Crime Over London (1936)

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Thrills in store!
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UK / 63 minutes / bw / Anglo–American, Criterion Dir: Alfred Zeisler Pr: Marcel Hellman Scr: Norman Alexander, Harold French Story: probably Punks Kommt aus Amerika (1929) by Louis de Wohl Cine: Victor Armenise Cast: Joseph Cawthorn, Bruce Lister, Rène Ray, Paul Cavanagh, Basil Sydney, Margot Grahame, David Burns, Edmon Ryan, John Darrow, Danny Green, Googie Withers.

Oxford Street’s department store Selfridges, dressed up as Sherwoods.

A movie that’s littered with noirish tropes and dialogue, plus some noirish cinematography, yet for the most part doesn’t have much of a noirish feel. It nevertheless has lot to interest us, both as a period piece—there are some truly evocative London street scenes—and for some of its cast.

Years ago gangster Eddie “Joker” Finnigan (Sydney) sought career advancement in New York, but now things are getting too hot for him in the States and so he’s come back to London, bringing some of his gang members with him. Although those goons are eager to start pulling off a few heists, Joker insists they bide their time, instead opening up a gambling joint where hostesses Pearl (Grahame) and Miss Dupres (Withers), plus floorwalker Sniffy (Burns), entice the gullible into losing money on the cards.

David Burns as Sniffy.

Googie Withers as Miss Dupres.

Pearl is Joker’s moll, but it’s his sidekick Jim (Darrow) who stokes her fires. The feeling’s mutual, and the two plot secretly and rather clumsily to make their escape and go live out their idyll together somewhere. There’s going to be trouble down the line . . .

Margot Grahame as Pearl.

John Darrow as Jim.

Meanwhile, the Oxford Street department store Sherwoods—which very strongly resembles Selfridges—is preparing for its 25th Anniversary celebrations. Old Mr. Sherwood (Cawthorn) is the ideal employer, genial and generous to a fault with his employees, but he’s getting on in years and so has hired an actor, Riley (also Cawthorn), his double, to take over some of his traditional duties: walking the store and chatting to staff and customers alike.

Joseph Cawthorn as Riley . . .

. . . and as Mr. Sherwood.

What Sherwood doesn’t know is that Riley has a criminal past: the man jumped jail in the States with three years of his sentence yet to run.

One day Joker’s goon Sniffy is shopping in Sherwoods when he recognizes his old acquaintance Riley. Learning of the subterfuge, Joker realizes it opens up a grand opportunity for the gang to purloin the bonus-laden payroll that’s going to be brought in as part of the store’s 25th Anniversary beano.

No sooner conceived than the plan is set into motion . . .

There’s also, for Joker, the question of what to about Jim. Not only does the younger man want Pearl, he’s frequently insubordinate and clearly wouldn’t be averse to overthrowing Joker as the gang’s leader. Yes, Jim’s gotta go.

John (Paul Cavanagh, left) interrogates Ronnie (Bruce Lister).

Soon mixed up in all this are Sherwood’s nephew, Ronald “Ronnie” Martin (Lister), and the girl he loves, Joan (Ray). Alas for Ronnie, the alluring Joan is also loved by the much older Inspector John Gary of the Yard (Cavanagh), and she seems not entirely unresponsive to the latter’s attentions. Although clearly wanting to burst into tears much of the time about this, Ronnie keeps a stiff upper lip as the three go on outings together, and behaves like a jolly good sport even when, after swimming, John feels it necessary to massage Joan’s cold legs to bring back the circulation.

Rène Ray as Joan.

The fertile brain of Joker contrives a scheme whereby he can rub out Jim, frame Ronnie, distract the cops and lift the payroll, all in one smooth graceful movement. And so, with goons Sniffy, Klemm (Green) and Spider (Ryan) as backing, he goes into action . . .

Joker (Basil Sydney) reckons the game’s up . . . for now.

This is a British film in which several of the foreground characters are Americans, so obviously one’s on the lookout for amusingly cod accents. In fact, the makers avoided this customary pitfall by the simple stratagem of hiring American actors for almost all the relevant parts; the only one of Joker’s goons to be played by a Brit is Klemm, played by Danny Green, and to Green’s credit I wouldn’t have spotted this had I not looked it up out of curiosity. Cawthorn, too, was American, so sounds authentic as Riley. (In his role as Sherwood he deploys a sort of generic Middle European accent.) Joker himself is of course a Brit, so Sydney’s plummy English tones aren’t out of place.

The goons’ dialogue is another matter:

Sniffy: “And he pockets twenty pounds a week—that’s a hundred sardines in our dough.”

Why the actors, as Americans, didn’t polish this sort of stuff a bit is something of a mystery.

This was, incidentally, John Darrow’s last movie before he departed acting in favor of becoming a highly successful Hollywood talent agent.

Paul Cavanagh as John and Rène Ray as Joan.

The movie’s held together by the performances of Cawthorn, Cavanagh and Ray. Cawthorn was a veteran comic actor of both stage and screen; one can see where his success came from, especially in the single scene where Sherwood and Riley interact with each other. Elsewhere, he displays his comedy chops in a highly entertaining sequence where he tries—unsuccessfully!—to demonstrate to one of his staff (played by Roland Culver) how to sell soap to a cantankerous customer.

Paul Cavanagh as Inspector John Gary.

Cavanagh was a very prolific screen actor, although acting was his second career after a stint as a lawyer. Ray did it the other way round: acting was her first career. From 1946 she was also a successful novelist, known especially for Emma Conquest (1953). In 1957, probably around the time she met George St. John Brodrick, 2nd Earl of Midleton, she abandoned the screen altogether. The couple lived together thereafter, marrying in 1975. Her most acclaimed role was probably as Stasie in The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935). Other movies of note included THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE (1947), The GREEN COCKATOO (1937) and The Return of the Frog (1938)—the last of these is an Edgar Wallace adaptation that’s down for appearance on this site at some stage. (Until then, 1959’s Der Frosch mit der Maske should keep you going.)

Shootout in the Toy Department.

Although the Crime Over London is frequently described as based on the novel House of a Thousand Windows by Louis de Wohl, I can find no trace of de Wohl having written such a novel. The movie’s opening credits say merely that it’s based on a novel by him. Matters aren’t helped for me by the fact that before 1936, the release date of Crime Over London, de Wohl (real name Ludwig von Wohl) published his books exclusively in German. There’s no title in his German-language bibliography I can spot that could remotely be translated as House of a Thousand Windows, but there is the intriguing title Punks Kommt aus Amerika (1929), which translates as “Punks Comes from America.” (“Punks” is a character name, not a plural.) The novel was filmed in Germany as Punks Kommt aus Amerika (1935) dir Karlheinz Martin, with Attila Hörbiger, Lien Deyers, Ralph Arthur Roberts, Sybille Schmitz and Oskar Sima. You can find a description of this movie in German here; I think you’ll agree it shares enough basic plot elements with Crime Over London for the two to be divergent loose adaptations of the same source. (If I’m wrong, and you know that I am, please let me know in the Comments section below.)

Meanwhile, “House of a Thousand Windows” is the title of a famous New York City photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn; you can look at it here.

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