Second World War, Thriller, True Story

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

On the 27th of May, 1942, the high ranking Nazi General, Reinhard Heydrich was severely injured during an assassination attempt on his life by members of the Czech resistance in Prague. Heydrich died from his wounds on the 4th of June that same year.

His death saw brutal reprisals brought against the Czech population; with thousands of people being killed, or being deported to camps where they would later die. Details of what happened to the brave resistance members who were responsible for his death can be found by searching for Operation Anthropoid on the internet(I must warn you that it does not make for easy reading).I admire their bravery, and I was very shocked at how brutal their end was.

I have only recently become aware of this vile man and his assassination thanks to the recent film, Operation Anthropoid(the code name given to Heydrich’s assassination plot). Reading up about this event, I have been really surprised that I was not aware of any of this before. Hedrich was one of the main architects of the Holocaust and he was an all round real nasty piece of work. Some of his nicknames included ‘The Butcher’ and ‘The Hangman’.  

The year after Heydrich’s assassination, the German director Fritz Lang (who became an American citizen in 1939) made a film about this event and its brutal aftermath. I only became aware of Lang’s film recently, and when I saw that it was being released on Blu-ray, I jumped at the chance of being able to watch this film. It arrived a few days ago, and I have to say that I am so impressed with the film, and also with the visual quality of the Blu-ray release.  

For a film made in the 1940’s, Hangmen Also Die! is a surprisingly violent, gritty, and very dark film. There are several scenes in this that I’m really surprised got past the censors; scenes such as the taxi driver who commits suicide before he can be taken for torture, the execution sequence near the end, the badly beaten man being dragged through Gestapo headquarters, and the murder of a main character near the end of the film. Of course it’s good these were included because they help to bring home the terrible reality of life under Nazi rule.

This film is also one of the best films about a resistance movement that I have ever seen. I love how the resistance live right under the noses of those who seek them, yet they move around freely in the city invisible to those who seek them. Their group seems to exist separately from everyone else; they communicate by looks and gestures in public that only they can understand. So under everyone’s noses these people are planning and carrying out operations without being noticed. They are like a ghost community living and working alongside the community that everyone sees and experiences every day.

 Lang’s film is suspenseful, tense, moving, and downright scary at times. It also captures mans inhumanity to man, and Lang also does a good job of showing us how much courage it takes to stand up to oppression and cruelty.

In this film we see that members of the resistance are not only those who belong to a resistance group and carry weapons and carry out operations. Resistance members can include anyone who goes against the rules of the oppressors; this could be remaining friendly with people who everyone has been told not to associate with, or in refusing to name somebody to the authorities.

The film is a rather fictionalised version of the real events, but it certainly succeeds in capturing the horror, the violence, and the bravery that surrounded those events.  Lang lets the actors do the work in this film, they bring these characters to life (both the heroes and the villains)and they all get their chance to shine (even actors in very small roles)and they all succeed in conveying to us how the courage of ordinary people making a stand can have an impact. This story is a human story and Lang shows us the best and worst of humanity.

The film was written by Lang and the celebrated German playwright and screenwriter, Bertolt Brecht. This film would end up being Brecht’s only successful Hollywood film.

The cinematographer working on this film was the legendary James Wong Howe, and he uses his camera to create a mood and atmosphere that is reminiscent of Lang’s German expressionism films of the 1920’s. This film also serves as a good example of a film that is a mix of German Expressionism and American Film Noir.

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The film focuses on the search for Heydrich’s assassins, and also for the people who are hiding them from the Gestapo. Interestingly the assassination itself is not shown in the film. I think this was a good choice because it shifts attention away from Heydrich and focuses instead on the men and women who stood up against him, and against what he stood for and represented.

Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy)is the assassin of Heydrich, he flees the scene of the crime and goes on the run. He is seen going into a building to hide by Masha Novotny (Anna Lee). Masha deliberately misleads the pursuing Nazi soldiers as to where he is. He remembers this kindness.

The Gestapo’s investigation into the assassination eventually lead them to Masha’s door. When hundreds of hostages, including Masha’s father, Professor Novotny (Walter Brennan) are taken prisoner by the Nazis and sentenced to death, Svoboda must wrestle with his conscience to decide if he turns himself in to spare the others, or lets them die.

Gestapo investigations are being run by the cunning Inspector Gruber (Alexander Granach)and he is fast closing in on Svoboda. He also has help in locating the Czech resistance, thanks to his double crossing informant Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart).

The film becomes a cat and mouse game between the resistance and the Gestapo. Time is running out for the hostages, people are being murdered, tortured, and betrayed, and these horrible events show no sign of stopping. The resistance have a cunning plan up their sleeve, it is one that will paint someone else as being the assassin, rather than Svoboda.

If there is a downside to this superb film, I would say it lies with some of the casting. The casting is a somewhat mixed bag for sure. I think this film would have been better had they cast German or Czech actors in the lead roles, it would have added a great deal more authenticity for sure. Brecht had hoped that they would cast German speaking actors, but in the end it was decided they would go with a mix of American and German actors.

Brian Donlevy strikes me as an odd casting decision. He has never been an actor I’ve liked, and he often strikes me as being rather wooden in many of his roles. He isn’t too bad here, but he does come across as quite unemotional and calm, which I doubt would be the case for his character when he was on the run in fear of his life. As the film goes on I think his performance improves somewhat, but during the first part of the film he isn’t all that great.

Anna Lee also starts out as not being that impressive, but then she gets much better as the film goes on. She is very convincing as the frightened young woman who finds an inner strength, and the courage which enables her to do her bit in standing up against oppression.

When I saw Walter Brennan’s name on the opening credits, I thought to myself what a very strange casting choice for this film. Brennan is a very good actor, but his screen persona didn’t really strike me as one that was really going to fit this story. How wrong I was! He is excellent as the professor and I was pleasantly surprised to see him deliver one of the best performances in the film. His very famous voice sounds quite different here to how it usually sounded. He is excellent as the quiet, gentle, and dignified man who accepts whatever the Nazis do to him because he knows it will show them up as the monsters they are.

Lionel Stander has a small role and I’m afraid to say that his distinctive voice will take you right out of the film, he just sounds so bizarre and out of place here.

Jonathan Hale is excellent as Dedic, the highly experienced leader of the resistance movement. He steals all the scenes he is in. Hale makes his character strong, calm under pressure, and also someone who is a reassuring and strong presence.

Reinhold Schunzel is creepy, sadistic and completely over the top as the Gestapo chief who enjoys his job a little too much. He sits there playing with the people he is about to torture, cracking his knuckles and giggling, while adeptly tripping people up in their stories and catching them out in lies.

Hans Heinrich von Twardowski is very memorable in his small appearance as Heydrich. He conveys the power and arrogance of this man perfectly, and he makes us see why he was so hated and feared.

Dennis O’Keefe is very good as Jan, who is Masha’s boyfriend. He plays his character as someone we are never really sure about, can he be trusted, will he turn on his girl to save himself? This character is also quite heroic and likeable.

Gene Lockhart delivers a standout performance as Czaka, the man who pretends to be one thing and who is actually another.

Alexander Granach delivers the performance of the film for me. He steals every scene he is in as the watchful and tough inspector. He guzzles down beer after beer with seemingly few side effects. I think his haircut would not have looked out of place in 1980’s punk Britain.

My favourite scenes are the following. Masha and her father saying goodbye in the cell. The people in the cinema rebelling against the Nazi soldier. The hostages reading and memorising a poem about resisting. Masha cradling the beaten old woman in the torture cell, in silhouette we then see a Gestapo officer walk into the cell carrying a whip, we don’t need to see more to know what is about to happen to these two women. The betrayed resistance members giving their betrayer a piece of their mind. The lipstick mark scene and the fight that follows on from that. Svoboda and Masha acting out a conversation for the Gestapo bug hidden in the apartment.  Svoboda deliberately spilling red wine to cover up a bloodstain.

This is a cracking film. I think it is one that really does deserve to be much better known by classic film fans today. I’d say that this is one of Lang’s best films. He manages to capture the best and worst of humanity in this film, and he creates a dark and gloomy atmosphere that stays in the mind long after the film is over. This one is also very remarkable given the fact that it was made so soon after the real events, it is also very frank for the time in its depiction of the violence and horror of the Nazi regime.

It is a somewhat depressing film, but there is certainly a glimmer of hope and happiness at the end; I think that this ending was included to boost the morale of people watching this. This would hopefully have served as a lesson to ordinary people in how they could fight these monsters who were invading their homes, and who were trying to destroy cultures as they moved around Europe.

I’d recommend seeing this on Blu-ray, it’s been restored and looks so clear and sharp. There’s also an interesting commentary, plus there is a documentary about the real events and about Heydrich.

Anyone else seen this?

 

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Coming Of Age, Second World War

Forbidden Games (1952)

The innocence of our childhood is something that we sadly never retain as we grow older. We often look back to our childhood years and yearn for that time again. I think we have this yearning because our early years were simpler, and we were not aware of the horror and pain of the adult world.

Rene Clement’s haunting, beautiful, and deeply moving coming of age story, captures this childhood innocence perfectly. His film also captures this idyllic time being shattered. He does a good job of depicting a moment (that must come to us all)in which the children lose their childhood innocence and finally see and enter the adult world. The film reminds me quite a bit of Whistle Down The Wind, and if you enjoyed that film then I think you’ll enjoy this one too.

This film is a war film that is notable for focusing not on the soldiers and battles, but on the ordinary people caught up in the war who have to carry on living in a war zone. It is rare for war films to focus on the toll on civilians during wartime, so it’s nice to see this one focusing on that a bit. The opening sequence of an air strike shows how quickly and randomly people are killed in war. Showing all of this from a child’s perspective gives it even more power as the horror and confusion is heightened.

Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly give two of the most moving performances in film history. The fact that they were both so young when they starred in this really makes their performances all the more remarkable. I think they both really deserved some kind of award for their work here. They both make your heart break as we watch what they go through, especially during the last few scenes of the film.

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The film is set in France, in 1940. The Second World War is raging and people are being killed. Paulette (Brigitte Fossey)is a young girl who is fleeing into the countryside with her parents, and her pet dog, Jock. A German air strike kills her parent and injures Jock who soon dies. Confused and traumatised, Paulette wanders along a riverbank carrying her dead dog, and she ventures deeper into the countryside. She is found by Michel (Georges Poujouly)a slightly older child who is the son of a poor farmer. His family take in Paulette and try and care for her. Paulette has no concept of death and doesn’t understand what has happened to her parents and dog. We see her try to make sense of world without them in it.

Paulette and Michel develop a strong bond and become inseparable. Paulette is obsessed with death and she and Michel try and leave the reality of their world behind. They retreat deeper and deeper into their own little world, and they build a graveyard in which to bury the bodies of dead animals (including Paulette’s beloved dog)that they come across.

The pair steal and make crosses to use as headstones. Michel doesn’t fully understand that stealing is wrong, but you can see he sort of knows he shouldn’t be doing it; Paulette on the other hand has no idea that what they are doing is wrong and she doesn’t understand the anger and annoyance of the adults when they discover the children are to blame.

I like how the children see all life, not only human, but animal too as being sacred and meaningful. They feel that animals should have graves and be remembered too. I also like how kind and compassionate the children are shown to be, whereas the adults are mostly depicted as being angry and selfish. Michel’s parents have moments where they are kind and tender but they are few and far between.

I always think this film is telling us that we take life more slowly and feel things more deeply when we are children. Quite why we lose that nobody knows, but it is a sad fact of life that we end up becoming hardened and less inclined to see the wonder in our surroundings as we age.

This is a film that stays with me long after it’s finished. This is a film that gets into my heart and soul, I feel with and for these two children and I get angry and upset every time I watch because of what happens at the end. If ever there was a film that I wish had a different ending it would be this one. Having said that though, this ending is certainly realistic and shows that something has to happen to us all to spur us into our adulthood. If only in this case that something didn’t have to be quite so sad and cruel. 😦  The ending to this film makes me cry each time I watch.

Interestingly the Blu-ray I own includes an alternative opening and ending. These sequences show Brigitte and Georges sitting by a river reading a story (the book that appears in the opening credits)and we understand that Paulette and Michel are just fictional characters. These sequences have a dreamlike or fantasy look about them, and I guess they serve to make the film less upsetting. I think not featuring them was the correct choice though as the emotional impact of the ending is what makes this film both powerful and unforgettable. It’s nice to see these sequences though.

My favourite scenes are the following. Michel and the owl at the end of the film. Paulette’s first night in her new home. Michel helping Paulette not to be afraid of the dark. The fight in the graveyard. Paulette walking through the country carrying Jock. The first time we see the completed animal grave. Michel trying to catch the escaped cow.

I consider this to be one of the best coming of age films there has ever been. The acting is excellent, the music is beautiful and the film is one you don’t forget in a hurry. I’d say this is one of the best French films ever made. What are your thoughts on this film?

British Cinema, Second World War

Ice Cold In Alex (1958)

I don’t know about anyone else, but I sure do love a good survival against the elements film. Ice Cold In Alex is one of the very best. You can practically feel the heat of the sun, feel the trickling drops of sweat, smell the sweat, and feel the raging thirst being experienced by all the characters.

Ice Cold In Alex is directed by J.Lee Thompson, the film is based upon the novel by Christopher Landon. Landon joined T.J Morrison in writing the tense and gripping screenplay for the film.

There’s some fine camera work on display here provided by Gilbert Taylor. The way this one is shot gives it an almost documentary look, and I think that it adds greatly to the realism of the story. The film was shot on location in Alexandria, and I do think that was the perfect decision, as you just can’t beat filming out on location for these types of films.

I like how this film isn’t really your typical war film. It is more of a character study than most WW2 flicks are. These characters are caught up in the war, but are not really taking part in it, as they are mostly seen moving through conflict zones or away from them. This one is more about what war does to those caught up in it and how you survive in such situations. It is also one of the best survival stories ever filmed in my opinion.

Our characters must endure insane levels of heat, and a serious lack of water and food. They find they must put aside their differences so they have a chance at surviving.  Their ambulance becomes their home and shelter, but it too becomes difficult to endure when it breaks down, or when the inside of it really heats up during the day making it unbearable for the passengers.

I also think the film was quite ahead of its time in showing John Mills character as suffering from the issues he does. He’s alcoholic and suffering trauma from his time as a prisoner.

It’s rare to see either of these issues depicted in war films made during or just after the real events. I think that the inclusion of this helps to make the character even more relatable in a way, as we can see he is suffering and fighting against himself to stay strong and in control. It also brings home the realities of war to us, people never come out of war how they went into it.

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Ice Cold In Alex begins in the searing heat of Tobruk, Africa in 1942. Rommell’s desert campaign is at its height. Nervous and boozy ambulance driver Captain Anson(John Mills)is ordered by his commanding officer to take his ambulance, affectionately known as “Katy”, and head over to Alexandria.

Anson is joined by his loyal mate Tom Pugh(the hugely underrated Harry Andrews)and two young nurses Diana Murdoch(Sylvia Syms)and Denise Norton(Diane Clare). The nurses were left stranded when they were fired on during an evacuation attempt at the harbour.

Anson is suffering from PTSD and alcoholism. He was recently captured by the Germans, he managed to escape, but his escape forced him to walk through the desert for a couple of days without water, and he is now reliant on alcohol to steady his nerves. When their convoy is attacked, Anson must try and find a way to stay sober so he can find a way of leading them all to safety.

Things get complicated when the group are attacked by Germans and they pick up a stranded African soldier, Captain Van Der Poel(Anthony Quale)who they begin to suspect of possibly being a German spy. Anson also has problems of a different nature, when he slowly begins to realise that Diana is falling in love with him, and that he shares her feelings and desires.

As the danger increases and the desert temperature gets hotter and hotter, our characters are tested in every way possible. Tempers are lost, courage is shown and a strong bond is forged.

The story is superb and it is filled with so much tension that it really keeps you on the edge of your seat. As good as the story is though I think it’s fair to say that it is the performances and characters that are the real highlight here. We become so caught up in the story that we become very connected with these characters, and they all come across as being quite believable and very real individuals. We feel for them and we fear for them.

Mills is perfect as the brave and cynical Anson, slowly snapping under the intense pressure and trying to stay off the alcohol. I consider his performance here to be the best he ever gave. Mills conveys so well the emotional and physical strain this mission is placing on Anson.

We can see the desperation in Anson’s eyes, you can feel his increasing desire for a drink to calm himself growing and growing. Most important of all Mills shows us that this man is almost at breaking point, when he snaps, it won’t be a pretty sight. I think it is such a shame that Mills never again got a role quite like this one. This is such a shame as he gets to show here what a truly gifted dramatic actor he really was.

There’s excellent support from the rest of the cast. Anthony Quale, as the strong, quiet, and enigmatic Captain Van Der Poel. I’ve never been a big fan of Quale, but I think he is excellent here and this is one of his best performances for sure. He keeps you guessing as to his characters motivation and loyalty.

Andrews is perfect as the gruff, no nonsense Tom Pugh, a seasoned veteran he focuses upon the task in hand and nothing else. This character is calm under pressure and is someone you’d want around in a crisis.

Sylvia Syms is excellent as Diana, the young woman with a cool head on her shoulders, who must overcome her own fears to stay strong in order to survive. I like how she acts tough, even during times when she could have just crumpled and broke down. The growing attraction between Anson and Diana is believable and both Mills and Syms convey their characters growing attraction perfectly.

Highlights include a nail biting walk and drive through a live minefield(which was an improvised sequence by the director).Van Der Poel getting trapped in a swamp. The famous ending in the bar, which of course gave us that famous TV advert for lager.

When I’m in the mood for a film filled with strong performances and a realistic and tense story, then this is a film that I always take down from the DVD shelf. No matter how many times I watch this it never fails to impress me, or to have me on the edge of my seat in fear for the characters (even though I know what’s going to happen to them. 🙂 ) A real British classic.

My favourite scenes are the following. All of the group trying to push the ambulance up a steep sand hill. The final conversation between Diana and Anson in the ambulance, where so much is said in what is unsaid. The minefield sequence. The group burying a fallen comrade in the middle of the desert and taking a moment to quietly remember them.

I own this one on Blu-ray and the picture quality is first rate. It’s so sharp and clear and looks very impressive. I’d say that’s the best version of this to get your hands on if you want to watch it.

Fun fact about the film. Real alcohol had to be drunk in the bar sequence, as none of the substitutes could get the look and froth of a real freshly poured pint. Several takes had to be done, and in each one Mills had to down a full pint. He ended up getting very drunk and had to go to his trailer to sleep it off! There are worse days to be had at work I suppose. 😉

Any other fans of this one?

 

British Cinema, Second World War

Went The Day Well? (1942)

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Quite simply, this is one of the best films ever made at Ealing Studios. This film was a rare none comic film from a studio that was best known for its comic output. The film looks at how we act under pressure and threat. It also shows us that we can all make a difference in such circumstances.

For a film from the 40’s, Went The Day Well? contains some extremely graphic and dark scenes. For instance, there’s the scene where a woman murders a German soldier and in turn she is murdered by his colleague. The scene where members of the home guard are gunned down on the road. The scene where a woman is slapped for not obeying instructions. There is also the scene where the Vicar is shot to death in his church.

One of the most shocking (and for me the most unforgettable)scenes comes near the end of the film. A live grenade is thrown into a room full of children, an older woman notices it, grabs it and runs from the room with it, only to be blown up.

The body count in this film is very high. Both British and German characters are killed throughout, leading to the battle for the village in the films final minutes.

The film is based on a story by Graham Greene. The film no doubt served as a reminder to British people at the time to remain vigilant to the possible invasion of the enemy.

Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Went The Day Well? tells the story of a group of German paratroopers who seize control of the British village of Bramley End. Some of the villagers make an heroic stand against the soldiers, and they try and get word to neighbouring communities of the arrival of the Germans.

Unbeknown to the villagers one of their own is a German sleeper agent. Leslie Banks plays the double crossing Oliver Wilsford with relish. Wilsford is despicable having no qualms about happily ending the lives of people he has lived amongst for years.

This film has a cracking cast to enjoy.

Marie Loher is excellent as the heroic Mrs. Fraser.

C.V France is excellent as the steadfast Vicar, willing to risk his own life instead of bowing beneath the jackboot.

Valerie Taylor is Nora, the Vicar’s gentle daughter who will do the unthinkable and resort to violence.

Harry Fowler is George, a young boy who will risk his own life to alert neighbours to the invasion.

A very young Thora Hird is memorable as Ivy. She is shown happily dispatching Germans off with her shotgun.

Muriel George is Mrs. Collins, the brave postmistress who gives a side order of hatchet with her sausages and mash.

A young David Farrar impresses as an ice cold German soldier casually threatening to kill the village children.

The film interestingly depicts everyone in this community working together for the greater good. Whether they be rich or poor, old or young, male or female; the villagers come together and work as one to defeat the enemy.

I also like how for most of the film it is the women who come up with plans of escape or of warning the outside(the eggs with a message on for example). The film also offers some very strong female roles, and shows the women to be just as brave and capable(if not more so)as the men.

This is one of my favourite war time films, and it is a film that I consider to be one of the best British films ever made. I also wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this film influenced The Eagle Has Landed.

Highly recommended if you’ve never seen it. If you have, please leave your thoughts below.

 

Romance, Second World War

Enchantment (1948)

Saw this little gem for the first time yesterday and really enjoyed it. I’d never heard of it before, and I think it’s one that deserves to be better known. Beginning in London, during the Second World War, the film takes us back in time to the Edwardian era as we follow the experiences of one family.

David Niven plays both the older and younger Rollo, embittered by the tragic end to his romance with his fathers ward, Lark (Teresa Wright). Rollo’s cold hearted, elder sister Selina(Jayne Meadows)is nasty to Lark and puts in place several obstacles to prevent the burgeoning love between her brother and Lark. I have rarely felt such hate towards a film character as I have towards Selina; interfering, controlling and cold, she wants to be the centre of attention at all times and can’t bear it when others are happy. At the same time I was fascinated by why she was that way; at the beginning we learn her mother died when she and her two brothers were young, and she became the mistress of the house(essentially she had to grow up before her time), I also think she resented Lark being brought into her family. As sad as Selina’s childhood may have been it doesn’t excuse such behaviour when she grows up.

Niven is excellent here, hugely likeable(when wasn’t he?)as the dashing, younger Rollo and almost unrecognisable as the older man. Wright is enchanting as the gentle Lark, struggling with her feelings and enduring unpleasantness from Selina for years.Evelyn Keyes and Farley Granger play war time sweethearts with a connection to Rollo’s family.

I really liked that the family home serves as the films narrator, there is that old saying “if only walls could talk”, in this film we get to hear what they would say if they could. The opening really made me think about houses and what goes on inside those four walls, and how connected we are to the home we grew up in.

This is very sad in places, if ever a couple deserved a happy ending it was Rollo and Lark, sadly that just wasn’t to be so.Good performances, beautiful costumes(Wright in particular gets some stunning gowns)and period detail. Highly recommended.

 

 

British Cinema, Second World War

Millions Like Us (1943)

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This is one of my all time favourite films. This shows us the experiences of British women, during the Second World War. Set in an aircraft factory overseen by Eric Portman’s no nonsense foreman; we share the joys and heartbreak of a small group of women who sign up to do their bit while the men are away.

There’s the romantic Celia(Patricia Roc), pragmatic Gwen(Megs Jenkins) and the haughty and elegant Jennifer(Ann Crawford). Despite the differences in their background, these girls become firm friends as they adjust to their new duties.

Celia finds love with a young RAF officer(a baby faced Gordon Jackson), and Jennifer finds herself falling in love with foreman Charlie(Eric Portman). Some of the funniest and most moving scenes in the film are those featuring these two couples.

This really gives you a sense of what life on the homefront was like, aerial bombardments and people from all walks of life being forced to work and live together.  I greatly admire the indomitable spirit of the characters in this; it’s easy to see why this was a real morale booster upon release.

No doubt this film helped women of the time realise the valuable work they could do if they left the kitchen for a change. The war years were tough but for women they brought freedom and independence, as many worked (apart from domestic tasks)for the first time in their lives, life would never be the same when the men returned.

Great performances from the entire cast. Particular praise must go to Eric Portman(one of my favourite actors, someone who should be much better known today)and Ann Crawford(Ann tragically passed away in 1956, aged just 35.)

A little gem that deserves to be better known. I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it.