They Met in the Dark offers James Mason as a romantic leading man in a thriller. For that one alone, it’s worth a look, but also because it’s an incredibly peculiar film. Not overall, unfortunately, because it descends into a routine wartime propaganda bit about fifth columnists–the details of the sinister plot are very familiar to anyone who’s seen 1930s Hitchcock films. But the point isn’t the plot–it takes some ludicrous turns–but the amusing turn… it reminds, especially at the beginning, of the Hollywood comedy mystery (maybe not a Thin Man but a Thin Man knock-off). It’s fun….
But, nicely, there’s more.
Something about the British filmmaking–even though Lamac was a Bohemian–makes They Met in the Dark quite different. It’s set in the small British village, in the small British pub, in the strange British country home, all staples of Hollywood films… seeing the British make a Hollywood film using those tropes makes for a constantly interesting viewing experience. Until the movie goes for the fifth columnists angle, which it doesn’t for quite a while and takes a little bit to get there even when it’s close, anything is possible and that possibility promises, unfortunately, more than They Met in the Dark delivers.
While Mason is great, once he’s got the girl–which happens a lot sooner than a) it should and b) it’s useful for the plot–his performance changes. It’s standard instead of singular. Mason gives such a wonderfully enigmatic performance–he is the protagonist–I kept suspecting him, along with the romantic interest, even though I knew it wasn’t him.
The female lead, Joyce Howard, is all wrong. She was twenty-one at the time of the film’s release–it was not her first role–her performance is too immature. It doesn’t fit the character’s actions. Phyllis Stanley, in the second female lead, is real good, so the contrast doesn’t help either. I mean, at the end–after I knew it wasn’t going to be Mason–I kept waiting for him to switch love interests, just because he and Howard are all wrong together. He and Stanley had three really nice scenes… Howard was only effective with him when she suspected he was a murderer.
Edward Rigby, David Farrar, Tom Walls, all good in supporting roles. Brefni O’Rorke has some funny scenes–he’s one of the characters who transitions from mystery comedy to wartime thriller the best.
The movie’s limited, obviously, by the plot and the genre, but there’s a lot good about it. Worth a look. The first twenty or thirty minutes are quite nice.
Directed by Carl Lamac; screenplay by Anatole de Grunwald and Miles Malleson, from on a story by Basil Bartlett, Victor MacLure and James Seymour, based on a novel by Anthony Gilbert; director of photography, Otto Heller; edited by Winifred Cooper and Terence Fisher; music by Benjamin Frankel; produced by Marcel Hellman; released by General Film Distributors.
Starring James Mason (Richard Francis Heritage), Joyce Howard (Laura Verity), Tom Walls (Christopher Child), Phyllis Stanley (Lily Bernard), Edward Rigby (Mansel), Ronald Ward (Carter), David Farrar (Commander Lippinscott), Karel Stepanek (Riccardo), Betty Warren (Fay) and Walter Crisham (Charlie).