THE FILMS OF THE BOOKS
— OR VICE-VERSA
by Derek Hinrich
Before the First World War, the UNION JACK carried numerous stories with our hero's name in the title — Sexton Blake in various places: in China, in Baku, in Patagonia or wherever — or Sexton Blake undertaking a variety of occupations: Beefeater, Gamekeeper, Shopwalker and so on.
But in the golden age of the '20s and '30s his name rarely, if ever, appeared in a title in the DETECTIVE WEEKLY, UNION JACK or SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY. There was no need. Yet it was invoked in each of the three films — two in 1935 and one in 1938 — which starred George Curzon as Blake. It was presumably considered a selling point.
I have the stories on which the first two of these were based — SBL2 449, The Blazing Launch Murder by Rex Hardinge (which was filmed as Sexton Blake and The Bearded Doctor), and UJ 1,378, They Shall Repay by G.H. Teed (which became Sexton Blake and The Madamoiselle). As far as I know I have never seen either of them (well, I can't remember all the films I saw with my parents when I was six!).
David Quinlan's British Sound Films 1928-1959 is dismissive of the first as an "improbable crime thriller, reminiscent of a silent serial. A famous violinist is found dead, ace detective Sexton Blake suspects foul play. A sinister bearded doctor threatens a girl and a young insurance man with a similar fate if they refuse to sign away the dead man's effects. Blake uncovers a plot to defraud an insurance company." This was produced and directed by George A. Cooper who had made two of the silent Blake films with Langhorne Burton in 1928. The initial murder in Hardinge's book is accomplished with a catapult (rather after the manner of Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise). It is some time since I read it, but by the end I think the body count was about as high as that in Hamlet.
According to Quinlan the consensus of opinion of critics at the time was that the film was "poor" but the next was a shade better — "average." Of it he says, "Better Sexton Blake adventure in which the lean sleuth is asked by a financier to recover a parcel of stolen bonds. He finds that his employer is a crook, and that the bonds were stolen by a young girl, posing as 'Mademoiselle' to avenge the ruin of her father by the financier." Posing as 'Mademoiselle' sounds a little garbled, surely, to those of us who know and love our Teed! This film was directed by Alex Bryce.
Neither of these films apparently survives; at any rate they have never surfaced on television, even at 2am. The third one has. Indeed Sexton Blake and The Hooded Terror is preserved in the National Film Archive. The first time I saw it was in a season on "The Detective in Film" at the National Film Theatre and it has been shown two or three times on Channel 4 in the UK. Quinlan thinks more highly of it: "Sexton Blake tackles The Hooded Terror, a worldwide crime organisation and its mastermind, known only as The Snake. After several brushes with death Blake unmasks philatelist Michael Larron as The Snake. But, concentrating on rescuing the beautiful Julie from a hideous fate, Blake allows The Snake to wriggle away to scheme another day. Thriller is foolish but fast and fun." The critics at the time rated it as "good". This third film was produced and directed by George King who had, perhaps, a more substantial body of work than his predecessors. He made a version of The Case of The Frightened Lady which I remember fondly from my boyhood, but his most notable film, starring Leslie Howard, was The First of The Few, the biography of R. J. Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire.
Having read the other two stories on which this trio of films was based, I have often wondered how Sexton Blake and The Hooded Terror compared with SBL2 569, The Mystery of No 13 Caversham Square by Pierre Quiroule, so I borrowed it from the Sexton Blake Library to find out.
Well, altering the title must on this occasion have helped, for the book's hardly catches the imagination. That apart, the film follows the novel quite closely, though there are some minor alterations and two major. For instance, Granite Grant, one of Quiroule's regular characters, has barely a walk-on role at the beginning (a first screen appearance for David Farrar) and is not seen thereafter, whereas in the novel he is in at the death. The first big change, however, is to reveal the principal villain to the audience quite early in the proceedings and to show his machinations in parallel with Blake's hunt for him. In the book Michel Larron, alias "The Snake", the leader of the Black Quorum, only appears twice, and though he has henchmen, the other members of the Quorum do not appear (though they are rounded up afterwards) but here they do — though mostly only to say, "Rhubarb." The other major change is that in the book "The Snake" does not escape but commits suicide to cheat the law.
The film is full of excitement and movement and has many nice touches, as Norman Wright has pointed out in his splendid celebration of Sexton Blake. I particularly like the wax gamblers, one of whom subsequently comes alive — Mlle Julie has been hiding — a touch reminiscent of The Avengers.
Something that has always intrigued me is that when the members of the Black Quorum assemble — they of course all know each other and are anyway first shown together in plain clothes at a stamp auction — they all solemnly dress up in black robes, somewhat after the style of the Ku Klux Klan, although no-one else is present, and then, halfway through their meeting, they take their hoods off. Bit inconsequential, that!
Tod Slaughter certainly makes a splendidly full-blooded villain of Larron and the enlargement of the role in comparison with that in the book is fully justified. His casting also rendered any attempt at who-dunnitry superfluous, unlike another British thriller of 1937, Dark Journey, recently shown on Channel 4, which was much concerned with the problem of the identity of the head of the German secret service in Sweden in the First World War. This all seemed totally unnecessary for, as a friend said to me, "With Conrad Veidt in the cast, who else could it be?"
© Derek Hinrich