Taut British crime thriller that brings together Jack Warner, George Cole and Bill Owen.
My Brother’s Keeper, starring Jack Warner, George Cole, David Tomlinson and Bill Owen. Yet take a look at the cover image: Warner is mid-attack; Brenda Bruce recoiling in terror; Odeon highlighting the genre with ‘CRIME’ spelt out in capital letters. This is clearly a film far removed from the cosy environs of Warner’s later signature role as Dixon of Dock Green. Indeed the same could be said of his fellow actors: of Cole and St. Trinian’s and Minder; of Tomlinson and Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks; of Owen and Last of the Summer Wine. The initial suspicion is that surely such casting must undermine the film’s status as a crime thriller – too many comedians with too many major roles overshadowing their work here, not to mention lovable PC Dixon on the opposite side of the law and order divide. Surely this can only lead to a perverse appeal or just simply not work? Yet to harbour such thoughts would be to do My Brother’s Keeper a massive disservice. For starters the defining roles of Warner, Cole, et al, came after their work here, in some cases by a significant period of time. Indeed, Warner played quite a few villains during the forties, notably the traitor in Charles Crichton’s wartime resistance thriller Against the Wind and the same director’s earlier, and more comically inclined, Hue and Cry. Likewise Bill Owen had appeared in John Eldridge’s wonderfully tough propaganda short Tank Patrol, and the list goes on… Furthermore, the talent behind the camera was really quite attuned to My Brother’s Keeper’s approach and handling, even if their names aren’t especially well remembered nowadays.
Director Alfred Roome only helmed two pictures during his career, the other being the lightweight Naunton Wayne-Basil Radford comedy It’s Not Cricket. Yet Roome was also one of the most prolific editors in British cinema, his credits encompassing everything from Will Hay and Arthur Askey to Carol Reed and Alfred Hitchcock. The key credit when it comes to My Brother’s Keeper is arguably The Lady Vanishes, though its worth noting his heavy involvement in comedies; not only those of Hay and Askey, but also almost a decade’s worth of Carry Ons and a number of the Doctor movies. His approach, in his own words, when it came to such films was to “just carry straight on” – in other words it was all about getting to the next gag, all about pace. And what better quality for a man taking on a brisk little thriller such as My Brother’s Keeper? Unsurprisingly the two go hand-in-hand. The other major name off-camera is screenwriter Frank Harvey Jr., who regularly collaborated with the Boulting brothers, initially scripting their propaganda doc Burma Victory and then working on a number of their later comedies, including Brothers in Law and I’m All Right Jack. But his important work in relation to My Brother’s Keeper was the terrific 1950 thriller Seven Days to Noon, arguably the Boultings’ finest achievement and one of the all-time greats of British cinema. Along similar lines he also wrote the underrated John Mills crime drama The Long Memory, directed by Robert Hamer in 1952, although not quite to the high standard of his superb run of features during the forties. Finally a quick mention of the excellent Clifton Parker score that accompanies proceedings (and could easily have satisfied a US noir or possibly a Hitchcock of the era) and that this was a Gainsborough Production, meaning there’s a message behind criminality, no matter how pacey Roome is able to keep things.
Impressively My Brother’s Keeper gets straight down to business. As soon as the credits have revealed both the unexpected and the reliable names we find Warner and Cole handcuffed to each other near a river, one in control, the other edgy. No pre-amble, no exposition, instead Roome and Harvey Jr. place us right in at the action. It is only in the next scene when we learn a little more about these two men besides their demeanour: two men have escaped from a prison car, one having spent many years in prison for seemingly every charge except murder, the other – although the exact details emerge much later – due to be tried for a phoney rape allegation. What follows is a dual narrative split between Warner and Cole’s escape (as they attempt to both evade the police and lose the handcuffs whilst catching up with some of Warner’s old flames) and newspaper man Tomlinson’s chasing off the story whilst on his honeymoon which, thanks to one of those narrative twists of fate, is taking place exactly where the two escaped prisoners are on the run. In both cases the pace rarely lets up; at one point the film enters a room right at the end of a police briefing so that we catch only the most salient of details. There’s no waste here, just a lean, streamlined approach to filmmaking.
In keeping with this pared down manner are the performances which similarly feel stripped to their essentials. Among the supporting players we find various familiar names – Maurice Denham here, Wilfred Hyde-White there – and they do just as you’d expect: a scene or two, mark your mark, move on. It’s replicated elsewhere, though in some cases the ability to completely steal a scene is more pronounced. Raymond Lovell in particular, playing Tomlinson’s editor, is a wonderful combination of sweat and loathsomeness. I don’t recall him getting out of his chair once, but nonetheless he commands his scenes perfectly. Arguably, such streamlined characterisations helps My Brother’s Keeper from avoiding comparisons with some of its actors’ later works. Cole, for example, goes simply for naïve and fragile, two aspects which we would never associate with Flash Harry or Arthur Daley. Moreover, there isn’t a great deal of nuance to the performance in order to prompt even fleeting connections with better known roles – and the same is true of Warner, Owen and Tomlinson. Yet it should be made clear that this isn’t to suggest that My Brother’s Keeper is in some way flimsy. There are flaws but the cast is uniformly solid and more than capable of delivering the required amount of characterisation. It’s just that this is a film which doesn’t require a great deal beyond the very essentials.
One of the ways in which My Brother’s Keeper gains some extra weight is in its slightly different handling of the Warner-Cole strand and the Tomlinson one. The former is told throughout with an utmost seriousness that never once lapses into sentimentality or even moderate humour. Whenever we follow Tomlinson, however, slight comedic moments are allowed to slip through: the whole interrupted honeymoon element; the constant haranguing by Lovell; his being just that one step behind the story. In a way it’s tempting to see this as an acknowledgement on Roome and Harvey Jr.’s part that this particular strand is the least important. It’s not quite so insignificant that it’s there solely to bulk out the narrative, but then it does tend to handle much of the exposition and narrative progression. Moreover, it also contains some of the moral weight as Tomlinson, his new bride and others discuss Warner – “a clever devil, educated and well-spoken” – and how society should treat such a man. At times it can feel as though the subtext has been rendered as subplot, though happily Roome’s pacing and the quality of the performances papers over some of the narrative cracks this produces.
Nevertheless there is a slight clunky element to the more ‘serious’ issues (the title My Brother’s Keeper, incidentally, comes from a lengthy Henry Hasset Browne quote that appears over the final shot) which prevents the film from comparing as favourably as it should with some of its contemporaries. For all its pace, tautness, fine performances and so on, My Brother’s Keeper isn’t quite in the same league as Odd Man Out, say, or It Always Rains On Sunday, both made the previous year and both sharing certain narrative parallels. At times it can be superb – as in the tense finale, ironically owing to a shot in which Roome removes all of the pace – and on this basis is more than worth a look. Similarly, those other qualities mentioned – the pace, et al – equally justify a solid recommendation. Flawed, yes, but with much to admire and enjoy. Indeed, it’s a shame that Roome only made the one more feature as on this strength he undoubtedly had the talent to go onto better things as opposed to returning to the day job.
My Brother’s Keeper is being released by Odeon as part of the ‘Best of British’ range and very much follows suit with the majority of previous discs. The film comes on a DVD-9, in its original aspect ratio and accompanied by only a handful of cross-promotional trailers for other Odeon titles. The case itself houses a four-page booklet containing some brief notes although these were not supplied for review purposes. As such it’s the presentation which is key, although unfortunately this is one of their weaker efforts. The print is in a somewhat poor shape suffering from intermittent flicker and instability, the occasional scene that seems just that little too dark to have been intentionally lit that way, and an overall lack of definition. The transfer itself appears fine with none of these flaws prompting any unwelcome technical side-effects, so perhaps Odeon were working from the best materials available. Nonetheless, the distinctly average results could prove disappointing. Happily the soundtrack fares better and, despite some crackle and hiss making itself known, maintains a good level of clarity throughout.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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