Monday, December 03, 2007

The Blue Lamp

The TV spin-off is a curious beast. It has evolved from successful films (‘The Odd Couple’, ‘M*A*S*H’), unsuccessful films (‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’) and frankly indifferent films (‘Stargate’).

‘The Blue Lamp’ (1950) has to be one of the strangest examples. Its spin-off, ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, features a protagonist who dies halfway through the original movie.
Ostensibly, ‘The Blue Lamp’ is about a young idealistic recruit to the police force, Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley), and the ersatz father-son relationship between him and his mentor, George Dixon (Jack Warner). When Dixon is gunned down, his protégé learns some hard lessons about life and death.

As such, it’s a schizophrenic viewing experience. The rose-tinted protrayal of friendly bobbies on the beat (they rehearse a male voice choir when they’re not busy keeping the streets safe) sits cheek by jowl with the snivelling nastiness of its villain, Tom Riley (Bogarde). In an early scene, Riley terrorizes his girlfriend, Diana (Peggy Evans), by waving a gun at her; later, concerned that she might rat him out, he attempts to strangle her.

The script, by former copper T.E.B. Clarke, opens on Diana, a teenage runaway; a screed of voice-over exposition inform us she is one of many dissolute young people, losing her way in post-war England, the social climate breeding a new kind of criminal: the juvenile delinquent. John Boulting’s Graham Greene adaptation ‘Brighton Rock’, starring Richard Attenborough as straight-razor wielding delinquent Pinkie, was released three years earlier and covers similar territory. (It’s worth noting that, when the films were made, Bogarde and Attenborough were 29 and 24 respectively – older than the teenage demographic to which the expression ‘juvenile delinquent’ broadly refers.)

Riley commits two robberies during the course of the film - at a jewellers and a cinema respectively - coshing a police constable as he scarpers from the former; and bludgeoning a doorman at the latter, for no other reason than the poor fellow’s presence in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Having relieved the picture palace of its box office takings, Riley encounters the granite-faced - and unarmed - Dixon. The scene that follows is a classic by anybody’s standards, shocking to audiences of the time and still powerful today.

Riley, polo-neck sweater pulled up to obscure his face, eyes bulging with fear, faces up to Dixon.

Riley: Get back.

Dixon: Drop that and don’t be a fool. Drop it, I say.

Riley: I’ll drop you! [Dixon advances] Get back. This thing works! Get back!

Two shots ring out and Dixon falls.

Immediately establishing himself as the most hissable villain of 1950, Bogarde proves himself the best thing in the film by a mile. His acting is naturalistic and effectively nuanced. While Warner and Hanley give one-note performances (and Evans is just plain histrionic), Bogarde gets under Riley’s skin. As the actor himself noted:

It was the first time I came near to giving a cinema performance of in any kind of depth: I think it had some light and shade, whereas the work which had gone before was cardboard and one dimensional … It had never, of course, occurred to me before … but the people I played had minds, of some sort of another, and I became completely absorbed in trying to find those minds and offer them up to the camera. - Dirk Bogarde, ‘Snakes and Ladders’, chapter 6.

The second half of ‘The Blue Lamp’ deals with the aftermath of Dixon’s death following a period of hospitalisation. A poster in the squad room announces that the male voice choir concert is cancelled. Riley’s pistol is recovered from a bomb site*. CID – led by Bernard Lee (later to find fame as M in the Bond films) – gets involved. Riley is tracked down to the White City dog-tracks. A sergeant bursts into the canteen and calls for all available men; “Aw, come on, sarge,” someone protests, “we’ve only just got in.” The sergeant dismisses his protestation, saying “They’re onto the bastard that shot George Dixon” (the first time this particular expletive had been used in a mainstream British film). Mitchell, grim-faced, leads a team of officers; they move remorselessly in on Riley.

In these closing scenes, you get the sense that this is more in line with T.E.B. Clarke’s sensibilities than the earlier jocularity, chummily avuncular bobbies and ubiquitous cups of tea. However, British audiences in the 1950s just weren’t ready for the real deal – as evidenced by the unflagging popularity (and ubiquitous cups of tea) of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, which ran for over 400 episodes between 1955 and 1976. Amazingly, the show was in its last year when ‘The Sweeney’ exploded across the small screen and completely revolutionised the portrayal of the police force. Dixon would have turned in his grave at the exploits of Jack Regan and co … but I reckon Riley would still have pulled his gun and chanced it.

*My friend and fellow blogger Mike, of Troubled Diva fame, recalls his mother’s brush with movie stardom as one of the little girls in this scene in a wonderfully entertaining post.

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