The Naked Edge (1961)

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A tense little psychological thriller — and it’s Gary Cooper’s last movie!
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UK, US / 97 minutes / bw / Glass–Seltzer, Pennebaker–Baroda, UA Dir: Michael Anderson Pr: Walter Seltzer, George Glass Scr: Joseph Stefano Story: First Train to Babylon (1955) by Max Ehrlich Cine: Erwin Hillier Cast: Gary Cooper, Deborah Kerr, Eric Portman, Diane Cilento, Hermione Gingold, Peter Cushing, Michael Wilding, Ronald Howard, Ray McAnally, Sandor Elès, Wilfrid Lawson, Helen Cherry, Joyce Carey, Diane Clare, Frederick Leister, Martin Boddey, Peter Wayn.

Six years ago, Jason Roote (Boddey), owner and CEO of the Jason Roote Air Freight Corporation, was stabbed to death one night in his office. Only two other employees were on the premises that evening, doing overtime: sales manager George “Cliffe” Radcliffe (Cooper) and lowlier staffer Donald Heath (McAnally). Cliffe heard Roote’s death cry and saw the murderer running away; he and a cop (uncredited) gave chase and found Heath lurking in the boiler room, a well dredged bottle of Scotch in his hand.

Jason Roote (Martin Boddey), soon to be a murder victim.

At the trial—with Mr. Justice Klane (Leister) presiding, Mr. Evan Wrack (Cushing) for the prosecution and Mr. Norman Claridge (Howard) for the defense—Cliffe’s testimony, which he gave with apparent great reluctance, was damning, and Heath was jailed for life. No trace was ever found of the £60,000 in cash that the killer stole from Roote’s office.

Prosecutor Evan Wrack (Peter Cushing).

Defender Norman Claridge (Ronald Howard).

The accused, Donald Heath (Ray McAnally).

After the trial was over, Cliffe took his wife Martha (Kerr) for a stroll along the Thames and pointed out to her the building that he planned to buy, with his new business partner Morris Brooke (Wilding), as the HQ for the freighting company they were starting. He had, he told her when she asked how he’d raised the money, “made a killing” on the stock market. Years later this phrase would haunt her . . .

That same afternoon, Cliffe was approached by a disbarred lawyer, Jeremy “Jerry” Clay (Portman), who seemed to have something important and threatening to say, although their conversation was eventually inconclusive.

Cliffe’s first sight of his nemesis, Jerry Clay (Eric Portman).

Five years ago there was a mail robbery. Now, one of the bags from that robbery has been rediscovered—apparently the thieves hid it and then, for one reason or another, were never able to go back and collect it. Even though they’re of course now five years out of date, the letters are being delivered to their addressees.

One of those letters is a blackmail demand addressed to Cliffe from Jerry Clay. It arrives while Cliffe is at work. And Martha gives in to her curiosity and reads it.

Cliffe: “Do you think a woman could live with a man, and . . . sleep with him, and not know she’s sleeping with a murderer?”
Martha: “Do murderers make love differently?”

A sleepless Martha (Deborah Kerr) tries to persuade herself Cliffe is innocent.

Gary Cooper in his last role, as Cliffe.

For the rest of the movie Martha is torn between believing that Cliffe is innocent and a horrible suspicion that he’s guilty—after all, where did the money really come from that helped Cliffe and Brooke set up what has proven to be a hugely successful company? Her equanimity isn’t helped by the fact that Cliffe is now acting as suspiciously as is humanly possible—changing travel plans for no apparent reason, dropping heavily charged statements, the whole gamut. He’s making an effort to find Clay—following a tip from seedy “exotic” bibliophile Ignatius Pom (Lawson) he tracks the blackmailer to a bookstore whose owner, Victoria Hicks (Carey), Clay has married—but is Cliffe doing so in order to pressurize the man into telling the truth or to wring his neck because he knows the truth of Cliffe’s guilt?

Martha undertakes a parallel investigation, one that takes her to the rat-infested tenement where the imprisoned Heath’s wife (Cilento) lives in squalor with daughter Lucy (uncredited). This is by far the most powerful scene in the movie, thanks to Cilento giving an electric performance as the bitter, rightly resentful prison widow. The Naked Edge isn’t particularly marked for its fine performances—Cooper’s turn (he died before the movie’s release) is distinctly lacking in conviction while Kerr, perhaps in an effort to compensate, at times pours a little too much effort into hers—but Cilento delivers her role with a searing passion that seems to brand itself onto the celluloid. Hitherto I’ve always regarded Cilento—as in movies like WINGS OF DANGER (1952), The FULL TREATMENT (1960), I Thank a Fool (1962) and The THIRD SECRET (1964)—as a lovely but perhaps rather negligible actress. Not here she ain’t.

Heath’s wife (Diane Cilento) is less than delighted to be visited by Martha.

Lucy Heath (uncredited).

Another affecting scene—particularly so for those of a vertiginous disposition—is when Cliffe takes Martha for a long country drive that just happens to include the White Cliffs of Dover. He insists she get out of the car and come join him near the cliff edge. Is he testing her trust in him or is he flirting with the notion of chucking her off? We don’t know, and neither does she.

Right up until the end we really don’t know if Cliffe is the murderer Martha has come to believe he must be. The truth comes out after a remarkably poorly choreographed fight, and the producers clearly thought it enough of a surprise that they inserted a special voiceover at the end of the closing credits:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you now know who killed Jason Roote. Please do not reveal the secret to anyone.”

But that statement really misses the point of the movie, which is to depict the relationship between Martha and her husband as her faith in him ebbs and flows. In this sense, The Naked Edge can be viewed as a sort of country cousin to Alfred Hitchcock’s SUSPICION (1941), which, based on a Francis Iles novel, Before the Fact (1932), is likewise graced with a stellar cast: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty, Leo G. Carroll and more. The great difference between the two movies—the earlier one regarded as something of a classic, The Naked Edge largely forgotten—is probably that the latter never quite achieves a proper flow, but rather judders along, which is perhaps surprising in that its scripter, Joseph Stefano, had just the year before been responsible for Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

At one stage Martha (Deborah Kerr) wonders if cutting her wrists in the bath might not be the best way out — hence the movie’s title.

There’s also a problem with some of the supporting characters; although I’ve read Ehrlich’s source novel, it was some decades ago and so I’ve no idea if this problem is inherited from the book or unique to the movie. Martha has a best friend, Lilly Harris (Gingold), who, although married, seems to have a habit of cavorting with toyboys, the latest of whom, Manfridi St. John (Elès)—pronounced “sinjin”—is a wannabe playwright. The trouble is that Lilly seems both far too old and of completely the wrong personality to be Martha’s Best Bud; and, besides, the scenes with her and Manfridi appear to add very little to the movie except extra running time.

Lilly (Hermione Gingold) and Manfridi (Sandor Elès).

Again, there’s a little—minuscule, even—subplot in which we discover that Cliffe’s partner Brooke has been running a longstanding campaign to bed Martha, only she’s not having any. This information comes somewhat out of the blue in a single scene. After that scene is over, the matter’s entirely forgotten (as, more or less, is the sleazebag Brooke). It’s a little bit of complication that doesn’t seem to belong anywhere.

 Scuzzy Morris Brooke (Michael Wilding) tries clumsily to seduce Martha.

The Naked Edge isn’t Coop’s finest hour, and nor is it Deborah Kerr’s. On the other hand, if it popped up on your TV screen in place of the scheduled Masterpiece Mystery, you’d probably regard it as a highlight of your week’s viewing—and not just because of Cilento’s spectacular, barnstorming scene (as the only character not to be properly named). It’s a very fine B-movie with an A-movie cast. In these halls, that’s a high recommendation.

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On Amazon.com (region 2 DVD): The Naked Edge

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11 thoughts on “The Naked Edge (1961)

  1. Great to see this here – I always thought that, apart from anything else, its fairly flamboyant visual flourishes earned it a place as a precursor to the Italian giallo by way of the German krimi 🙂

  2. You’ve given me a fabulous new word: Judders.

    The ending of this film does sound a bit cringe-worthy, but the rest of it sounds intriguing. I’m keen to see Gary Cooper in this, even if just for the sake of it being his final role.

    • As I’ve noted elsewhere on this page, while the movie’s no masterpiece it’s entertaining and well worth a watch. As always, I hope you enjoy it once you get the chance to see it, Ruth!

  3. I think I’m in broad agreement with your take on this one, John. I like Anderson’s attempts to make the movie as visually stylish as possible and that’s a big part of what makes it as entertaining as it is. The performances all round are OK without ever grabbing me especially but the dialogue at times was bordering on the torturous in its efforts to create ambiguity. A pretty solid thriller in most respects though.

    • I’m glad to know that we see eye-to-eye on this one, Colin! In hindsight, I perhaps should have focused more in my description of the movie on that visual stylishness you mention. Overall, the movie is one of those that more than deserves to be watched even if it in the end result it doesn’t fully satisfy.

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