the ambulance and its occupants . . . when the obvious thing to do would have been to follow the ambulance back to the mansion, no? Sure enough, Austin’s scheme flops. By the time all the pieces have been put in place, the ambulance has long departed, only no one noticed because there’s now another, legitimate ambulance sitting there.

You may be wondering why the gang seem no longer to be worried about Peters getting his creocortisone shots. Indeed, you may be wondering why they’ve abducted Peters at all, why it’s taken the authorities so long to discover that their senior diplomat isn’t wining and dining in Berlin, how said authorities have managed to divine that he’s been abducted with the intention of shipping him off behind the Iron Curtain, and why the gang would actually want to do that. My answer, I’m afraid, is as before: I have no more clue than you do.

Operation Diplomat - 13 A rooftop chase!

And let’s not forget the rooftop chase.

The plotting actually gets even more harum-scarum after this. A lot of it hinges upon the puzzle of the identity of the gang’s mysterious Mr. Big, whom we haven’t seen except momentarily from behind but who’s responsible for the two murders so far and another yet to come. As audience, we have a stronger clue than do Fenton, Austin and Wyman (who’s really called Williams but introduced himself as Wyman because . . . I don’t know), since there’s really only one possible cast-member left standing. (No, it’s not Sister Rogers.) On the other hand, if that person is the gang leader, then further swaths of plot will be reduced to ruins. And, sure enough . . .

The confusion of the plot has been noted by, I’d guess, every commentator on the movie, and often the apologia is offered that it’s a result of the moviemakers having to trim down a six-episode TV series (two and a half or three hours in total) to make a movie that’s under 70 minutes long. That would explain some of the leaps of logic that our heroes are able to make, or such creaking plot devices as Mrs. Terry suddenly starting to prattle about Golden Valley, but there are far more fundamental problems with the story that cannot but have been present in the original (which, alas, I haven’t seen).

All of which is, in a sense, irrelevant, because the movie’s tremendous fun. There’s so much incident packed into its short running time that there’s not a moment to get bored, or to puzzle over any of the implausibilities. Guy Rolfe is perfectly cast in the lead role and delivers a spot-on performance; you may recognize him from some of the Puppet Master movies, but he was a stalwart of UK cinema through much of the ’40s and ’50s. Patricia Dainton, as Sister Rogers, is if anything even better; Dainton, who’s still alive, is one of those actresses whose talent should have made her far more internationally renowned than she was; watching her performance here, it’s hard not to be reminded of Jane Greer.

It’s always good to see actors like Anton Diffring, Ballard Berkeley and especially Sydney Tafler, of whom I’m a great fan; needless to say, they offer dependable support here. William Franklyn has an uncredited role as Fenton’s colleague Gillespie. Daniely, like Dainton, is largely forgotten today; although exceptionally pretty, she tended to deliver performances that were notable primarily for their colorlessness.

Operation Diplomat - 14 W Franklyn has a small part as Fenton's colleague

William Franklyn (right) has a small part as a colleague of Fenton (Guy Rolfe).

The movie gets its title from the name that the Prime Minister gives to the effort to locate and recover Peters. There’s no connection with the wartime Operation Diplomat, which was a 1944 Allied naval training operation in the Indian Ocean.

There were two Francis Durbridge movies featuring surgeon Mark Fenton, both based on TV serials; the other, also released in 1953, was The BROKEN HORSESHOE, with Fenton played by Robert Beatty.

Operation Diplomat - closer

 

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23 thoughts on “Operation Diplomat (1953)

  1. Guy Rolfe was very tall and saturnine in appearance, which restricted the roles he was offered, unfortunately. If you look at the contrast between long-shots and close-ups in many films it’s obvious his fellow-actors were helped to look taller. In The Spider and the Fly – another film with noir elements directed by Robert Hamer – he’s very good as a master-burglar.-

    • Thanks for the reminder about The Spider and the Fly, which I actually decided was noirish enough to merit an entry in the encyclopedia. But it’s some years ago that I watched it for that purpose, so I may dig it out for a rewatch. I’m in general quite a fan of Rolfe’s — he appeared in a goodly number of the movies that I saw as a kid, so he’s sort of comfort-viewing for me.

  2. Terrific – as a fan of Durbridge and the early John Guillermin thrillers, I just have to see this. The image grabs look good, so I’m hoping this means it is available out there in decent knick?

    • True. I should have taken the grab a few frames earlier and your needle would have been in shot. If memory serves, though, I don’t think Guy Rolfe would have been!

  3. First of all, I love the expression “swoony eyes”. That told me everything I needed to know about the character.

    Secondly, the plot sounds like it has holes big enough to drive an ambulance through but, as I was reading it, I thought, I’ve gotta see this. It sounds like terrific entertainment – and that’s tops in my book!

  4. Pingback: Rätsel der Roten Orchidee, Das (1962) | Noirish

  5. I watched this little movie last night (managed to get hold of a dvd copy). You’re right about the harum-scarum nature of the plot, but my word, what great fun! I loved the rooftop game of hide-and-seek in the chase sequence. Certain elements of the film reminded me a little of The Lady Vanishes, particularly the search for the missing Sir Oliver Peters and the pairing of Fenton and Sister Rogers on the hunt. Not in the same league as the Hitchcock, of course, but that’s a very high bar to set! A most enjoyable midweek film nevertheless. Thanks for the nudge by way of this excellent write-up. 🙂

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Jacqui! And I imagine your eyes got some good rolling exercise at the various plot hiccups. But one can’t really have a bad time of it in the company of the likes of Rolfe, Dainton, Diffring, Tafler . . .

  6. I came to your critique because I watched this extraordinary film on you tube last night and I have to say I have never watched a film in my life where I really had no idea what was actually happening and why, I really enjoyed the cast, the unintentional comedy and some very interesting camera angles. Thank you for outlining the ‘plot’ or rather the lack of it

    • Many thanks for dropping by, and for the kind words! I’m sure that in some parallel universe there’s a version of this movie that makes absolute sense . . .

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