Double Confession Review
Three years ago Double Confession was on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list. Compiled to celebrate 75 years of the National Archive, the list was designed to highlight an entire range of British cinema that had, over the years, disappeared from view. There were films from to the 1910s right up until 1983, each being in possession of some particular facet(s) which made them especially interesting to historians of the moving image. Among the missing were early assignments for Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, the big screen debuts of John Gielgud and Max Bygraves, a 1931 adaptation of Hobson’s Choice and a 1968 curio from forgotten talent David Hart. Late last year the BFI provided an update, including news of some rediscoveries. Henri Helman, director of the list’s most recent title Where is Parsifal?, donated his own 35mm print to the Archive, for example. In other cases, archives from abroad had gotten in touch with the BFI to inform them of certain entries’ existence. For some of the films, the absence of celluloid was made up for with other materials: a Spanish promotional item, on-set photographs taken by cast members, even an entire screenplay.
Double Confession was an interesting inclusion on the list insofar as the BFI were aware of some kind of existence given the unofficial DVD copies that exchange hands among British film enthusiasts and collectors – some of whom got in touch following the campaign. What they didn’t have were prints or negatives in the archive which would ensure future preservation. In fact, they still don’t and yet Double Confession has become the first of the 75 Most Wanted to make the transition to commercial DVD thanks to Renown. The last time it was available to the general public, according to the records, was more than 50 years ago, during February 1962, when it played on British televisions on a Wednesday night. Before that the film had also enjoyed a single run in UK cinemas in 1950 and made the transition to the US in 1953.
The reason for Double Confession’s placement on the BFI list was primarily down to its stellar cast list. This was Peter Lorre’s only British outing besides a pair of Hitchcock appearances in the mid-thirties (The Man Who Knew Too Much and Secret Agent) and he was joined by future Doctor Who William Hartnell, quintessential big screen Englishman Naunton Wayne, Hi-de-Hi!’s Punch and Judy man Leslie Dwyer and such prolific performers as Derek Farr and Kathleen Harrison. It was also directed by the equally prolific Ken Annakin and shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, who would later win Academy Awards for his work on Cabaret and Roman Polanski’s Tess.
More important than any of these names and familiar faces is the fact that Double Confession is also very good. Annakin could be a highly wayward director, perhaps owing in part to the sheer range of projects he took on over the years. His filmography is peppered with Leslie Phillips comedies, Disney action-adventures, multi-star war pictures and understated crime flicks. He worked into his late seventies (his final assignment would be to salvage a production of Genghis Khan in 1992 at the age of 78) before retiring in Beverly Hills, but it’s the early years which are among the most interesting and which produced some of the finest works, Double Confession especially.
Annakin entered the film industry having been injured during the Second World War in the Liverpool Blitz. Unable to continue in his role as flight mechanic for the RAF, he was instead stationed in the propaganda division making training films for the Ministry of Information. Moving steadily from camera operator to assistant director to director, his subject matter ranged from road safety to reforestation. Post-war he continued in the documentary field, turning out films on farming (among them the wonderful Fenlands from 1945) and his native Yorkshire, with the switch into fiction – and features – coming with 1947’s Holiday Camp. A huge success with British audiences, it prompted a trio of equally light-hearted spin-offs centring on the Huggett family (Here Come the Huggetts, Vote for Huggett and The Huggetts Abroad), all of which would also be directed by Annakin over the next two years. Add to these the 1948 mermaid comedy Miranda and it becomes hard not to sense that the filmmaker was perhaps a tad worried about becoming pigeonholed.
Indeed, as soon as the Huggett series had finished, Annakin returned to his RAF days for the WWII drama Landfall. Based on a novel by Nevil Shute (A Town Called Alice, On the Beach) the film re-cast a number of performers from his earlier films which only seemed to underline the seriousness – no more comedies for Annakin, or at least not for a little while. Double Confession operates in a similar fashion and can also be read as something of a subversion thanks to its seaside locale. Whereas the holidaying Huggetts prompted all manner of chuckles and japery, here the beachside promenade plays host to moodier goings-on. Mere minutes in and two corpses have already shown up in the vicinity of a secluded seafront cottage.
Double Confession is noir through and through. Its opening shot of Farr disembarking of a train at four o’clock in the morning and emerging from the steam and the shadows is a composition of which John Alton would be proud. Much of the rest of the picture may take place over the course of a particularly sunny summer’s day, yet the overall disposition is anything but. Everyone in this film is either weak, has skeletons in their closet or both. Farr, our leading man, arrives in the fictional town of Seagate (shooting took place in Hastings and Bexhill-on-Sea) a cheated man on the lookout for revenge: his wife has been having affair with Hartnell’s local businessman of dubious character. We should perhaps expect a grandiose turn from Hartnell – all brashness and largesse – yet he’s an edgy man, ill-at-ease despite a certain confidence. Both he and Farr have the potential to become another of noir’s archetypal fall guys, though Lorre is also vying for that spot. Needless to say, the Austrian-American actor brings with him a back catalogue of former roles and associations – Stranger on the Third Floor, The Maltese Falcon, The Mask of Dimitrios, Don Siegel’s The Verdict – all of which bleed into Double Confession. Here he plays Hartnell’s right-hand man, a former drunk who owes his life to his boss.
Further down the cast list we find Wayne’s shabby inspector a far cry from the cricket-obsessed Caldicott he played in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and three subsequent films (and, effectively, played variations of for much of his career). In a much smaller role is Dwyer as a buttoned-up chap on a day trip with his model boat who attracts the advances of Harrison. This particular subplot has nothing whatsoever to do with the main narrative and was perhaps conceived as a bit of comic relief, yet Dwyer comes across as pathetic as his fellow male cast members – a curious man-child with George Formby looks. Not that the female contingent have it much better. Ostensible romantic lead Joan Hopkins (who only had a short-lived career in film, retiring shortly after Double Confession was released) also comes with a less-than-happy backstory. To top things off Benjamin Frankel has provided an especially mournful score, thus maintaining the downbeat mood.
The presence of Frankel, not to mention the likes of Lorre and cinematographer Unsworth (who had recently worked on Scott of the Antarctic), is especially impressive given that Double Confession was an independent production. Harry Reynolds had only a little experience in the film industry – he’d previously set up International Motion Pictures a few years earlier so as to make a trio of ‘old dark house’ quota quickies, including John Gilling’s ghost story Escape from Broadmoor. Yet he somehow managed to secure his leads Farr and Hopkins on ‘loan’ from Associated British Picture Corporation, one of the major film empires of the day, which just goes to show how determined he was in mounting a quality production. (Unfortunately it doesn’t appear to have much of an effect on his standing in the industry. The newly-formed Harry Reynolds Productions made a pair of Old Mother Riley comedies besides Double Confession and a brief musical featurette starring Max Bygraves and the Beverley Sisters before disappearing into the ether.)
Double Confession was adapted from a 1949 novel by John Garden entitled All on a Summer’s Day. Ralph Keene provided the treatment with William Templeton supplying the dialogue. It’s an interesting combination and perhaps key to the film’s success. At the time of production Templeton had only one screen credit to his name, that of additional dialogue on Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol for which Graham Greene had adapted one of his own short stories. In the years following he would build up a somewhat erratic filmography (commentary writer on The Naked World of Harrison Marks, for example) though he did provide a fine adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 in 1955 (the one starring Edmund O’Brien, Michael Redgrave and Donald Pleasence) that showed off a knack for bringing the essentials to the big screen. Keene, meanwhile, had a background in documentary and had produced a number of Annakin’s non-fiction efforts. Over time he became increasingly involved in natural history films, though a similar observational tone could also be detected in titles such as his classic British Transport Films outing, Under Night Streets. Indeed, if Templeton can be credited for the tight structure of Double Confession and the maintenance of its various twists and turns, then Keene is responsible for its character. After all what better place to conduct an ethnographic study – however on the margins of the finished film it may be – than a British seaside town at the height of summer?
Annakin latches on to the idea with conviction. There is the sense during Double Confession that every single character matters, no matter how small their screen time. The little girl who attempts to stare out George Woodbridge’s Sergeant, for example, is just as important to the director as any one of his leads. Consequently, the world of fictional Seagate feels authentically alive: a real place with all the usual summer shenanigans, except beneath this surface we have Farr, Hartnell and Lorre sweating it out for reasons other than the weather. Not that it needs mentioning, but each of the central performances is also superbly handled. Annakin remains best known for his adventure movie and as such is generally given short shrift as a director of actors. Yet look at some of his comparatively low-key works, such as the Graham Greene adaptation Across the Bridge starring Rod Steiger, and you’ll realise there was a definite talent which sadly went underused. Hartnell, in particular, stands out in this case.
And so we arrive at a film with the genuine whiff of a rediscovery. Not simply because it has sat unseen for more than 50 years, or because the BFI did such a good job whetting our appetites in 2010, but rather because, plain and simple, it’s an excellent piece of work. Tightly constructed, exceptionally well-performed and with a wonderful sense of place, Double Confession deserves to find an enthusiastic audience. I suspect that, had the BFI been handling this release, we’d have seen a bells-and-whistle complete with fanfare and plenty of contextualising additions. As it is, the film arrives via tiny label Renown, extras-free and somewhat inauspiciously. Nevertheless, the bottom line remains: once again Double Confession can be seen.
Renown follow their usual practice with Double Confession insofar as this release simply contains the film itself without any additional on-disc extras or the presence of a booklet. The sleeve does, however, mention that “this long lost film has been restored to a very high standard” and it’s safe to say that this must rank among the finest of their presentations to date. Double Confession appears in its original Academy ratio with original mono soundtrack and has been treated to a dual-layered (and region-free) disc. Whatever the materials are that Renown have used, the film is in a pretty much pristine state. There are minor instances of tramlining and the odd bit of damage here and there, plus cue marks, but nothing that could be described as distracting. The only disappointment comes in the form of occasional bouts of contrast boosting (particularly noticeable during the exterior scenes in broad – and now extremely bright – daylight), which is something of a shame. Otherwise there are no technical issues to speak of, while the soundtrack is in great shape. As is usual for a Renown release, there are no optional subtitles, for the hard-of-hearing or otherwise.