THE FIRE RAISERS is a Michael Powell quota quickie with a couple of familiar names in its credits —
Alfred Junge on art direction: Junge designed several of the great Powell-Pressburger films of the forties, before Powell decided to replace him with costume designer Hein Heckroth. (Junge’s reluctance to place a Coke machine in the anteroom of the afterlife in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH decided Powell that the man was no longer on his wavelength. Still, for a while, Junge was one of the key Germans in Powell’s team.)
Derek Twist on editing: Twist rescued EDGE OF THE WORLD from disaster, in Powell;s view, and later got a directing gig on END OF THE RIVER, although jungle sickness meant he didn’t actually direct for much of it.
Leslie Banks as leading man: apart from being THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH for Hitchcock, Banks would later appear in THE SMALL BACK ROOM. In that mature masterwork, Banks’ prominent facial scarring works fine for his character, an old-school army general. In the Hitchcock, his scar is ignored — British films often seemed indifferent to such things as scars, bad teeth or what we might think of as general physical unsuitability for leading man status. But here, Powell seems to see the scar as a problem, so he shoots Banks’ right profile more or less continuously. Banks always drives his car from left to right, always sits on the left of screen, only turning around in long-shot, and when his face is featured in three-quarter view, Powell has him adopt this pose —
The constant side-views get a bit Dick Tracy for my liking.
The movie itself is entertaining, with Banks as a roguish insurance investigator whose unethical practices eventually slip into wholesale criminality, when he hooks up with arsonist and fraudster Francis L Sullivan (later of NIGHT AND THE CITY fame). Sullivan gives the best performance (oily villainy was his stock-in-trade) but Banks is very good. The detective on their trail, named Twist in order of the film’s cutter, is played by Lawrence Anderson, father of Michael Anderson, who directed THE DAMBUSTERS, LOGAN’S RUN, etc.
Powell shows signs of real creativity a few times. “It’s time we did a fade-out,” says Anderson at one point, and Powell fades to black, a po-mo touch reminiscent of the famous “One is starved for Technicolor up there,” in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. And in this scene, we get a torture-by-mantra moment that recalls the “Is it safe?” routine in MARATHON MAN, as well as the montages of villains that would feature in Sergio Leone’s westerns.
This was Powell’s eleventh film in four years, and he’d hardly had a moment to absorb the lessons being flung at him, but we can definitely see him start to flex his muscles in this one — even if the results are a little ridiculous at times.