Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Review: Nowhere To Go (1958)

Seth Holt's Nowhere to Go is a rare excursion into film noir for Ealing Studios. The stylish and gritty tale of deception was scripted by first time-director Holt and film critic Ken Tynan. Often described as the “least Ealing film ever made" and starring a BAFTA nominated Maggie Smith in her film debut, Nowhere to Go is finally released on DVD for the first time and in its original 100 minute form.

George Nader stars as Paul Gregory, a thief and charismatic conman who has come to London from Canada in a bid to steal a rare coin collection from a wealthy, yet vulnerable Harriet Jefferson, played by Bessie Love. Having sold the coins, Gregory stores the money in a secured safe deposit facility and waits for the police to catch up with him and serve the anticipated five year prison sentence. Unexpectedly, Gregory is sentenced to ten years, so with the help of an accomplice, Victor Sloan (Bernard Lee), he breaks free with the grand plan of retrieving the money and leaving the country. All is not as simple as it seems as he encounters various obstacles along the way, in the form of accidents and double crosses that send Gregory spinning through London's criminal underworld, before he ends up on the run through the welsh countryside with accidental sidekick socialite Bridget Howard, played by Maggie Smith...

 The film begins with immediate suspense in an excellent 9-minute introduction that shows Paul Gregory escaping from his prison cell. Gregory and his accomplice are lone figures in a gritty urban landscape, the sharp contrasts of dark upon darkness and the clarity of the shadows created with the outstanding cinematography of Paul Beeson. The intro is incredibly stylish with shadows creeping up walls and lurking around corners, the silence is broken only by the echo of an approaching footstep or the sound of a distant train. The scale of the prison set is huge and makes the escapee, in scale looks the size of a mouse. Immediately, Holt throws in all of the ingredients required of a film noir. Its position in the genre is affirmed confidently by Dizzy Reece's perfectly compatible jazz score that culminates with an explosion and a cacophony of alarming bells, a sound that will continue to haunt Gregory throughout.

 There is a play with the chronology as we follow in flashback how Gregory came to be imprisoned. Thus giving Nader the opportunity to demonstrate his charm by manipulating the ageing and vulnerable socialite Harriet Jefferson, played emphatically Ealing-like by Bessie Love. As he charms his way to her husband's priceless collection of old coins, he dually charms the audience, with his sly smile and confident demeanour. The sequence is flawless and conversation flows as the scenes change, thus speeding up the criminal history without dwelling on minor details. Hollywood leading man Nader, was cast in the lead role as a means of increasing the commercial appeal of the film and he does an incredible job with charisma oozing from every pore, in every scene. Even though you are aware of his deceitful ways, it's impossible not to fall for his charismatic charms, this is helped somewhat by the sharp writing of the screenplay and the suarve demonstration of resourcefulness in the scene in which he develops the a club-foot whilst dealing with the bank. His reason for this is because he says, "nobody looks a cripple in the face." Paul Gregory was the Kayser Soze of his time.

As the film proceeds, the cool exterior becomes heated with panic as there is a shift in his position from fugitive to murderer, he emanates panic. The pheromones of which attract Maggie Smith in a fantastic debut. Smith plays Bridget Howard with a sense of adventure. A socialite, self-assured bored of her position and desperately seeking a thrill, she's a real pleasure to watch. From the off, her cool stare intimidates the protagonist and it's a captivating experience as the two fall under one another’s spell. Bridget is the archetypal film noir female, She is subtly defined by her desirable yet dangerous sexuality and an obstacle to the male quest. Gregory's success depends on his ability to extricate himself from Bridget's manipulations. It is clear that her involvement is purely for the thrill. As circumstances escalate, we are reminded of their innocence & the accidental climb up the ladder of villainy, when they hit a dog in their car. They're certainly no Bonnie and Clyde, their devastation demonstrates that and reaffirms the affinity between the runaways and their audience.

First time director Holt, does a wonderfully self assured job of presenting this story. Unlike the majority of film noirs that deal with gangs/gangsters, this one focuses intently on the individual and the battle with his accidental self. This is often demonstrated through the lighting, the split shadows and the deep focus, occasionally making Gregory look all-consumed by his surroundings and suggesting his insignificance and uncertainty as events and situations become magnified and swallow him up. There is little genuine menace in the lead. As he stands in silhouette form, framed by a doorway, watching an elderly lady discuss his whereabouts on the telephone. The two make eye contact, there is fear in the old lady's eyes, yet it is Gregory, who charges down the stairs and runs for his life. He is ultimately harmless and intimidated by the innocence of others.

The entire composition is original and brilliantly stylish. The performances are incredible and you become lost in Gregory's desperation from the off. Each scene is framed beautifully, the sets are illustrious and decadent and the sparse London streets and its gigantic buildings almost swallow Gregory as he's on the run. However, it is the incredible lead performance that binds this film together so perfectly. He is introduced as a manipulative character, but as the story develops, the layers peel away enabling Nader to demonstrate his genius in the sheer vulnerability of the character. Ultimately you cannot help but sympathise with his criminal.

Beautifully directed with sumptuous cinematography and acted with charisma and classic grace. Nowhere to Go may have been a late noir offering from Ealing but it is one of their greatest achievements. This is a lost classic that makes a brilliant and memorable find. Shelved for so long and uncertain of its place in the world, Holt's creation can finally go somewhere.

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