We’ve been here before with the Edgar Wallace Mysteries series of B movies: a story of the battle between two groups of criminals. Previously this has tended to be big, organised crime vs small time crooks, but this time we have two big crime bosses in opposition to each other.
Our perspective characters, and therefore the ones we are led down the path of rooting for, are Joe Armstrong (Cec Linder) and his sidekick Larry (Nigel Davenport). Joe is recently returned from the USA, but he has made the mistake of using the fingerprints of a murder victim to obtain a passport, leading to him being swiftly arrested. Larry owes Joe a debt of gratitude for getting him off a charge many years ago, so he is his faithful friend, and sets about figuring out how to pervert the course of justice by intercepting the jury summons letters and substituting jurors who will acquit Joe. It’s quite interesting watching him figure out how to do that, but there are two thorns in his side. Firstly, Joe’s girlfriend Carola (Zena Marshall) is one of those femme fatales this movie series likes to show us, and she is sticking to Larry like glue and trying to seduce him. Secondly, a rival gang led by Danny Thorne (Paul Stassino) is concerned about Joe taking over their patch, which he has given them good reason to think will happen, and sets about gathering evidence of what Larry is up to, eventually threatening to take the stolen jury summons letters to the police unless Joe pays a £50,000 joining fee and becomes part of Danny’s crime operation. Joe therefore ends up with little choice other than to write a cheque for cash and entrust it to Carola.
On a basic level, every drama needs a protagonist and an antagonist, the protagonist being the person we root for, so it is important that the hero of the piece is likeable in some way (or a likeable anti-hero can also work well). In a crime drama the protagonist is generally the detective and the antagonist the criminal. In The Edgar Wallace Mysteries, the detective is often such a minor character as to make no impact on the story at all, or alternatively can be simply a thorn in the side of the entertaining scoundrel we are watching, taking on more of an antagonist role. This is one of those where the police barely feature, so our protagonist is the criminal we are supposed to like, and our antagonist is the one we are supposed to dislike. With Joe locked up in a cell for most of the film, our main protagonist is his loyal friend Larry, who is nearly always at the centre of the story being told (and plays the hero by rescuing Carola from the clutches of his enemies), and our main antagonist is Danny. Paul Stassino is perfect for the sneaky villain role. He has played plenty of those and knows exactly what he is doing with a role like this.
Despite being a criminal, Larry works really well as our main hero character throughout the film, because of his principles. Honour among thieves can easily create a hero where a drama really has no right to have one of those, on a superficial level. He is loyal to Joe and avoids Carola’s advances. He is set in opposition to Danny, who is sneaky and underhanded in comparison. Towards the end we get a massive twist when the jury deliver their verdict, led by Larry who has managed to get himself installed as one of their members, and for a while it looks like we were wrong about Larry and £50,000 was enough to override his moral compass and send his friend to the gallows, but then it turns out that he was actually standing by his principles in a way we had not realised:
“I’ve been conning all my life, but I can’t stomach murder.”
The big problem with these films is that the writers never feel like they can allow a criminal to triumph over the law. As sure as night following day, a policeman has to turn up at the end to arrest Larry at the airport. I think, in that respect, the writer tries to have his cake and eat it. We are taken to a point where we root for a criminal, in opposition to other criminals, and in the absence of any other real heroes it’s only natural that we are swept along for the ride. Then we are supposed to find his downfall satisfying because he’s a criminal being caught by the police. It can’t work both ways, and ultimately films of this nature always leave us with a nagging feeling of being cheated, as if we have fallen victim to a writer’s confidence trick. With one of the least likeable characters heading off into the sunset with the money, my verdict is that this crime drama is a misadventure. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Edgar Wallace Mysteries: We Shall See