A few entries into this series of Edgar Wallace B Movies recently have not really been murder mysteries, and once again we are into the realms of a crime thriller here rather than a mystery. That gives us only two things to care about when we watch Number Six: the identity of the undercover agent working for the police, and whether or not the latest intended victim will survive.
Charles Valentine (Ivan Desny) is a serial killer, in the opinion of Det. Supt. Hallett (Michael Goodliffe). He has formed relationships with five different wealthy young women over the last few years, and all of them ended up dead, while Valentine made off with a chunk of their money. The problem is, he always has a cast-iron alibi. Small-time crook Jimmy Gale (Brian Bedford) wants in on the action, realising that Valentine must always have an accomplice in order to have an alibi for his crimes, and this is an opportunity to learn from the best and earn a huge amount of money in the process. He proves himself by saving Valentine from an attacker, killing him, and disposing of the body. Now the rich young heiress Nadia Leiven (Nadja Regin) is on Valentine’s radar, and he has somebody to help him commit his latest crime.
The question of whether Nadia will survive or not is far from being the most interesting aspect of this film, which instead revolves strongly around the unknown identity of the secret agent. It doesn’t help that Nadia is apparently a deeply unpleasant and self-absorbed individual, so it is hard to care too much what becomes of her. She is also apparently doing everything to place herself in danger, agreeing to go alone to Valentine’s secret country retreat, even after Hallett just told her about his history with women. Readers who have watched this film will realise why I am having to mention Nadia’s personality and actions with the qualifier “apparently”, and that ties in with the big twist in the tail. If you haven’t watched this one, major spoilers will follow from the next paragraph, so if you’re just looking for a recommendation then this is a very good entry in the Edgar Wallace Mysteries series. Go and watch it and then come back.
So the really gripping part of this film is trying to figure out who is “Number Six”, the secret agent. Considering the running time, the writer manages to include quite a few highly effective red herrings. The butler (Leonard Sachs) is a strong contender, as is Jimmy of course, whose motives are always uncertain, but are really thrown into doubt when it turns out that the original attack on Valentine was staged and the victim is alive and well. He’s a magnificently slippery customer. I had an inkling that Number Six was going to turn out to be Nadia, but was constantly distracted from that thought by all the intrigue with Jimmy, and the revelation of why she was codenamed Number Six was a great twist at the end. It seems so obvious when you know, but the thought of connecting that with the five previous victims never crossed my mind. After a quick trawl around the handful of reviews of Number Six on the internet, I didn’t feel quite so bad. With admirable honesty, every reviewer I can find admitted that the twist ending was entirely unexpected and thoroughly effective.
The interesting question is why the twist works so well? I have to reluctantly admit that I think it relies to a large extent on the viewer’s assumption that the agent is going to be a man. That alone will place Nadia well down the list of possibilities, in the mind of the viewer. Now, that’s an excuse for a viewer in 1962, isn’t it, but what about today? Actually, I think the hidden identity of Number Six works even better nowadays, and that’s because we watch with the assumption that the societal norms of 1962 will apply to a 1962 film. And here’s the thing: we don’t understand what that means any more. Our view of the 1960s as a male-dominated society is deeply entrenched, but once you start watching television and film from the era you quickly realise that it’s an exaggeration, at least on this side of the pond (having suffered through the horrendously sexist original Star Trek, I have to make that distinction for now, sorry). I’m not saying for one moment that there wasn’t inequality, but if you think the idea of a female undercover operative was foreign to 1960s Britain, have a look at The Avengers. To illustrate how the exaggeration has taken hold, think about Doctor Who. It started with a female producer, and proceeded to show us a succession of positive female role models, with the early 80s actually the worst time for the portrayal of women on the show. And yet when the First Doctor returned in 2017, he became a caricature of 60s sexism in the hands of writer Steven Moffat, a distortion of 1960s Doctor Who that never existed. In fact, sexism was so rare in 60s Who that documentary makers have been forced to show the only clip they can find of a companion being told to make a cup of tea, ignoring the fact that it is an essential plot point that leads to everyone’s lives being saved, but that clip is joyfully used out of context to illustrate something that was never actually the case. So I think this is one small example of a wider issue: we have been conditioned to view the relatively recent past in a slightly heightened manner. It’s not that we’ve bought into a lie. Things were clearly bad in terms of equality, but an extra layer of exaggeration has been added to our understanding of the decade. Perhaps we have learnt to see things a little too much in black and white. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Time to Remember