Friday, November 21, 2008

Cloudburst (Exclusive/Hammer/United Artists, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually settled in and I ran him a 1951 British thriller called Cloudburst, whose title has only the most peripheral connection to its action but which otherwise turned out to be pretty good. The setting is 1946 London, where John Graham (Robert Preston, drawn as a Canadian émigré to explain his utter lack of a British accent) is a high official in the British codebreaking department. (They’re still using chalkboards and what look like paper plates with individual letters written on them to break codes; the real British codebreaking office during World War II had access to the world’s first electronic computer but that was probably a fact the British government didn’t want their filmmakers advertising.)

Though the war is over, the codebreaking office is still important because some of the key pieces of evidence in the ongoing war-crimes trials are contained in coded enemy documents. Graham is happily married to Carol (Elizabeth Sellars, who’s second-billed even though her character is killed off 21 minutes into this 81-minute movie — so Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho wasn’t the first movie to use that gimmick!), who is pregnant with their first child, and their lives seem to be going on an even keel until one fateful night when Carol goes driving off on an errand, John decides to walk along the road on which she will return and meet her — he also wants to show off a patch of land next to their house which he plans to buy and convert into an athletic field for his son (he’s assumed their child will be a boy even though in 1951 there was no way to tell pre-natally like there is now — future audiences watching old movies with birth scenes in which the filmmakers deliberately built up the is-it-a-boy-or-a-girl suspense will just be scratching their heads and going, “Don’t they know already? Didn’t they do amniocentesis?”).

First a constable comes along to warn them that a Bonnie-and-Clyde like criminal couple, Mickey Fraser (Harold Lang) and Lorna Dawson (Sheila Burrell) are on the run from having shot a lighthouse keeper earlier that night; then Carol tells John that if she were ever killed like that, she’d want him to hunt down the perpetrators and find them before the law did; then Bonnie and Clyde — oops, I mean Mickey and Lorna — duly appear, run down Carol while she’s standing in the road (unable to flee because with a baby inside her she can’t run fast enough, and she trips and falls) and then back up over her just to make sure that she’s dead. John contacts some of his old resistance buddies — just where they fought in the resistance is never made clear, since Britain itself was never occupied during World War II, but it was a sufficiently traumatic experience that John met his wife there after she’d been tortured by the Nazis and associated the whole effort with the darkest part of his life until his wife was murdered) — for help in locating Mickey and Lorna, and when he finds them he hasn’t the slightest intention of turning them over to the authorities.

No: he goes after Mickey in his car and runs him over the way he had run over Carol, and he’s determined to get to Lorna too even though the police — who caught on that the murderer was a codebreaker when they found a coded message on Carol’s body (it was a list of birthday presents for her John had presented her, in code, so she wouldn’t know what they were until he gave them to her) — have already fixed on John as a suspect. Cloudburst has its faults, including a somewhat slow exposition during which you can all too readily see the imaginary curtains falling (the film was written by Francis Searle, who also directed, but the basis was a play of the same name by Leo Marks, a former codebreaker in real life) and a rather miscast Robert Preston (the role really cried out for Bogart!), but on the whole it’s surprisingly edgy for a British thriller of the period and staged effectively and movingly, a bit placidly paced but even that’s in line with the generally greater interest in character than thrills that British directors went for in stories like this.