UK / 68 minutes / bw / Marylebone–Hammer, Exclusive Dir: Godfrey Grayson Pr: Henry Halsted Scr: Jackson C. Budd, Ambrose Grayson, Emma Trechman Story: Ambrose Grayson, based on characters created for 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, Tamara Desni, George Ford, Meinhart Maur, Percy Walsh, Joyce Linden, Campbell Singer, John Arnatt, Richard George, Patrick McNee (i.e., Patrick Macnee), George Crawford, Paddy Ryan, Fred Owen, Yoshihide Yanai, Ted Butterfield.
Although this was the third and last to be released of the three DICK BARTON movies produced by Hammer, it was actually the second to be made. It therefore seems to make sense to discuss it here before Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949), the last to be made. The predecessor of Dick Barton at Bay was Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948), about which I waffled here the other day.
As soon as the credits are over it’s obvious this movie is a cut above Special Agent. There’s a genuinely suspenseful chase as a War Office agent called Phillips (played by an almost unrecognizably youthful Macnee) flees through the docks at Limehouse from two bad guys. They eventually catch him in a phone box and shoot him dead, but not before he’s been able to phone Dick Barton (Stannard) and gasp out an enigmatic message: “Two longs and a short.”
Patrick Macnee as a man on the run.
Dick races to the phone box and discovers the imprint of a three-fingered hand on the glass.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, Dick’s boss Sir George Cavendish (Singer) and his colleague Jackson (Arnatt) are attending a demonstration by Professor Mitchell (Walsh) of his newly invented death ray, capable of exploding incoming aircraft at a distance up to 20 miles. Apparently it does this by detonating any combustibles the aircraft might have aboard, including atom bombs (eh?): “I wouldn’t like to be an aviator with an atom bomb on board who came across the ray of that,” explains the professor, pointing to his, er, infernal device. Me, I wouldn’t want to be within, say, 20 miles of an air-detonated atom bomb.
Professor Mitchell (Percy Walsh, right) briefs Ministry men Jackson (John Arnatt, left) and Cavendish (Campbell Singer).
Obviously it would be disastrous if the death ray, Mitchell and his charming daughter Mary (Linden) were to fall into the wrong hands, which is why at that moment a three-fingered hand sneaks around the door and shuts off the light. There’s a fracas as a gang sent by dastardly Eastern European masterspy Sergei Volkoff (Maur) and his sultry assistant Anna (Desni) invades the premises to seize the death ray, Mitchell and his charming daughter Mary. Oddly, this gang, led by Fingers (Ryan)—I leave it as an exercise for the reader to deduce how this particular thug got his nickname—and Boris (Crawford), leave Cavendish and Jackson behind, and they’re able to tell about the three-fingeredness of that hand.
It’s Dick’s only clue!
Tamara Desni and Meinhart Maur as Anna and Volkoff.
And what a fine clue it is, too, because that very night Dick and sidekick Snowey White (Ford) are having tea at a street stand when they see a man with three fingers there. Yes, out of all the places in London that Fingers could be, he’s getting himself a cuppa at the very same stand where Dick and Snowey are too! To be fair, this is the movie’s sole example of truly egregious plotting. Obviously everything else is pretty far-fetched, as you’d expect from a movie of this type; but this was the only place where my eyes rolled so much I was worried they might inadvertently swap sockets.
Okay, there was the combustible atom bomb. Just two places, then.
Oh, wait a minute. There’s the bit where Dick blows open a locked and heavily weighted trapdoor using a 4th of July/5th of November-style rocket. Three places.
I’m going to stop counting now.
Boris (George Crawford) on the left, Fingers (Paddy Ryan) on the right.
Back to the tea stand. Dick and Snowey follow Fingers and fellow-gangster Chang (Yanai) to a warehouse where they eavesdrop on the gang’s cunning plans . . . one of which involves an instruction from Volkoff that Dick Barton must die by midnight! Chang is deputed to do this bit of desirable tidying up. Needless to say, Dick is able to thwart the murder attempt—and even arranges for the news of his “death” to be broadcast far and wide, thereby confusing the bad guys no end.
Snowey (George Ford) and Dick (Don Stannard) eavesdrop on the gang.
Chang (Yoshihide Yanai) prepares for the murder of Dick.
The reason Volkoff wants the death ray is that at dawn tomorrow a big defense mission is launching a bunch of planes containing many of the world’s most skilled and prominent military experts en route to . . . well, where they’re going and why is a bit of a puzzle, but suffice it to say that Volkoff wants to shoot them down so that his own, unnamed country can rule the world, BWAHAHAHA!
An abducted Professor Mitchell (Percy Walsh) tries to face down Volkoff, as Chang (Yoshihide Yanai) looks on.
Just to add to his Bond-villain characteristics, Volkoff, in between spells of baddifying, plays classical piano. You can search in vain for the white cat, though.
Volkoff (Meinhart Maur) plays something upscale for the delectation of Anna (Tamara Desni).
Lots of plot follows until finally Dick and Snowey trace the baddies to a lighthouse off the coast of (I think) Kent that has the light signal “two longs and a short.” There Volkoff and his gang are threatening to torture Mary in order to force Mitchell to reveal to them how to operate the death ray. (At one point they do start in on her, out of shot; but it all seems a bit half-hearted because as soon as she yells something of the order of “Ooo, you rotter, leggo my pigtail!” her father capitulates.) They’ve already successfully detonated a mail plane as practice; in just a few short hours it’s going to be the Real Thing.
Only Dick Barton stands between these ruthless swine and the overthrow of the world order!
Well, you know where you’re advised to place your money on that one. After everything’s done and dusted, we see Anna craftily slip away, escaping to flirt another day—perhaps in readiness for a sequel that was never made? Who knows? In fact, Desni retired from her long B-movie career after Dick Barton at Bay. It’s a pity that in this movie she has almost nothing to do except stand around looking decorative and making the occasional dispensable comment.
Snowey (George Ford) and Mary (Joyce Linden) cheer Dick on.
Pleasingly, there’s almost no attempt at the kind of painfully contrived comedy that so undermined the previous entry in the series. The comic-cuts Scotsman sidekick Jock Anderson has vanished, bagpipes and all, and while Beatrice Kane is listed in both opening and closing credits for the part of Dick’s fainting-prone housekeeper Betsy Horrock, she doesn’t appear in the movie at all. The character of Snowey has been toned down by a notch or three, although there’s still mirth attempted when he taps a barrel labeled brandy only to discover it contains diesel oil instead.
Overall, the acting standard, like everything else about Dick Barton at Bay, is a rung or two higher than in Special Agent. The one exception seems to be Stannard himself. In the earlier movie he was pretty wooden, a sort of identikit version of the stiff-upper-lipped Brit, with accent to match; the only way you could tell if he’d been beaten up by the baddies was a certain dishevelment of hair. Here, however, he seems to have two pokers appropriately lodged. Although he improves a bit toward the fisticuffs-packed final reel, earlier on it’s as if he were almost parodying the role. As, who knows, perhaps he was—it must have been very tempting.
After the prolonged doldrums of the series’ first movie, it’s a delight to report that the pacing of this one is pretty good . . . except in several of the scenes involving Maur as Volkoff. It seems that part of being a masterspy from behind the Iron Curtain was that you had not just to mangle your vowels but mangle them ve-e-e-e-ry slo-o-o-o-wly. This is odd, because most of my friends from that general part of the world speak pretty rapidly, if not very rapidly indeed (hello, Martina!). And Volkoff has odd priorities: revolver in hand, confronted by an unarmed, pinioned Dick Barton, he announces:
“I am busy now, but later I shall have much pleasure in eliminating you, Mr. Barton.”
Dick Barton at Bay is available for streaming at the Hammer site, here (search “Dick Barton”).