Never Back Losers is an unusual entry into the Edgar Wallace Mysteries series of films. There is no detective, and for much of the film I didn’t think there was going to be a murder either. Despite that, I found this one just as entertaining as the murder mysteries, if not more so.
Instead of a detective we have Jim Matthews, an insurance claims investigator. This is his first assignment away from a desk in an office, a life he wasn’t well-suited for. Perhaps due to his military background, he’s keen to get out and about and do a job out in the real world, rather than shuffling papers around a desk. The case he is sent on concerns a jockey who has thrown a race, had a car accident in suspicious circumstances, and is now trying to claim on an insurance policy that was taken out just three days before his accident. By poking his nose into the world of race fixing, betting and criminal violence, it’s pretty obvious Jim is walking into danger, and yet his boss seems shocked when he gets on the phone to him after having just been beaten up himself. I’m not quite sure what he was expecting to happen to his employee, sending him straight into the lion’s den.
Jim is a very interesting character, though, and the element of danger doesn’t put him off one little bit. Never for a second does he consider going back to the office with is tail between his legs, even when he has just been beaten up by henchmen and warned that worse is to come for him. He’s a great character to watch. It’s not so much that he doesn’t realise he’s immediately out of his depth. He doesn’t care. Nothing seems to scare him much (again, probably his military background) and he shows a remarkable level of determination. I’m not sure if it’s even a drive to get to the truth or to do what’s right. His motivation seems more like a combination of a competitive instinct, not wanting to lose the fight, a desire to do what’s right, and perhaps most importantly wanting to be a success at a job that is something other than sitting behind a desk. Having said that, he doesn’t seem to be particularly bothered about what his boss thinks about him once he’s on the case, so there’s also an element of a man who is single-minded almost to the point of being blinkered. Once he’s set himself on this course, there’s no turning him back from it. I’m not sure what we are supposed to take from that. I hesitate to say there’s a message here that persistence pays off, because he does get beaten up rather badly along the way, but he does save another jockey from the same fate as poor old Wally… just.
The reason it’s such a close run thing is that Jim’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness: his single-mindedness. When he eventually gets to meet crime boss Ben Black, he has already made his mind up that he’s the culprit, and he’s like a dog with a bone. It’s pretty obvious right from the start that Black is telling the truth when he says somebody got to Wally first. He’s got little reason to lie about that with Jim at his mercy at that point, and he’s not even a policeman. It also would have made little sense for Black to have Jim beaten up to warn him off, and then have another of his employees take him in, clean him up, and bring him to see him for a cosy game of cards. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out at that point that he should be turning his attentions to the man who sent him on this wild goose chase, and is far from being the helpful innocent businessman he appeared to be: Burnside. So Jim comes across as a bit of an idiot and never turns away from the course he has set for himself. In the end, he is only saved by a bit of luck, and the integrity of the replacement jockey.
So we might have a bit of a muddled message in terms of the hero of the week, but I can’t deny that his misadventures are hugely entertaining, leaving aside the slightly tedious shoehorned-in romance. Jack Hedley makes for a watchable protagonist as Jim, but Patrick Magee really brings the film to life as smooth talking criminal Ben Black; what a great character. As is commonplace with these films, justice is carried out swiftly and without the need for a court case and a prison sentence, and it’s deliciously ironic to see the man who thought he was being so clever with a veiled threat to Jim about being careful on his steep steps, ending up at the bottom of them himself. I can’t claim to have even the remotest interest in the world of betting on horses, but this film raced through a gripping story, grabbed my attention right from the start, and never let go until the finishing line. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Edgar Wallace Mysteries: The Sinister Man
When the story doesn’t have a professional detective, but instead a person or group of people who (like in The Black Cat and The Last Of Sheila) discover their own unexperienced potentials to solve whodunnits, then it may often prove to be particularly more exciting. As for the casting of Patrick Magee, knowing his distinction from A Clockwork Orange, The Monster Club and the first I saw of Brian Clemens’ Thriller: A Killer In Every Corner, where he was the heinously unethical Professor Carnaby, he’s a fine reminder of how mysteries attract great casting. This one also includes Derek Francis whom we remember from his portrayal of Emperor Nero on Dr. Who. British talents earn unrivaled recognition in this regard as many UK mystery shows remind us all from Prime Suspect to Vera.
Thank you, RP, for your review.
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These are certainly good for those who like to spot Doctor Who actors in other roles. There’s one in particular coming up on the blog later this year that is packed full of Doctor Who actors.
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I look forward to it.
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I don’t have any personal interest either in the world of betting on horses. But it certainly makes a good source for dramatic material in mysteries as I’ve learned. And indeed when some corruption is involved behind the scenes of the betting world. It may be among the most reusable elements in mysteries and Never Back Losers as one of the earliest examples can therefore attract that interest in such genres on the Junkyard.
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