Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949)

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The final Barton!
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UK / 68 minutes / bw / Hammer, Ted Kavanagh Associated, Exclusive Dir: Godfrey Grayson Assoc Pr: Anthony Hinds, Mae Murray Scr: Elizabeth Baron, Ambrose Grayson 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: Cedric Williams Cast: Don Stannard, Bruce Walker, Sebastian Cabot, James Raglan, Jean Lodge, Morris Sweden, John Harvey, Humphrey Kent, Sidney Vivian, Tony Morelli, George Crawford, Laurie Taylor, Schulman.

This was the third to be made in what Hammer planned to be a long-lasting series of movies featuring the popular BBC radio character Dick Barton, begun with Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948). It proved to be the last, however, because, driving home after the “It’s a Wrap” party, series star Don Stannard crashed his car and was killed instantly. His co-star in Dick Barton Strikes Back, Sebastian Cabot, traveling with him, escaped with only minor injuries. Presumably in an effort to cash in on public interest in the tragedy, Exclusive, the series’ distributor, hurried the release so that this movie came out before its predecessor, Dick Barton at Bay (1950). The next movie in the series was apparently intended to be Dick Barton in Darkest Africa—to judge by the title, a radical departure from the series template.

I mentioned in connection with Dick Barton at Bay that the improvement of its production standards over those of its predecessor was evident within moments of the end of the opening credits. The improvement in standards of the third entry over Dick Barton at Bay is obvious even during the opening credits! Farewell to the strictly functional, rather amateurish credits of the previous two movies; hello to a more sophisticated presentation, complete with cameos of the three principals. A new production team and a new cinematographer—one who was far readier to use noirish techniques of shadow and angle—make a huge difference, but so does the fact that a bit more thought seems to have gone into the story, which, while it follows the basic overall template established by the two earlier movies and is as full of wild-and-woolly plot developments as ever, has an actual dramatic structure, leading up to an extended finale that is cleverly put together and genuinely edge-of-your-seat stuff.

Creston (Morris Sweden, left) tersely briefs Dick (Don Stannard, center) and Snowey (Bruce Walker) at the airport.

Dick (Stannard) and Snowey (Walker, replacing and much improving upon George Ford) go to St. Albans airport, about twenty miles out of London, to meet Special Agent Robert Creston (Sweden), who’s just arrived on the plane from Prague. He’s reluctant to be seen with them, muttering only that “If my guess is correct, the atomic bomb is child’s play compared to this” and arranging to meet them later at an exclusive niterie called the Garcia Club, which just happens to be the HQ of the gang led by Alfonso del Monte Fouracada (Cabot), the man whom Creston was following on the plane from Prague.

Our two intrepid heroes find Creston dead in a back room at the club. Captured, bound and gagged by Fouracada and his thugs, they’re left in said back room with an open gas tap and a naked flame—not to mention the echoes of Fouracada’s sadistic chuckle. It’s only thanks to Dick’s British pluck that the pair escape out the window just before the whole place goes kerblooie. All this is, of course, standard for a Dick Barton adventure. From here on, though, the scripters start thinking outside the box, giving us something a bit more like one of the Quatermass adventures that Hammer would start making a few years later with The Quatermass Xperiment (1955; The Creeping Unknown); it can’t be a coincidence that this later movie was also produced by Hinds.

Fouracada (Sebastian Cabot) cackles sadistically as he leaves our heroes to their doom.

Dick has hardly finished reporting his adventures to his boss Colonel Gardener (Kent) and Inspector Burke of the Yard (Vivian) than news comes in that the entire population of a small town in the north of England, High Glen, has been stricken dead by some unknown force. Since Fouracada and his gang were last seen heading northward, could this be a manifestation of the devilish scheme to which Creston alluded?

This is a Dick Barton movie. Of course it could.

Dick and Snowey hop aboard Dick’s natty sportscar and, next you know, are in the deserted High Glen—at least the army has managed to remove all the bodies overnight (fast work!), so it’s not so grim as it could have been. There’s little for our heroes to see except, in a local pub, a poster for Beach’s Fair.

They also meet up with local bigwig Lord Armadale (Raglan)—who invites them to stay at his shack, Armadale Manor, so long as their investigations in the area should continue—and Major Henderson (Harvey) of the Chemical Warfare Department, who gives them the initial results of the victims’ autopsies:

“[The autopsies] show that the brains of the victims have been shriveled—completely dehydrated, as it were—yet the rest of the body’s entirely unaffected.”

While at Armadale Manor, Dick and Snowey meet Lord Armadale’s charmingly foreign secretary, Tina (Lodge). Soon they realize she’s up to something underhand, using her dog Flash (Schulman) as a go-between, conveying messages from her unknown master. By the time our heroes pounce, however, Tina has fled.

Tina (Jean Lodge) meets the intrepid Dick Barton (Don Stannard) for the first time. Are sparks flying?

Tina (Jean Lodge), up to no good in the woods at night.

And then come reports that another northern town, Horston, has been similarly devastated. Can it be coincidence that Beach’s Fair was performing nearby?

This is a Dick Barton movie. Of course it . . .

Oh, I said that already.

Lord Armadale (James Raglan) is shocked, shocked, shocked to hear from Dick (Don Stannard) about Tina’s apparent perfidy.

Forgoing the army of cops that you might have expected they’d take with them, Dick and Snowey infiltrate Beach’s Fair, only to be promptly captured by Fouracada and his gypsy thugs, including Nicholas (Morelli) and Alex (Crawford). Facing inevitable death, Dick and Snowey escape once more, but not before Fouracada takes the time to explain the technology of the devastating superweapon he has been using:

“For our experiments we have used the fairgrounds’ diesel–electric generators to drive our apparatus, which we link up with a magnetic tuning fork. . . . Now, my friend, we have more ambitious plans, for which enormous power will be needed—plus a giant tuning fork.”

Where next might Beach’s Fair be heading than the major resort city of Blackpool? And what might be a more suitable candidate as a giant tuning fork than Blackpool’s fabled Tower?

Major Henderson (John Harvey) is puzzled by developments.

By now it’s pretty obvious who is Fouracada’s Mr. Big. By now, too, it seems that Tina, impressed by Dick’s clipped accent and his sense of what is and isn’t, well, cricket, is playing both sides of the field. Certainly it’s she who comes to our pals’ rescue when, having reached Blackpool Tower, they’re confronted by their next bout of imminent, inescapable death: Fouracada locks them in the venomous-snake section of the Tower’s herpetarium, then shoots out the fronts of all the glass cases.

A stalwart English bobby (uncredited) has our heroes (Bruce Walker, Don Stannard) behind bars even as Blackpool — and the nation! — faces devastation.

That scene is just the prologue to the real climax at the Tower, whose outside Dick obviously has to scale. Being shot in the shoulder slows his climb for a minute or so, but soon he’s as sprightly as ever . . .

From the moment our heroes arrive at the Tower, the movie transcends the earlier aspirations of the series: This is still a B-movie, have no doubt about that, but it’s a glorious B-movie. There’s a marvelously choreographed scene when Dick makes his way across a crowded dance floor in pursuit of Nicholas, using brief encounters with multiple merrymaking partners as his camouflage. (If that’s not the Billy Cotton Band on the podium it looks very much like them.) The tension mounts as our heroes are trapped in and then escape the herpetarium and subsequently becomes white-knuckle as scenes of Dick climbing the Tower—and being shot at by Nicholas—are intercut with views of the gang members, clad in their special deathray-blocking headgear, busily tuning the great oscillator to slaughter the inhabitants of Blackpool.

Dick (Don Stannard) dodges bullets as he ascends Blackpool Tower.

Stannard is at last convincing as Dick Barton, striking just the right balance between Brit stalwartness and Special Agent flexibility; when he first meets Tina there’s a definite sense that sparks might consider the possibility of flying, something inconceivable to the earlier incarnations of Stannard’s Barton. The real star of the show, though, is Sebastian Cabot as the gleefully sociopathic greasy furriner. Cabot was an expert at this type of role, of course, but here he delivers a veritable tour de force. When he meets his doom—hoist by his own herpetard, so to speak—even though we accept the necessity of his demise, because that’s what villains in movies like this are all about, it still comes as a bit of a disappointment that we won’t be seeing more of him.

Dick Barton Strikes Back still suffers some of the flaws of its predecessors. The fights are better choreographed than they were, but they’re still pretty rudimentary. There’s a bit too much reliance on coincidence (although nothing so mindbogglingly idiotic as the one in Dick Barton at Bay when the chap they’re hunting just happens to turn up at the same tea stand where Dick and Snowey are having a cuppa), and there’s one piece of outright silliness: From time to time our two heroes hear a gypsy tune not long before some new murderous calamity. Dick briefly talks about it as the Tune of Death . . . which is ridiculous because, if our heroes weren’t there to hear it, would the calamity somehow not happen?

As briefly noted, one of the aspects that really marks this final series entry out from its predecessors is its cinematography, done by Cedric Williams. He worked to good effect on a number of UK noirs, including A GUNMAN HAS ESCAPED (1948), The FLAW (1955), The GELIGNITE GANG (1956; vt The Dynamiters) and HOUSE IN THE WOODS (1957), all with entries in the encyclopedia, plus a few that have been discussed on this site: The Case of the Missing Heiress (1949; vt Doctor Morelle; vt Doctor Morelle: The Case of the Missing Heiress), Man in Black (1949) and Third Time Lucky (1949). House in the Woods was his last movie; I’m not sure why he gave up his career as early as 1957, in that he lived for over forty years more, dying in 1999 at the grand old age of 86.

You can stream Dick Barton Strikes Back on Hammer’s site, here (search “Dick Barton”).

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8 thoughts on “Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949)

  1. Had Hammer not gone down the ‘X-Certificate’ route, it’s interesting to wonder whether they would have ended up producing some of those film series from the ’60s like DEPARTMENT S /THE CHAMPIONS and the like. This does have the feel of them, with an understanding of how to present hokum in a way that keeps a toe-hold in realism without compromising the sheer outrageous fun of it all. This version of Snowy is not the comic relief of the previous entries, but rather a credible sidekick (although the running gag about his attempts to get a pint works to leaven the seriousness). There’s a real high level of competence in all of the departments that allows you take it seriously on a surface level

    Although they clear away all of the bodies, the bit about the massacre of the small village is surpisingly grim. There’s a bit of dialogue from Snowy where he reminds Barton that there were children playing there the previous day. The atomic age was only a few years old, and that whole bit where they drive through the now empty streets must have resonated with members of the audience who perhaps wondered whether the human race would still be around in another ten years.

    Cabot was a very pleasant surprise to me, as I only really knew him as various stuffy stock-English characters from 60s US TV and movies. He’s not sending up the character, but he understands that it is supposed to be fun, and plays it to the hilt.

    Oh, and did you spot Peter Wyngarde as soldier who gives Barton a vital clue about 37 minutes in? First John Steed, now Jason King!

    • Many thanks for these extra layers of analysis/information, Brad. It is indeed worth wondering what might have been the outcome for Hammer had it continued along its initial path. Might it have faded into obscurity as a now-largely-forgotten producers of Bs, like Merton Park, or might it have gained celebrity, as entities like the Boulting Brothers — who started off in the same place — eventually did? I dunno. I do know that somewhere on my shelves there’s a supposedly definitive book on the studio that for the most part omits all mention of these early, pre-“House of Horror” movies. Which is a pity, because some of them had a certain je ne sais quois.

      I confess I didn’t spot Wyngarde; I’m not sure I ever saw the tv series. To be honest, I might not have spotted Macnee in the earlier movie had I not seen his name in the credits. And I did watch that series. Avidly.

  2. I’ve been enjoying your Dick Barton pieces over the last week or so. My grandfather was a big fan of the radio series (and the films too, I suspect), so your pieces triggered some happy memories for me – many thanks for the nostalgia!

    • If you get the time to watch one of the three, this is the one to pick.

      Incidentally, although I haven’t checked, I think I’ve seen copies of the radio serials around — on YouTube, the Internet Archive, that sort of thing.

    • There are just a few movies on it — the three Bartons and, if memory serves, one other. I also find it a very difficult site to navigate my way around, but that may be merely my ineptitude.

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