Dangerous Afternoon (1961)

UK / 59 minutes / bw / Theatrecraft, British Lion Dir: Charles Saunders Pr: Guido Coen Scr: Brandon Fleming Story: Dangerous Afternoon (1951 play) by Gerald Anstruther Cine: Geoffrey Faithfull Cast: Ruth Dunning, Nora Nicholson, Joanna Dunham, Howard Pays, Gladys Henson, Ian Colin, Jerold Wells, May Hallatt, Gwenda Wilson, Elizabeth Begley, Barbara Everest, Jackie Noble, Deirdre Clarke, James Raglan, Edna Morris, Richard McNeff, Jan Miller, Frank Sieman, Keith Smith, Max Brimmell, Trevor Reid, Frank Hawkins, Barry Wilsher.

Irma Randall used to be one of the most audacious jewel thieves in the country until she was caught and jailed. In making a prison escape she fell and broke her back, and now she’s recreated herself as the wheelchair-bound, ultra-genteel Miss Letitia “Letty” Frost (Dunning), owner of Primrose Lodge, a residential home for elderly ladies—in fact, her criminal pals who’ve retired from the profession.

Letty Frost (Ruth Dunning).

Louisa Sprule (Nora Nicholson).

Well, they have in theory, anyway. Sweet old Mrs. Louisa Sprule (Nicholson) is unable to break herself of the habit of petty shoplifting; Mrs. Judson (Everest) has difficulty letting a pocket go by unpicked; Miss Burge (Hallatt) compulsively sharps at double demon patience. Aside from Letty, only the home’s other resident, Miss Caroline Cassell (Henson), its cook, Hetty Millett (Morris) and its general factotum, Mrs. Caldwell (Begley), seem fully to have cured themselves of their previous habits—although Mrs. Caldwell does have tearful moments of reminiscence: “Ten years since Dan took a nine o’clock walk.”

Miss Burge (May Hallatt).

Caroline Cassell (Gladys Henson).

One day Letty is visited by her old friend Ned “Butch” Barrett (Wells), an ex-gang boss who’s now leading a respectable life as farmer and churchwarden George Birling. He brings her a warning: Jean Hinton (Wilson), who blames Irma/Letty for her failure to escape during the prison break Irma led, has just been released from jail and has declared her intent on exacting a comeuppance.

Butch Barrett (Jerold Wells) . . . or George Birling, as he’s now known.

Soon enough, calling herself Jean Berry, the vengeful woman arrives and, blackmailing Letty with the threat of exposing who she really is, declares herself to be a partner in Primrose House and entitled to a full fifty percent share of everything Letty owns. Berry’s leverage becomes yet greater when she realizes there’s another secret that Letty is desperate to keep from her adopted niece, Freda Maberry (Dunham), who’s shortly to be married to up-and-coming young newspaperman Jack Loring (Pays). How can Letty extricate herself from this mess without her world collapsing?

Jean Hinton (Gwenda Wilson, right) tries to put the screws on Letty Frost (Ruth Dunning).

The young sweethearts, Freda (Joanna Dunham) and Jack (Howard Pays).

This is an utterly splendid little movie that reads for its first half like one of those sparkling criminal comedies Pamela Branch used to write—I’m thinking in particular of The Wooden Overcoat (published in 1951, the same year as Anstruther’s play)—and then becomes much grimmer in its second half, where there’s a murder, another violent death and a hard moral dilemma to be resolved.

Hetty Millett (Edna Morris).

Both styles are very well handled. In the first half the comedy comes not just from the roguish old dears—we see Mrs. Sprule shoplifting from a chemist, Mr. Brown (McNeff), who thinks he knows perfectly well what she’s up to, but doesn’t—but from so many little bits of inventiveness. For example, Freda is a painter who works in the pre-impressionist school of modern art; in pre-impressionism, we learn, the aim is to portray the way things look before you’ve actually seen them. (Dunham was, in real life, a keen amateur painter, so must have enjoyed this conceit.)

Keeping everything together is a charming support turn from Noble as the Primrose House chambermaid, Maisie.

Maisie (Jackie Noble, left) with Mrs. Caldwell (Elizabeth Begley).

If you feel that many of the faces here seem familiar, then they probably are. Dangerous Afternoon brings together a wonderful ensemble of old-school character actors, all of them quite clearly having an absolute ball in this modest but hugely enjoyable offering.

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4 thoughts on “Dangerous Afternoon (1961)

    • Glad you enjoyed the movie! As explained at the right, I deliberately don’t restrict the content here to noir . . . although there’s usually some connection, however tenuous.

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