One Fell Scoop

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ROOM TO LET (1950) is a rather staid early Hammer film — despite the involvement of John Gilling on screenplay (adapting a Margery Allingham TV radio play), Jimmy Sangster as AD, and grue by makeup splasher Phil Leakey (aptly so named), and a plot loosely derived from THE LODGER, it’s tepid stuff. It’s framed by an after dinner pass-the-port conversation in which the details of an ancient murder are hashed out, and then we get the flashback which sets up Valentine Dyall as Dr. Fell, who moves in as roomer to a widow and daughter and begins to terrorize them. It begins to emerge that he’s really Jack the Ripper, escaped from a torched madhouse, and planning to recommence his reign of terror on the anniversary of his last kill.

All of which would be great fun if it were delivered with appropriate gusto. Dyall is sepulchral enough, God knows, though he apparently never read the script, only his own lines — when the heroic reporter describes Fell’s strange mannerism of drawing in a breath like a hiss after each sentence, we’re like, Huh? He doesn’t do that. Director Godfrey Grayson ought presumably to have alerted his star to a little thing like that, but apparently preferred the quiet life.

I like this dissolve from Dyall to fireworks though, courtesy of stalwart Hammer editor James Needs ~

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I do not like thee, Dr. Fell

The reason why I cannot tell

But this I know and know full well

I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.

The poem, attributed to Tom Brown, is quoted, and clearly ties in with the work of John Dixon Dickson Carr, master of the locked room mystery, whose most celebrated sleuth was Dr. Gideon Fell, his personality modeled on G.K. Chesterton, another enthusiast of vacuum-sealed puzzles…

The boy reporter at the centre of this is played by Jimmy Hanley, former child star, radio regular and mostly known for comedy. I didn’t realize until recently that he was also father of Jenny Hanley, who memorably got her bum out worked for Hammer in SCARS OF DRACULA. Richard Lester told me he cast her in a series of his “caroselli” commercials in the seventies, and described her as “you know, Jimmy Hanley’s daughter.” Of course, I knew far better idea who she was than I did her celebrated father.

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Also present in the cast is a major figure from another branch of British screen history — Carry On star Charles Hawtrey, camp stick-figure schoolboy, here (mis)cast as the surprisingly butch-sounding “Mike Atkinson.” I always like seeing Hawtrey mistakenly cast in serious films. This one showed up not only the limits of his range, which is narrow but extremely DEEP — camp stick-figure schoolboy is written all the way through him like the lettering in Blackpool rock — but also his lack of anything you might normally consider acting ability. He just stands there and waits for his next line, or an occasional comic reaction. You can tell he’s not listening to anyone else, and why should he? He’s so much better than all this, or different anyway.

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The locked room mystery part of this one is maybe its best feature — it requires a slight cheat, but it’s one that’s fully justified in narrative terms. Difficult to explain without spoilers. Ssss.

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9 Responses to “One Fell Scoop”

  1. Judging from that still, Hawtrey would have made a great Dracula.

  2. A sort of Boy Nosferatu, possibly. If Dracula were whittled from a parsnip.

    The role of the Frankenstein creature in Curse of, nearly went not to Christopher Lee but to the hulking Bernard Bresslaw — another Carry On star.

  3. henryholland666 Says:

    Jimmy Hanley was a good actor, I saw him yesterday in the excellent “The Way Ahead”, unfortunately I saw the truncated (24 minutes were snipped) US version called “The Immortal Battalion”. A bit of a typical “Lads bond together so they can fight the Hun” plotline but there’s some good banter, the actors mesh well, there’s a great scene on a burning boat (with an uncredited Trevor Howard) and the battle at the end is well filmed and edited. Would love to see the British version.

    Charles Hawtrey is indeed a non-actor, the few “Carry On…..” that I’ve seen are proof of that. Love this bit from his Wikipedia entry:

    “Hawtrey hit the headlines after his house caught fire on 5 August 1984.[17] He had gone to bed with a much younger man and had left a cigarette burning on his sofa. Newspaper photographs from the time show a fireman carrying an emotional, partially clothed and toupee-less Hawtrey down a ladder to safety.[18]”

    He would have been horrified to be seen without his toupee.

    Of course, as a huge fan of The Smiths, I know him best for being one of their cover stars:

  4. Hawtrey’s not so much an actor as an amazing human special effect — he fits right into the Carry Ons, and seems oddly real and normal, since everyone else is so extreme — though Kenneth Williams, Hatttie Jacques et al were genuine, talented actors, not just grotesques.

    I’ve been meaning to catch up with The Way Ahead for ages. The late Raymond Durgnat had an imaginative reading of the ending which I’ll be sure to reference if I write about it.

  5. Sounds like fun, thanks, really must track down a copy. A couple fo small suggested amends – the play by Allingham was for BBC radio, not TV, and Carr’s middle name was Dickson, not Dixon … Dyall of course was the star of APPOINTMENT WITH FEAR / THE MAN IN BLACK, created and mostly written by Carr.

  6. Ah, I was confusing John Dickson Carr with Carter Dixon… who was the same person.

    Dyall was a favourite figure of fun for Spike Milligan, as he always seemed completely aloof from the absurdity around him, a kind of thin male Margaret Dumont.

  7. Barry Burns Says:

    Hawtrey did play Dracula, sort of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5RCOiSwPJc

  8. Jonathan Rigby Says:

    Just watched this film again, after a long interval, last night. Yes, a bit stodgy, to say the least. Of Hammer’s two early ‘house’ directors, Francis Searle was always a better bet than Godfrey Grayson … Though even here, Hammer show a tiny bit of the nous they would later perfect – in the ‘pass-the-port’ frame story, the main figure is an *American*, which certainly isn’t the case in, say, Ivan Barnett’s The Fall of the House of Usher … One small thing. Jenny Hanley didn’t get her bum out in Scars of Dracula, that was Delia Lindsay. And then Bob Todd chased her bum up the stairs. If only it had been Charles Hawtrey!

  9. Not like me to miscredit a bum. Apologies to all concerned!

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