Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948)

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The first Dick Barton movie!
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vt Dick Barton, Detective
UK / 69 minutes / bw / Marylebone-Hammer, Exclusive Dir: Alfred Goulding Pr: Henry Halsted Scr: Alan Stranks, Alfred Goulding Based on: Dick Barton—Special Agent (1946–51 BBC radio series), devised by Norman Collins and scripted by Edward J. Mason and Geoffrey Webb Cine: Stanley Clinton Cast: Don Stannard, George Ford, Jack Shaw, Gillian Maude, Beatrice Kane, Ivor Danvers, Geoffrey Wincott, Arthur Bush, Alec Ross, Farnham Baxter, Morris Sweden, Ernest Borrow, Janice Lowthian, Campbell Singer, Billy Howard.

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The first and the least of the three movies based on a hugely popular BBC radio series, Dick Barton—Special Agent (1946–51). The radio series appeared in the form of a nightly 15-minute episode Monday through Friday, with an hour-long omnibus version broadcast on the Saturday. Dick Barton was a sort of cleaned-up Bulldog Drummond; alternatively you might think of him as a prototypical James Bond. In his radio incarnation the stories were action-packed stuff. In this first of the Hammer screen adaptations, the studio made the foolish mistake of re-interpreting the material in the form of a comedy thriller, complete with lots of tiresome “business”; the public was unimpressed. The studio learned better for the other two movies in the series.

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Sir George Cavendish (Campbell Singer, left) briefs Dick (Don Stannard).

Special Agent Dick Barton (Stannard) and his loyal sidekicks, Snowey White (Ford) and Jock Anderson (Shaw), are sent by Home Office bigwig Sir George Cavendish (Singer) to Echo Bay to root out a smuggling gang; Dick’s girlfriend Jean Hunter (Maude) and his housekeeper Betsy Horrock (Kane) are sent on ahead to get Rosemary Cottage all spruce and dandy for the arrival of our boys. And it’s serious business:

Carlisle: “A dozen of my best men have been on this. Three of them failed to return—we’ve had to write them off. The others found only dead ends. Blank walls.”

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Betsy (Beatrice Kane) and Jock (Jack Shaw) clowning.

Even before our boys arrive in Echo Bay, we know that the ringleader of the smuggling operation is a German posing as the Swedish marine biologist Dr. Sigmund Casper (Wincott). His gang comprises the local publican, Joe Gilpin (Borrow), both Roscoe (Baxter) and Regan (Sweden) of the local fishmongery, Roscoe and Regan Fish Factors, and the company’s employee Tony Burton (Ross), plus a mixed gang of local heavies who seem to appear and disappear depending on the exigencies of the screenplay. This ad hoc scripting is noticeable throughout; for example, toward the end of the movie there’s an almighty punchup in which everyone seems to be whaling out at everyone else, yet we know for a fact that all but two of the puncher-uppers are members of Casper’s gang, who for reasons unknown are whopping each other.

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Casper (Geoffrey Wincott) is a well known figure at the local boozeteria . . .

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. . . and publican Joe Gilpin (Ernest Borrow) is up to his neck in Casper’s dastardly scheme . . .

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. . . as are Roscoe (Farnham Baxter) and Regan (Morris Sweden) — their business is fishy business.

A new member of Casper’s gang has just arrived to serve as his deputy, another “Swedish biologist”: Axel Johansen (Bush). We’ll in due course discover that “Johansen” is actually the boss of the operation and is really Oberleutnant Kurt Schüller, a Nazi lucky to escape judgement at Nuremberg. Moreover, the smuggling ring is in fact just a front: the real purpose of Schüller’s little venture is to introduce a sort of super-cholera to Great Britain’s water supplies, thereby poisoning to death the entire population within a mere 48 hours:

Schüller: “Behind all this petty smuggling there is a plan, a PLAN, which had its birth before my master died.”

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Arthur Bush as Oberleutnant Kurt Schüller.

Oh my! Skipping nimbly away from the thought that, if you want to concoct a front for your nefarious scheme, a smuggling operation might not be the best choice, since sooner or later it’s bound to bring the rozzers swarming, we move on to the mechanics of the operation itself. It seems that the local seamen fetch the contraband from offshore and deliver it to Roscoe and Regan Fish Factors. There the two crooks cunningly conceal the items—ruby rings, nylon stockings, you name it—inside lobsters, which their innocent delivery boy Snub (Danvers), a mighty fan of the Dick Barton story magazine, then delivers to Dr. Casper at Stone Cottage.

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Snub (Ivor Danvers) devours Dick Barton stories.

The very night of Dick’s arrival, however, Snub fouls up and delivers to Rosemary Cottage, rather than the herring that Betsy had ordered, a parcel of lobsters. This makes for a rather unusual breakfast the next morning, a breakfast made all the more unusual when the hungry bunch start finding things like bottles of perfume inside the carapaces rather than, y’know, lobster.

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Dick (Don Stannard) and Jean (Gillian Maude) make a fetching couple.

Even though Roscoe has already taken a potshot at Dick as he was driving toward Echo Bay, it’s really only after that fateful breakfast that the hijinx begin. And what hijinx they are!

Let me rephrase that: What boring hijinx most of them are. As noted at the outset, the moviemakers foolishly decided to play this as a comedy thriller, so we have all sorts of “business”—mostly in the pub—featuring the two villainous clowns Roscoe and Regan and the two good-guy clowns Snowey and Jock. In the midst of this, Roscoe tries but bumblingly fails to kill Barton with a poisoned dart while Joe Gilpin tries to fell Snowey by introducing knockout drops into his whiskey—natch, Gilpin inadvertently swallows the spiked Scotch himself. These various comic routines might have been funny in a different context; here they just constipate the pacing.

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Don Stannard as Dick Barton.

The movie has a few surreal touches, too, as if the scripters had some hazy precognition of what a series like The Avengers (1961–9) might be able to accomplish—the UK TV series, not the Marvel stuff—but no real clue as to how to effect this. For example, when Schüller is explaining all the details of his BWHAHAHAHA cunning plan to Barton, because this is what supervillains always do, he’s doing so to a captured Barton who has been, for reasons unstated, encased in a suit of armor and roped to the wall. Then, after Schüller has departed to get stuck into some evilling, Barton manages to knock over a bottle of nitric acid that just happens to be on a shelf above him (we leave it as an exercise for the reader to deduce how he could have actually seen it there and read its label). Moreover, he knocks it over with sufficient precision that the dribbling acid lands precisely on the ropes tied around his wrist . . . and not, say, on the wrist itself. It’s exactly the sort of implausible situation and escape that you’d expect from a Cathy Gale or a Mrs. Peel, but they were operating within a surreal environment where implausibility was part of the point. Here it seems just jawdroppingly odd.

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Jack Shaw as Jock. Funnier than yogurt. Maybe.

Another cause for confusion, at least to this viewer, is that Wincott, in his role as the biologist Dr. Sigmund Casper, produces a supposedly Swedish-accented voice that sounds remarkably like the great Alastair Sim’s Scottish-accented one, with mannerisms to match. (Maybe Sim was their first choice for the part, but then he read the script.) Meanwhile Bush, as Casper’s cohort Johansen/Schüller, at least superficially looks not unlike Sim. From time to time I felt as if the evidence of my eyes were warring with the evidence of my ears.

Dick Barton: Special Agent is not a showcase for fine acting—indeed, most of the cast are pretty dreadful. Don Stannard is adequate as the series hero and Ivor Danvers is fine as the boy Snub. Jack Shaw, as Jock Anderson, makes us yearn for John Laurie. Way down the cast list, however, there’s a good rendition from Ernest Borrow, as the outwardly convivial, inwardly crooked landlord, and a very neat little performance from Janice Lowthian as Adele Reid, girlfriend to Tony Burton and, unknowing of her employer’s wickedness, secretary to Dr. Casper. This was Lowthian’s only big-screen performance. Perhaps the cards just fell the wrong way for her career, or perhaps she simply chose life over acting.

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Janice Lowthian as Adele.

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Adele’s young man Tony (Alec Ross), bound to Casper by guilt.

This is one of those bad movies that contrives, almost despite itself, to remain watchable even during the boring bits. Its two sequels—all that could be made before the series’ tragic curtailment—were far better.

Although these movies are, as noted, at best very peripherally relevant to film noir (they fit somewhere into the infrared or ultraviolet of the UK noir spectrum, which means they bear little relation at all to US noir), I included a very brief entry on DICK BARTON in my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir with two-line summaries of each of the three movies. I thought it might be a fun adventure to look at them in a tad more detail here.

The famed theme tune is “Devil’s Galop” by the celebrated English composer Charles Williams. You can find copies to listen to all over YouTube: here’s one. The movie itself can be screened on the Hammer site, here (search “Dick Barton”).

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17 thoughts on “Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948)

  1. I have the box set of all three movies, and the first one struck me as so amateurish that it’s only one step up from the sort of thing done by a group of fans with a single camera in their back garden. Part of the problem is that the makers obviously feel far superior to their material, and are unable to take it seriously on its own terms. The final movie, with its secret weapon and thrilling clmax on a major landmark (ok…Blackpool Tower) feels like a very proto Bond movie. Had it not been for the tragic early death of the star this could have turned into a decent little series.

    • I’m covering the next two in the series over the next week or so, and come to very much the same conclusion as you do: the second’s okay, and by the third one they got it just right. Of course, the tragedy of Stannard’s death was the death itself, but I still think we can say what a very great pity it was that the series should be truncated so early.

  2. Dick Barton is brand new to me, and I’m excited to learn about this series, both radio and film. It’s too bad the first movie has some oddities, but it still sounds worth watching, if only as the precursor to the other two.

    Loved “local boozeteria”!

  3. Pingback: Dick Barton at Bay (1950) | Noirish

  4. Pingback: Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949) | Noirish

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