Making the case for 'Scotland Yard'
One of the great holdouts of post-World War II cinema was the featurette, a film shy of an hour -- many times even 30 minutes -- that had the capability of packing a great deal of entertainment within its brief running time. Hollywood kept the "shorts" going as part of a theater program in support of main features into the 1960s, long after television asserted its dominance over the form. Excepting cartoons, newsreels and special subject productions, the major U.S. studios had dropped their own featurette departments, but were open to distributing independently-made product to help balance the bills at theaters and drive-ins. Many of these productions later found their way into TV showings, their length ideal for half-hour time slots and filler for local station movie showcases.
Similarly, the featurette enjoyed a lengthy stay in the United Kingdom, proving that despite audience preference for spectacle movies and the encroachment of TV on attendance, audiences did not turn away from fare including short films. The British government fed the appetite for such productions, partly to keep the nation's film technicians employed, with support for featurettes. Initially this created a boom in the documentary film, but by the early '50s tastes appeared to return to fictional stories and officials encouraged home studios to produce shorts ranging from the comedic to the dramatic. The studios in turn realized that shorts also had a place in the burgeoning TV market, especially as commercially-based networks arose after the mid-'50s to challenge the supremacy of the British Broadcasting Corp.
Southwest London-based Merton Park Studios, a supplier of second features released by Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors, led by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy, had been one outlet that supported the war effort with conflict-themed shorts. In the years following, it had developed a feeling for crime and melodrama to help audiences temporarily forget their austerity-ridden existence. Merton Park looked to interest in mysteries with a semi-documentary flavor when it conceived a series of featurettes with the umbrella title of SCOTLAND YARD. Like the popular American TV police procedural DRAGNET, the SCOTLAND YARD films adapted true stories of Britain's famed police center into compelling viewing dealing with crime and its detection by dedicated, sober-sided officers. Done in a straightforward, non-melodramatic manner, SCOTLAND YARD proved popular enough to result in 39 films of 26 to 34 minutes in length produced between 1953 and 1961.
Merton Park's formula for SCOTLAND YARD was simple: dramatize initially baffling cases and allow the audience, along with the detectives, to follow a trail of interviews and clues until the culprit is apprehended, his or her fate left to the courts to decide. The cases had to have some element of the unusual to challenge the Yard, some adding an unexpected and at times affecting human element to the proceedings. Also realizing the films needed a continuing thread of identity, the studio prudently employed as a narrator and commentator on the action a face and voice that became as familiar to UK moviegoers as DRAGNET's creator and star, Jack Webb, was to American TV audiences.
That man was Edgar Lustgarten, a dapper scholar of crime who, following the latest installment's standard introduction of Scotland Yard and its record of solving offenses, was seen in what passed for his study offering opening remarks on the incident about to be unreeled. With a pleasant tone, born from more than a decade with the BBC as a commentator and producer, an occasional arch of the eyebrow to emphasize a point and a nicely placed touch of irony in his final comments, Lustgarten won a following for the series of films that led to a lengthy association with Merton Park and a certain status as a pop culture icon in later years.
He came to his duties on SCOTLAND YARD with a solid background as a specialist in not only true crime, which he began writing about voluminously, in addition to discussing on radio, in the '40s, but also fiction; the 1951 Rex Harrison vehicle THE LONG DARK HALL, dealing with an errant husband wrongly convicted for the slaying of his girlfriend, was based on Lustgarten's 1947 novel ONE MORE UNFORTUNATE (British title: A CASE TO ANSWER). Originally trained as a barrister, Lustgarten practiced throughout the '30s, giving him firsthand exposure to criminals, police and the legal system. Unable to serve in the military when war erupted in 1939, Lustgarten instead offered his talents to the BBC, and his specialization in criminal matters afforded Merton Park a built-in reputation on which to hang the SCOTLAND YARD films.
The first of the series, THE DRAYTON CASE, released in February 1953,* set the tone of the early entries: a mystifying case of murder from the past, dogged detective work to sniff out the killer and the miscreant's eventual capture (or occasionally getting himself killed and spared the hangman's rope). Later on, the stories became more contemporary or outright fictional, but at the start the films and Lustgarten sought to stir audience memories of notorious crimes going back into the '30s.
THE DRAYTON CASE opens in wartime London of 1944. As workers remove debris from a bombed-out school, they chance upon a skeleton of apparently recent vintage. Because all victims of German raids undergo autopsies to determine if they were killed by bombs, Detective Superintendent Henley (John Le Mesurier) and his sergeant (Vincent Ball) find the skeleton is not only that of a middle-aged female but one who died suspiciously. Without identification, the painstaking process of checking missing persons reports with the victim's dental work brings the sleuths to one Elizabeth Drayton, last seen in the company of her ex-husband Charlie (Victor Platt) on Christmas Eve 1941.
That was also the night Charlie Drayton, a firewatcher, reported a blaze had been set in the basement of the school where the skeleton was later found. His edgy behavior when interviewed by Henley, and the fact Charlie had been slow to report the fire, firmly places suspicion on himself. Henley surmises correctly that Elizabeth Drayton (Hilda Barry), pressed for finances, had pushed her former spouse over the edge with her demands for weekly support; Charlie had even served prison time for non-payment in the past. They were seen arguing the issue in a cafe. When Charlie stormed out, she followed him to the school, where he snapped and choked her to death. Charlie tried at first to burn the body in the basement, and failing that, buried his ex-wife under the floor and made the late report of a fire to cover his tracks.
Now under the Yard's surveillance, none-too-bright Charlie attempts to flee in the Underground as a bombing raid commences. Henley and his men pursue and capture Charlie, who's injured when he falls down the steps of an emergency exit. The police and ambulance staff carry Charlie out on a stretcher from a passage marked "No Way Out." We then return to Lustgarten, who informs us that Charlie wouldn't have gone to the gallows had he simply kept up with his maintenance money for Elizabeth -- one pound a week.
THE DRAYTON CASE, written and directed by Ken Hughes, establishes a grey, wintry ambience in which the tale of crime and punishment plays out. Location shooting added not only to the realistic feel of the film and subsequent entries, but offer a mini-time capsule of a London still rebuilding in the decade following the war. Performances were more than up to the task, particularly by Le Mesurier, soon to become a familiar face in British films and on TV (DAD'S ARMY). He's quietly effective during a nighttime raid as he ruminates on how the Yard is seeking one murderer as dozens of slayings are being committed at that moment by the Nazis. "It seems so incongruous," Henley reflects.
Hughes (1922-2001) did much to provide SCOTLAND YARD with its sea legs during the series' infancy; he wrote and directed five films and soloed as director on another four, his last contribution being NIGHT PLANE TO AMSTERDAM in January 1955. Born in Liverpool, Hughes won an amateur film contest at age 14 and had worked himself up to sound engineer with the BBC when he was called to military duty. After the war, he found employment at the studios and made his feature directing debut at Merton Park with WIDE BOY (1952). At the time, crime stories and melodrama became his forte. In a one-shot job at Hammer Films between assignments for Merton Park, he adapted his novel HIGH WRAY, written in the style of U.S. hardboiled fiction, into a screenplay for THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE (1954). A biting tale of a fading novelist (Alex Nicol) who flips for the sultry wife (Hillary Brooke) of his wealthy neighbor (Sidney James) and then murders him, Hughes also directed the film, released in America as HEAT WAVE during Hammer's partnership with Hollywood-based Lippert Pictures.
Hughes later recalled, with some disdain, his method for initiating projects with producers: "Writers aren't highly regarded in this industry, and original stories are hard to get off the ground. If I really wanted to put across an idea, I'd bring it out as a book first, even if it didn't sell. Movie producers are impressed by hardcovers because it shows someone else had confidence in the writing. It's ridiculous, but true."**
At Merton Park, Hughes didn't seem to encounter much difficulty in writing or directing for the series and other productions. He directed his script for the second SCOTLAND YARD, THE MISSING MAN (a.k.a. THE CASE OF GERALD EDWARD NEIL, June 1953) which achieved a certain poignancy in recounting a 1938 case where an elderly vicar and his wife (Tristan Rowan and Evelyn Moore) exhaust all avenues as they desperately search for their only son, an engineer, who disappeared on a trip to Paris. The mother's vivid dream of her son coming to a mysterious end at an abandoned farm helps put them and the Yard on to solving the case.
Eventually, Hughes helmed or had a hand in writing Merton Park features such as the Cold War thriller LITTLE RED MONKEY (1954) starring Richard Conte and CONFESSION (a.k.a. THE DEADLIEST SIN, 1955) with Sydney Chaplin. After leaving Merton Park, he was retained by Warwick Films, a company releasing through Columbia, for which he wrote and directed JOE MACBETH (1956), an update of Shakespeare against the background of the U.S. gangster scene of the '30s, with Paul Douglas in the lead. Hughes' favorite film was THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE (1960) starring Peter Finch, but found to his dismay that his greatest commercial success was the 1968 adaptation of Ian Fleming's children's novel CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG with Dick Van Dyke. "I didn't enjoy making it," Hughes later commented. His 1970 historical epic CROMWELL, with Richard Harris in the lead, was critically well-received but drew few patrons; he moved to Hollywood and made his last feature, NIGHT SCHOOL, in 1981.
Another directorial talent brought into the series by Alec C. Snowden, who produced the first 26 SCOTLAND YARDs, was the veteran Montgomery Tully (1904-1988), like Hughes a double threat as a writer and director, and also a specialist in crime dramas. Born in Dublin, Tully made his directorial debut in 1945 with MURDER IN REVERSE. He came to SCOTLAND YARD in its sixth entry, LATE NIGHT FINAL (July 1954), which he wrote and directed. He became the most prolific of the series' directors, performing double duty on two more and a solo on 12 additional entries. He also took an occasional flyer into fantastic films, including THE DIAMOND WIZARD (1954), ESCAPEMENT (U.S. title: THE ELECTRONIC MONSTER, 1958) and THE HOUSE ON MARSH ROAD (U.S. title: THE INVISIBLE CREATURE, 1961). His last turn in the director's chair was for BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH (1967).
Tully's contribution to SCOTLAND YARD was in making the scripts, which later came almost exclusively from the busy studio writer James Eastwood, visually exciting on limited budgets. Perhaps his best was also his last, THE CROSSROAD GALLOWS (a.k.a. THE JAMES CASE, August 1958), noteworthy for its unexpected plot turn. When a vacationing couple are found bludgeoned to death in their caravan while parked in farmer John Dent's field, the local constabulary calls upon Superintendent Reynolds (John Warwick) from the Yard to lead the investigation. Suspicion falls upon the surly Dent (Arthur Gomez) and after receiving an anonymous telephone tip from a foreign-accented male, Reynolds and Sergeant Hale (Tim Turner) confront a gun-wielding Dent about what he's keeping hidden in his home.
Dent's wife reveals that their son Billy, thought dead but in reality brain-damaged, is the occupant of a room they have kept locked because the young man had once attacked a girl. Billy found an escape route from the room and had been in the caravan occupied by the victims, discovered there by his father after the murders. While it appears the police have their killer, Reynolds is troubled by Mrs. Dent's confession that Brandt (Denton de Gray), a former German prisoner of war, had blackmailed the Dents for years after witnessing Billy's attack on the girl.
Brandt, now a mechanic at the repair shop in the nearby village that still boasts a gallows of old, is a motorcycle enthusiast, tying in with the discovery of a spot of motor oil at the murder scene and proven to be used in motorcycles. He also seems to have come in to some money and the engagement ring he's showered on his girlfriend matches the one missing from the caravan, placing him at the scene of the crime (he had clubbed Billy when he stumbled into the caravan, making the poor half-wit the fall guy). As the police close in on Brandt, he shoots at them, flees and meets his doom when, trying to avoid collision with a responding radio car, loses control of his motorcycle and careens into the old gallows. An involved but exciting story from Eastwood's pen and engagingly directed by Tully, THE CROSSROAD GALLOWS was the series at its best -- and all in just 27 minutes of running time.
THE CROSSROAD GALLOWS was the third of the final 13 in the series produced by Jack Greenwood, who took over for Alec Snowden in 1958. In most but not all episodes during this period, the lead detective was Inspector (later Superintendent) Duggan, played by Australian-born actor Russell Napier, a tall, stern presence whose non-nonsense approach to the role became a hallmark of the series. Napier (1910-1974) was initially cast in SCOTLAND YARD in the fifth entry, THE DARK STAIRWAY (March 1954) as Inspector Harmer, a role he repeated once more (THE STRANGE CASE OF BLONDIE, October 1954) before his first appearance as Duggan in DESTINATION DEATH (a.k.a. THE EBERSTEIN CASE, September 1956).
Overall, Napier racked up a total of 13 appearances as Harmer and Duggan before his last, THE NEVER NEVER MURDER (June 1961), near the very end of the string. The actor was also seen as a sober law enforcer in several features during this time, including LITTLE RED MONKEY, BLACK ORCHID (1953) and THE MAN IN THE ROAD (1957). Otherwise, repeat performances as the head sleuth in the series were rare but occasionally occurred, with John Warwick among the more notable casting choices. While the supporting casts tended to be little-known outside of the UK, some of the more recognizable actors to appear in the series included Peter Arne, Jill Bennett, Harry H. Corbett and Roger Delgado, who achieved fame as the arch-villain The Master on DOCTOR WHO before his untimely death in the early '70s. Bernard Fox, who went to American TV in the '60s as Malcolm Merriwether on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and as BEWITCHED's Dr. Bombay, is solid as a sergeant in INSIDE INFORMATION (June 1957).
The last Scotland Yard, THE SQUARE MILE MURDER, was distributed in the summer of 1961 as Merton Park had, starting the year before, turned its attention to more feature-length entries in a series of low-budget but rewarding mysteries based on the works of Edgar Wallace. But the studio's connection to featurettes and Edgar Lustgarten did not fade overnight. Changing focus to the trial and punishment of criminals, Merton Park launched SCALES OF JUSTICE, a series of 13 half-hour episodes that appeared from 1962 until the studio's very end five years later. Lustgarten was back on hand to introduce and discuss dramatizations of notable court cases, the last few entries shot in color. Lustgarten remained a busy chronicler of true crime until his death at 71 in 1978 as he read a copy of the popular publication The Spectator.
Some of the early SCOTLAND YARDs were reportedly sold to Paramount for showing in the U.S. in 1954 as a package of three episodes each. With cutting for commercials, the films were ideal for TV, and the American Broadcasting Co. made SCOTLAND YARD a weekly entry on its primetime schedule from November 1957 until October 1958. The films were picked up at home by ITV in the '60s, and continued as useful fillers on several UK channels until the '90s. As such, the films, sometimes shown as CASE HISTORIES OF SCOTLAND YARD, and Lustgarten himself became part of British culture and inevitably, ripe for parody especially as TV programs and movies presented different and unflattering views about the police and their work.
Robbie Coltrane, the comic actor whose serious turn as a troubled police psychologist in CRACKER exemplified the shift in attitude toward law enforcement dramas, starred in a 1989 TV special in which he good-naturedly skewered SCOTLAND YARD ("... so called because it is neither in Scotland or in a yard," an announcer excitedly intones). The five-minute skit has Coltrane as "Edgar Dustcarten" introducing "The Silent Stiffy of Stanmore" in which a murder is investigated by an oafish Yard man who at one point, while interviewing a witness, takes a box of smokes out of his pocket. "Cigarette?" he asks the elderly lady, taking one out. "Yes," the witness responds. The inspector then places the cigarette back into the box. "Good. I always like a second opinion." The witness informs the inspector she saw none other than Dustcarten exiting the murder scene, gun in one hand, a bloody rag in the other and his sleeves covered in grue. "What a lovely day for a murder," he gloats to the woman. "Er ... I mean what a lovely day for a Spanish Armada."
When rushing from one development to the next with the intention of mowing down the cameraman with his police car ("Damned psychopath!" mutters one of the offscreen crew), the inspector arrives to arrest Dustcarten, apparently unhinged from relating so many murder stories. As the credits roll, the detective and his sergeant extract a confession the old-fashioned way: "A policeman's truncheon is no friend to the skull," the groaning Dustcarten comments as the screen fades to black. "A policeman's knee is no friend to the groin."
Earlier, Merton Park co-produced (with Herman Cohen) HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959), one of the grislier (yet still enjoyable) entries in the British fright film boom of the period, dealing with a series of shocking murders gleefully publicized by newspaper columnist and true crime expert Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough). Although Gough didn't resemble Lustgarten -- and the film itself seems to condemn public fascination with sensational crime -- one wonders if the Bancroft character might have been inspired by Lustgarten's reputation, Gough's gloriously flamboyant portrayal a wicked take-off on the mild-mannered broadcaster's normally calm demeanor. Also cast as the Yard men investigating the crimes were John Warwick and Geoffrey Keen, who either had or would take turns as lead detectives in the SCOTLAND YARD films.
Reflective of a different time, and for some viewers forgettable, the SCOTLAND YARD featurettes are nevertheless absorbing in the same just-the-facts manner that made DRAGNET such a success in its day. And as such, for classic film fans, the entertainment value they offer remains as strong now as when they were first seen.
* My thanks to the CTVA online listing of SCOTLAND YARD entries for casts, release dates and other information.
** Quoted in Hughes' obituary in the Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2001.