My Death is a Mockery (1952)

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Hanged for a lamb?
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UK / 65 minutes / bw / David Dent, Adelphi Dir: Tony Young Pr: David Dent Scr: Douglas Baber Cine: Phil Grindrod Cast: Donald Houston, Kathleen Byron, Bill Kerr, Edward Leslie, Liam Gaffney, Kenneth Henry, Felix Felton, Sheila McCormack, Christopher Quest, Michael Voysey, Vincent Holman, Meadows White, Christmas Grose.

An extremely neat little movie, obviously made on a very tight budget, that uses its small cast, simple plot and limited resources to excellent effect. It’s linked tangentially to a celebrated real-life murder (or was it?) case that played a major role in the United Kingdom’s eventual abolition of the death penalty.

Donald Houston as John Bradley.

John Bradley (Houston) served during WWII in the Royal Navy and continues his love affair with the sea by running a trawler with his wife Helen (Byron) and crew Jim (Grose) and Stan (uncredited). However, the business is failing fast and, having laid off the two crew members, he heads to London to try to persuade moneymen in the City—personified by Sam Closterman (Felton)—to finance a new and improved version of his enterprise. Closterman tells him, however, in the friendliest of terms that his business plan is a stinker and only a fool would invest in him.

Felix Felton as Sam Closterman.

Drowning his sorrows with Helen in a pub after this abortive meeting, John is introduced by barmaid Patsy (McCormack) to another customer there, Hansen (Kerr), who has just hit the jackpot on the pub’s one-armed bandit:

Hansen: “It’s got to pay off sometimes, Patsy, otherwise you wouldn’t have any bait for the suckers.”
Patsy: “The way it’s paying off lately it’s like throwing a mackerel to catch a sprat.”

Sheila McCormack as Patsy, the barmaid who inadvertently introduces Hansen to the Bradleys.

Learning of the Bradleys’ troubles, Hansen tells them he might have a moneymaking proposition for them. Over the next few days this materializes. Rather than continue in the fishing industry, John should, in partnership with Hansen, use his trawler to become a smuggler, making nighttime trips across the English Channel to pick up consignments of brandy from Hansen’s French contact, Le Cambre (Leslie, sporting a French accent as treacly and authentic as a ripe Kentucky Brie). Thanks to Hansen’s contacts in the UK, it should be easy to flog the brandy and make as much as—gasp!—£200 per trip. Each.

Bill Kerr as Hansen.

For the first few trips all goes well, but one night, as John and Hansen are making the pickup from Le Cambre, the French cops descend. Shooting starts, and Le Cambre kills one of the flics . . .

Edward Leslie as Le Cambre.

The tale is told in flashback as John, now in the condemned cell, makes his confession to Father Matthews (Gaffney) the night before his execution for the murder of the French cop—a murder that he did not in fact commit, although under the UK law of the time he could still be found guilty of it because part of the same criminal enterprise that led to the killing. John himself doesn’t subscribe to this principle: so far as he’s concerned, his only crime was the smuggling and, as he explains to Father Matthews, smuggling isn’t what you could call a crime, not really. In this John is echoing a comment of Helen’s when they were first considering Hansen’s proposition:

Helen: “But it’s not really wrong to smuggle. Everyone does it at some time or another.”

Liam Gaffney as Father Matthews.

Houston and Byron portray the familiar intimacy of marriage very well—to the point that I quickly checked to see if they were in fact a couple offscreen. Apparently not. In fact, it seems that around this time Byron’s romantic interests inclined instead toward the now-legendary director Michael Powell. She’d married a USAF pilot during WWII and moved to the US. Powell lured her back to the UK and cast her in a number of classic Powell–Pressburger movies, such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The SMALL BACK ROOM (1949). He also entered a relationship with her that was cited as the cause for her divorce. (She later married the writer and war correspondent Alaric Jacob.) Non-Powell–Pressburger outings of noirish interest in which Byron appeared include SCARLET THREAD (1951) and The GAMBLER AND THE LADY (1952).

Kathleen Byron as Helen Bradley.

Donald Houston doesn’t need much of an introduction to readers of this site—his other appearances here are in Crow Hollow (1952) and A Question of Adultery (1958). I’m not always a great fan of his performances but he’s very good in this one, despite a dismaying tendency for his hairstyle to change bewilderingly between one shot and the next even though just minutes might have passed in the screenplay’s chronology. He portrays especially well the kind of bluff, essentially honest, seemingly amiable fellow whose inner toughness—ruthlessness, even—comes to the forefront when the situation turns desperate.

This was billed as the first screen performance in a dramatic role of Bill Kerr, the Australian actor known primarily for his comedic roles; in reality, his first dramatic screen role had been as a child, in The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934), nearly twenty years earlier. Kerr became a household name in the UK thanks to his radio work, most particularly in the long-running series Hancock’s Half Hour (1954–9). He also had a recurring part in the TV soap opera Compact (1962–5).

Kenneth Henry as the Inspector.

Ironically in view of its plot—a man is hanged for the murder of a policeman that he did not commit—My Death is a Mockery was the movie watched by Christopher Craig before he and his accomplice, Derek Bentley, went out on the night of November 2 1952 to commit a burglary. The burglary went wrong and armed police descended, one of whom, PC Sidney Miles, Craig shot dead. Because Craig was under age (he was just 16), Bentley, although not much older and somewhat intellectually challenged, was in effect tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder in his stead (under the joint-enterprise law referred to above). Despite various appeals, Bentley was eventually hanged for a crime that, like the movie’s John Bradley, he had not in fact committed.

The case stirred up considerable debate in the UK over the ethics of capital punishment, especially as it became evident that, far from being an accomplice in the murder, Bentley may in fact have been trying to dissuade Craig from using his gun. (There’s some evidence, too, that the fatal bullet came not from Craig’s gun but was a stray round fired by one of the other cops.) In hindsight, there was a great deal of official mule-headedness in the handling of both the case and the appeals; Bentley was a victim of blind bureaucracy as much as anything else—the belief that somehow the undoubted tragedy of Sidney Miles’s death could only be ameliorated and the rule of law upheld by hanging someone, even if it was the wrong someone.

In 1993 Bentley was posthumously pardoned and in 1998 his murder conviction was quashed. Decades earlier, in 1965, Great Britain had abolished capital punishment, in part because of disquiet over the manifest injustice involved in the execution of Bentley.

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11 thoughts on “My Death is a Mockery (1952)

  1. Smuggling did have the image of being a crime, but not actually criminal, after the war. It’s one of the themes of Pool of London – not actually a noir, though it comes close in places – and another film, The Ship that Died of Shame, has a very similar plot of what looks like harmless and profitable fun going bad and the protagonist being inexorably doomed.

    • The two you mention are both close enough to noir that I included them in The Book. Had I known about it at the time I’d probably have included My Death is a Mockery too. As you say, definitely on the borderland of noir, but they do have the trope whereby an essentially good man (almost always a man) does something foolish then soon finds himself drawn inexorably into the noir quicksand.

      • I’ve got the Book somewhere! (Un)fortunately over the last few years several very good second-hand bookshops had closing-down sales, so I tiptoe through tottering piles of books and can’t find the ones I want. When – if – I find it I’ll settle down with it.

        • I feel your pain — it’s much the same here. What makes it worse is that our two local libraries have permanent book sales. As we’re in and out of the library the whole time, the temptation to pause “just for a look” is unquenchable . . .

  2. Kathleen Byron is of course always a good reason to drop everything and turn on the telly! Ever seen LET HIM HAVE IT, a more straightforward telling of the story? Well worth a look, especially as it features a very young Christopher Ecclestone as Bentley.

    • Sorry not to have replied to this earlier, Sergio. For some reason I missed it.

      Ever seen LET HIM HAVE IT, a more straightforward telling of the story?

      Not sure what you mean by “a more straightforward telling of the story”; the crime was committed after the release of My Death is a Mockery, so My Death is a Mockery could hardly be considered a telling of it, straightforward or otherwise.

      I haven’t seen the movie of Let Him Have It. I did, however, read the book upon which it was based.

    • Not sure how HUGE the oversight was, keenanpatrick424, bearing in mind that My Death is a Mockery was released before Craig and Bentley committed their crime.

      • Huge because you wrote paragraphs about the trail and this being a film site…thought LET HIM HAVE IT deserved a mention.I haven’t read the book but the movie is definitely worth the viewing.

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