Solo for Sparrow is one of the best known Edgar Wallace Mysteries films, simply because it has Michael Caine in the cast, in an early role before he was famous. After his success in Zulu and The Ipcress File, the film was released in the USA, four years after its original UK release, with Caine’s name above the title. At least, I think that’s what happened, although the only source I can find for that information is a RadioTimes review which is riddled with mistakes. If it’s true, it’s something of an absurd moment in film history, because Caine is hardly in this at all, playing a minor role as a crook called Paddy, the obligatory name for any Irishman in a film of this period, and frankly he’s awful in it, making a dodgy attempt at an Irish accent. Considering he was already an established actor, although not yet famous, it’s odd to find Caine in a film where he’s the only one letting the side down.
Everyone else in this is great. It’s tempting to see the world through a Doctor Who lens, and I realise not everyone is interested in that, but I can’t resist mentioning that Solo for Sparrow is an absolute treat for anyone who enjoys finding familiar Doctor Who guest actors in other roles, with Glyn Houston, Jack May, Neil McCarthy, William Gaunt, Wanda Ventham… actually no fewer than eight recognisable faces from Doctor Who, plus a very young Murray Melvin as a bonus for the Torchwood fans. I’ve seen him in a couple of early 1960s roles lately, and he’s such a great actor that I’m wondering why he has never quite become a household name. He’s certainly better than Michael Caine.
Although Anthony Newlands gets top billing as the leader of the criminal gang, the most important role here is actually Inspector Sparrow, played by Glyn Houston. As I have mentioned before, several of these Edgar Wallace Mysteries aren’t actually mysteries, and here is a prime example. Like a Columbo episode, we are shown the crime taking place in detail, and the drama springs from the question of how the policeman will piece everything together and catch the criminals. There is one little twist, partway through, which reveals an unknown accomplice. It’s not exactly a massive surprise, but it does work quite well because the character in question is so respectable and calm that he seems like a very unlikely criminal.
At times this verges on a 007-esque story, although lacking a 007 budget of course. Sparrow is very quickly acting as a rogue element, when his boss decides to hand over the case to Scotland Yard and send him off on a couple of weeks’ leave. He basically turns into a vigilante, embarking on his own unofficial investigation, and becomes a rather unlikely Bond-like hero, even getting a scene where he kisses a young lady to hide his face from a criminal. Nadja Regin is back again, perhaps a little too soon after Number Six, to add a bit of dangerous beauty to the proceedings as yet another glamorous criminal, although she doesn’t have a huge amount to do here, but that’s the pattern of this film. Several great actors show up for just one or two scenes.
The action builds up to a great finale, with Sparrow trapped in a remote location with criminals who are going to kill him if they can. You have to switch your brains off to a certain extent, because he has his handcuffs removed for no apparent reason and appears to be imprisoned in a room with flimsy window frames that could very easily be prised open (if they are even locked somehow, which is highly unlikely), and yet he figures out a very elaborate scheme to escape. Then he lets his captors know exactly what he has done over the phone, and they keep one of the gang back to block the line so he can’t phone for help (rather cleverly, I thought). The tension is then built up because he has only ten minutes before the gang return to kill him, and from that point onwards he makes some very odd decisions. He’s not actually imprisoned by then, and you can go quite a long way in any direction in ten minutes, and yet he chooses to stay put. When they return, he takes the keys out of their car, when he could have just got in and driven off. This only makes sense if you rationalise it as a man who is determined to take on the entire gang himself, pitting his policeman’s mind against their criminal cunning. In the end, the best he can come up with is to wield a chicken as a weapon, and he’s just lucky help shows up when it does.
As is often the case, the story suffers a little from being compressed into a one-hour format. We could have done with a lot more focus on Baker, who is such an unlikely criminal that he really needed more of a backstory to explain his motive, and there is a missed opportunity to focus on his feelings of guilt after the unintended death of a nice old lady he had worked with for many years. He comes across as oddly emotionless. Sparrow speaks to him with a total lack of tact, and I wondered if that should have been a fragment of a bigger plot point where he suspects Baker and is looking for a reaction, but without the necessary time to allow the characters to breathe, it just comes across as callous:
“I think we’ve found Miss Martin.”
“Where is she?”
“In the mortuary.”
What a way to tell somebody that his co-worker of many years is dead, and then he just walks off. So, as per usual, these films are generally best watched without taking them too seriously, and this one flies by and reaches a very entertaining and exciting climax. I still feel sorry for the chicken, though. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Playback