The Gaunt Stranger (1938)
In the story of British cinema, The Gaunt Stranger holds a historic place as the first film produced by Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios. And right from the start we are offered a glimpse of the groundbreaking styles that would soon become apparent. Whilst the story itself is rather standard whodunnit fare, it opens in a rather novel way: We see a policeman walking through the street shining his torch at a wall. The credits are unveiled by the light of the torch. It's a similar device to that used ten years later in Hue & Cry when the credits are shown as chalked graffiti on a bombsite wall.
This is the third version of Edgar Wallace’s play ‘The Ringer’ – and the second to star John Longden (who plays Inspector Bliss in this version and played Inspector Wembury in 1930). As one might expect from Edgar Wallace, it’s a strong story with an intriguing twist. Wallace is very much the forgotten man of early 20th Century British literature: he sold millions of books (publishing 170 novels during the 1920s!), including perennial classics like ‘The Four Just Men’ and was one of the writers credited with creating King Kong (although the level of his input is the subject of debate). Yet if you look in bookshops you can hardly find any of his books and even second hand bookshops (if you can find one these days) seldom have any of his works.
This is the story of a master criminal known as ‘The Ringer’ who appears to have come back from the dead to threaten one of his enemies, a rather unsavoury criminal Maurice Meister (played by Wilfred Lawson).
Inspector Wembury (Patrick Barr) sets out to investigate the threats and is joined by a police doctor, Dr Lomond (Alexander Knox) and Sam Hackett (played by Sonnie Hale), a petty criminal released from gaol to help identify ‘The Ringer’. Hale provides the comical relief whilst Patricia Roc (in her first credited screen role) playing Meister’s secretary Mary Lenley, and Louise Henry as the widow of ‘The Ringer’.
There are plenty of suspect’s: Inspector Bliss (John Longden) arrives from Australia on the trail of the widow …
… then there’s John Lenley (played by Peter Croft) who is recently released from prison and has a score to settle with Meister.
I won’t go into details of the plot (what’s the point of knowing the ending of a mystery story?) but it’s an efficient little thriller that has the audience wondering whether ‘The Ringer’ has really returned from the grave or whether someone else is using this to cover their own plans to murder Meister.
Some points to note:
Louise Henry made 21 films between 1931 and 1939, and was considered to have great potential by those in Hollywood. It was a surprise for many when, in 1939, she gave up acting and returned to her home town of Syracuse, New York and opened a drama workshop which she ran until the 1970s when she retired for a second time. She died in 2011 aged 100.
Peter Croft made just fourteen films between 1935 and 1949 but went on to have a successful career as a television director, working on: Double Your Money, Sexton Blake and Ready Steady Go. He even directed six episodes of Crossroads between 1978 and 1984.
Sonnie Hale appears to wear the same suit as worn by Jack Livesey in Penny Paradise (also 1938) - although it seems to be a much better fit on Hale:
|Betty Driver & Jack Livesey|
The style of the suit: ridiculously bold stripes, peaked lapels, double breasted waistcoat, slanted hip pockets, combined with bow tie and boldly patterned cap, mark out the wearer as a rather dodgy character – something that would have been instantly recognised by a 1930’s audience.
Both Alexander Knox and Patrick Barr had roles in The Longest Day (1962).
We are also treated to some comic relief courtesy of a stereotypical drunk Scotsman:
|"A Scotsman is never drunk while he can still breathe."|
The film is now available to purchase courtesy of the kind folks at Network DVD: