The Challenge (aka It Takes a Thief) Review
Neon, smoke, Bill McGuffrie’s jazzy score, a bare chested Anthony Quayle and a brunette Jayne Mansfield - these are the sounds and images which introduce The Challenge. It’s unmistakeable film noir: Quayle’s shirtless attire signifying his toughness; Mansfield’s choice of hair colour letting us know that she shouldn’t trusted. The two are lovers but she’s embroiled in a crime syndicate, one that needs a getaway driver and, more importantly, a fall guy. Quayle fits the bill perfectly and the planned heist is a near-success, except only he knows where the money is hidden. And so whilst he does the time, he’s also got the leverage to enact some revenge upon release…
The Challenge was made in 1959 and released in May of 1960. John Gilling served as writer and director, whilst John Temple-Smith was producer. Although not strictly a ‘B’ picture, it was within the world of the quota quickie which the pair had mostly operated. Gilling had worked prolifically in the preceding post-war years, notably for Warwick Films and Tempean Films, and seemingly took on every genre available. The most widely seen is arguably Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, the last of Arthur Lucan’s onscreen appearances as the titular drag act and a rather creaky, but nonetheless moderately entertaining blend of comedy, horror and science fiction. Elsewhere he directed Anthony Newley in the military-set rock ‘n’ roll musical Idles on Parade and even made a short travelogue on Trinidad. But it’s his crime thrillers which remain the most notable of early credits; the likes of The Frightened Man, The Voice of Merrill and Interpol demonstrating a tight handling of material and a no-nonsense approach. This paid off handsomely on The Voice of Merrill, which distributors Eros deemed was too good to release as a ‘B’ picture (which is how it had been made) and so upped it to the top of the bill. Today Gilling remains best known for his subsequent work with Hammer, primarily The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile. Both were models of economy and inventive enough to overcome budgetary shortcomings. Indeed, such a description fits the majority of Gilling’s work, The Challenge included.
Temple-Smith also made the move to Hammer later in his career, producing both Captain Clegg and The Viking Queen for the studio. Prior to The Challenge he was jointly in charge of Major Productions, a company that swiftly turned out eight films over a four year period, mostly thrillers and placed in the able hands of quota quickie mainstay directors such as Francis Searle and Lance Comfort. Their strong point was Temple-Smith’s skill in assembling a strong team both in front of and behind the camera. A director such as Comfort isn’t especially remembered today, most likely because he made the downward shift from ‘A’ pictures to ‘B’ movies rather than other way around. but his filmography is peppered with forgotten gems (Temptation Harbour, Bang! You’re Dead) despite being best labelled a journeyman. Similarly many of the other names who adorn the credits of Major films, both those who stayed within quota production and those who moved on to more prestigious work. Meanwhile, the likes of Kathleen Byron, Mervyn Johns and Adrienne Corri were amongst the acting talent to put in an appearance for Temple-Smith.
This skill at bringing together a solid group of individuals paid off especially well in the case of The Challenge, all the more so given this was Temple-Smith’s first real attempt to break into ‘A’ pictures. As well as Quayle and Mansfield in the lead roles (the latter secured as a loan from 20th Century Fox, with whom she was still under contract) and Gilling as writer-director, he also brought in a range of experience to lend the film an added touch of class. Gordon Dines, who had worked at Ealing for a number of years before going it alone in the mid-fifties, served as director of photography, lending The Challenge the same noir-ish air found in Pool of London (which he shot for Basil Dearden) and certain elements of Adelphi’s The Crowded Day. Maintaining the quickfire pace inherent in Gilling’s films were editors Alan Osbiston and John Victor Smith. Osbiston (credited here as supervising editor) had the experience of working with Dylan Thomas, Humphrey Jennings and Joseph Losey, and would earn credits on the likes of The Guns of Navarone; Smith had been his assistant on previous assignments, including the Losey one, and soon became Richard Lester’s regular choice, cutting everything from Help! to Superman II. Also on-hand were designers (and brothers) Tom and Jim Monahan, who had could name Hitchcock, Ealing and even Disney as past employers. Mention should also be made of costume designer Beatrice Dawson, who had earlier been responsible for the distinctive work on Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and Anthony Asquith’s 1952 adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest.
In other words, The Challenge has a lot going for it, and much of that can be seen onscreen. The decision to shoot primarily on location (alongside some work at Twickenham Film Studios) lends a nice layer of additional grit and authenticity. The budget is such that few limitations appear to be explicitly in place - although admittedly this is a hard quality to detect given Gilling’s ability at masking possible constraints - resulting in some effective action sequences. (There is one piece of horrible back projection when Quayle’s character takes his son to the funfair. Although I’d like to think that the logistics of filming such a sequence, and with a child actor, resulted in going for the cheaper, less effective option as opposed to the more technically complicated one.) The presence of Quayle and Mansfield, meanwhile, provides the star quality.
Interestingly, The Challenge provided Quayle with one his first lead ‘action’ roles. There had been his BAFTA-nominated supporting turn in Ice Cold in Alex the previous year, but it was still the theatre, where he had been active since the early thirties, and most notably Shakespeare for which he was arguably best known. (The likes of The Guns of Navarone, Lawrence of Arabia and The Fall of the Roman Empire were still to come.) As such it’s hard not to see the relish with which Quayle attacks the role, clearly enjoying the opening shirtless scene and the tough guy antics, including a tussle in a railway carriage. But he also allows his character some depth, as we should expect from an actor of his experience and the man who had, two years previous, surveyed a wonderfully downbeat performance as the cheating husband in The Woman in the Dressing Gown. Whilst he may have the upper hand over the criminals who set him up, inasmuch as he’s the only one who knows where the money is hidden, he’s still in turmoil over whether he loves Mansfield and as a man struggling to piece his life together after a stint in prison. Furthermore, when his son gets kidnapped by Carl Möhner (playing the gang leader and upping the international flavour to The Challenge’s cast list) this turmoil is only added to: does he get the police involved - and they are already sniffing around - or go it alone?
Placed alongside Quayle, it’s hardly surprising that Mansfield doesn’t come off quite so well. But then she was clearly cast for her glamour and star appeal as opposed to her acting chops - and so it’s all about her looks (swapping that brunette to her more typical blonde for Quayle’s return from prison) and the fact she gets to perform a little ditty in a nightclub around the midway point. And of course, Mansfield was never about the acting, at whatever point in her career. Her major performances were those which either reduced her to a caricature (alongside Cary Grant in Kiss Them for Me) or used her public image as a source of satire (Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?), in other words the ones required her to most be herself. There’s no such intent in The Challenge, and as such she becomes nothing more than a face and a body: enough to understand why Quayle would get himself involved in criminal dealings; enough to make the audience connect the dots to film noir and other overheated crime melodramas from the States.
Yet whilst The Challenge teases with noir, the smoke and the neon of the opening scenes soon give way to something less hardboiled. The police procedural elements are a little staid (although they do result in a nice little twist right at the end) and the dark shadows are swapped for daylight. Nonetheless some sinister edges prevail, especially those relating to the kidnapping of Quayle’s child and overwhelmingly grim manner in which the gang choose to do away with him: teaching him the game of ‘chicken’, in this instance involving a speeding railway and a cynical explanation of the rules that can only end badly. Speaking of edge, it’s also worth noting that the BBFC have deemed The Challenge worthy of a 12 certificate owing to “dangerous behaviour which could be copied” alongside the “moderate violence”. So there’s undoubtedly grit, though comparisons with Jules Dassin’s Night and the City or even minor London-set noirs would be somewhat misplaced.
Rather what we have is a brisk, pacey little thriller with some great talent behind the camera and, with Quayle, the equivalent onscreen too. Given that talent it wouldn’t be unfair to point out that pretty much everyone involved had either done, or would go onto do, better things. Yet their combined presence makes for an intriguing work and, as a result, The Challenge is worth a look. It’s flawed certainly, but not without its own qualities and, as with much of Renown’s output, provides a welcome opportunity to sample another forgotten British picture.
The Challenge was previously issued onto disc courtesy of Orbit, a release of somewhat dubious legality and even more dubious quality. Thankfully Renown have righted that wrong and the film looks terrific in this instance. Taken from a print in fine condition (there are some moderate instances of dirt and damage, though nothing to the point of distraction) the image demonstrates fine levels of detail and contrast, at least as should be expected from a standard definition disc. (Indeed, it’s somewhat unfortunate that Renown have chosen to issue The Challenge so soon after the BFI’s Blu-ray of The Crowded Day - also shot by Gordon Dines and looking utterly tremendous in that format - but then we must consider that Renown simply don’t have the equivalent resources.) The soundtrack fares a little worse, with wavering volume in a couple of early scenes, although I did wonder how much of this was inherent in the original production; one scene in particular clearly had its dialogue added in post-production and so perhaps the issues lie here. Nonetheless these instances are by no means overly problematic and The Challenge remains watchable throughout. Also note that there are no optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing and no additional features.