Each volume of The Edgar Wallace Mysteries on DVD contains a bonus film made by the same studio. For the first volume it was the thoroughly watchable but slightly depressing October Moth, and for the second volume it was The White Trap, a film about a man who tries to escape imprisonment and goes on the run. It was the film that has stuck in my mind the most from the second DVD set, and I think the same will happen again with Breakout, an excellent film that covers some of the same ground as The White Trap, because it is about a prison break. However, the focus of attention this time is not the criminal on the run, but the men who are being paid to get him out, and how they achieve that task.
Canadian actor Lee Patterson, who played Finlay in October Moth, is back to play another lead role in Breakout, although that sentence is back to front because these have been released in reverse order on the DVDs and Breakout actually predates October Moth by a year. It could hardly be a more different role, showing Patterson’s versatility as an actor. Finlay was mentally ill and emotional, but George Munro is the polar opposite. He is the one character who seems to have everything under control. There is a wonderful moment of irony when his boss in the town planning office where he works lectures him on the importance of attention to detail and how that determines the success or failure of any endeavour. Little does he know that George is planning a crime that relies entirely on attention to detail for its success.
It’s absolutely fascinating watching George’s plan coming together, as he works meticulously on a scale model, and manoeuvres himself into a position where he can carry out his plan. He seems to have a fail-safe scheme and has thought of every possible detail, and the joy of a story like that is seeing how it all collapses due to unforeseen circumstances. If there’s a theme of this film, it’s that however much attention you pay to the detail, life will always throw unexpected surprises at you, to derail the best laid plans. The really clever bit is how the writer introduces so many red herrings en route, things that we think are going wrong, only for George to get away with them at the last second, which keeps on raising the tension levels. He arrives on the day of the escape to find that the delivery van he had planned to use is being serviced, and the replacement vehicle has a fixed down toolbox right where the fake compartment needs to be fitted, an almost literal spanner in the works. The prison guards are frustratingly diligent at their job, never letting him out of their sight for a second and repeatedly checking the vehicle. Worst of all, the engine keeps threatening not to start. It’s a bit of a cheat on the part of the writer, because the company running the vans employs a full-time mechanic with nothing else to do than apparently make sure two vehicles run smoothly, so it’s a slightly odd use of that well-worn trope of a vehicle struggling to start at a crucial moment (something every horror film fan will be very familiar with), but it certainly does its job here at getting the viewer biting the nails.
This is a film that is let down by the ending, to a certain extent. The writer was clearly trying to communicate his message that no amount of preparation will avoid the unforeseen problems, but yet George does overcome all those hitches on the day, and instead he is let down by his accomplices, who behave in a rather odd manner at times. The most frustrating example is the getaway car. Once the escaped prisoner has been transferred to that vehicle, it should have been a good job successfully completed, so why does the driver then go speeding around the streets, nearly knocking over a policeman who of course makes a note of the car’s description and registration number? If the getaway car had quietly driven away, the trail the police were following would have stopped at the abandoned van. The twist at the end of the film is equally frustrating and prosaic. So the writer never quite follows through with his idea of a man who obsesses over the details being brought to justice because he couldn’t think of everything. Instead it all hinges on a few people behaving like fools, which is nowhere near as satisfying as this film could have been.
I’m not complaining though, because Breakout is a great hour of solid entertainment. I haven’t even mentioned the other actors yet, because Lee Patterson is just so compelling to watch in the lead role, but we also have William Lucas and Terence Alexander as two very different gentleman crooks, and Dermot Kelly providing the comedy as O’Quinn, a man who is trying to get himself arrested so he can be the man on the inside. The fight he starts in a pub is the highlight of the film. Keep an eye out for the darts players who try to continue their game, surrounded by complete chaos. One of them scores a triple twenty when somebody bumps into him as he is throwing the dart. Maybe that one little comedy moment sums up the film: you can plan and prepare all you like, but luck will often have the final say. RP
My series of Edgar Wallace Mysteries film reviews will be return in January. Next Sunday we return to Columbo for the third season.