FLOODS OF FEAR, rather nicely directed by Charles Crichton (THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES, A FISH CALLED WANDA), is a B-thriller with an A budget, and an intriguing mix of good and bad qualities, both of which are equally entertaining at times.
Good qualities — escaped convicts taking charge of a flooded house during a destructive deluge in Canada: it’s a great dramatic situation. The cast is strong and the budget surprisingly fulsome, offering convincing special effects, both life-sized and miniature (and you generally can’t see the join).
Even though the central set-up in the film’s first third — convicts menace cute girl — is a little Victorian in its implications, there’s room for suspense and the film isn’t afraid of being exploitative and vulgar, which is somehow refreshing in a British movie of the 50s. And for a former Ealing director like Crichton to go as racy and pulpy as this is quite surprising.
Bad qualities — restlessly, the movie shifts out of the half-submerged house, dissipating suspense and pursuing a more complicated but less interesting narrative, rooted in a convoluted backstory we never see. But all his forgiven during the violent climax, set in a flooded shipping office.
Also — crummy title.
The most amusing bad quality, however, is the filming of a Canadian adventure story in England with English and Irish actors. In the lead, Howard Keel, in his first non-musical lead, is able to show the way with authentic North American vocalisations. Opposite him, the lovely Anne Heywood just plays it English, which is acceptable in the circumstances. Now the trouble starts. Cyril Cusack, as the psychopathic con, essays a dialect melding his own Irish tones with a rich blend of wildly different American sounds and mannerisms. These were the days before dialect coaching, when accents were largely expected to partake of the same generous suspension of disbelief that applied to rear-projected car journeys, bloodless stabbings, balsa barroom bannisters and people falling from high places who transformed into flailing, disarticulated dummies for the descent.
“Disarticulated” is actually a pretty good word for Cusack’s speech patterns — his voice belongs to a Frankenstein’s monster of American accents, with Tennessee legs supporting a Texas torso from which depend Brooklyn arms, the whole surmounted by an Irish-South African head, the bits strung together with fraying thread, flapping loosely as his performance plummets towards the murky waters below.
As hilarious as Cusack’s performance is, bundling together tics and tropes from a generation of sleazeball gangster characters, it pales next to that of Harry H Corbett, who is much funnier because his character, a stuffy prison guard, is more dignified, and because his accent, if we can even justify the use of the singular, is even worse than Cusack’s. In his very first sentence he manages to segue from Humphrey Bogart to Cary Grant. Grant, of course, had an accent unknown to Henry Higgins (“Nbody tawks like that!” as Jack Lemmon protests in SOME LIKE IT HOT), making it an unsuitable case for impersonation outside of a comedy. I think even if you were playing Cary Grant you might want to tone it down a bit.
“You dirty old man!”
Corbett was a serious stage actor at this point, remarked upon for his proletarian grit and manliness. How he wound up spending twelve years in a single sitcom is mysterious, but his ambition to be a great thespian informed his playing of Harold in Steptoe and Son, a study in frustration, disappointment, pretension, great dreams and lowly surroundings — perfect for a once-hot classical actor.
There’s nothing perfect about most of Corbett’s movie work, although he features in Gilliam’s JABBERWOCKY, Eric Sykes’ much-loved silent comedy THE PLANK, Mackendrick’s SAMMY GOING SOUTH, Joan Littlewood’s SPARROWS CAN’T SING, and of course CARRY ON SCREAMING. The rest tend to be dowdy British sex comedies of the kind clearly intended to put the British working man off sex for life, although COVER GIRL KILLER, made the same year as FLOODS, features an inventive and grotesque turn from Corbett, possibly patterned on Cusack’s pebble-glasses maniac in this movie.
Howard Keel is mainly staunch and shirtless as the stoic con with a tragic past — he has the kind of musculature, coated in soft flesh, that you just don’t see on leading men anymore. He’s holding his gut in all the time, like Mitchum or Shatner. But he cam move! That musical training pays off whenever he has to clamber or jump, suggesting that a deluge-based thriller is not actually the best vehicle for him. He could have played Burt Lancaster type swashbucklers, because he’s beautiful in motion.
Worth a look for the sheer spectacle and the hilarity of the Canadian accent drag acts. A good candidate for remake status, except that HARD RAIN kind of went there.