BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: Nowhere to Go - Extended Edition / DVD Review

An atypical last flourish from Ealing Studios, Nowhere to Go (1958) was hacked by Metro Goldwyn Mayer and lost 15 minutes of its running time to accommodate it within a double bill on original release. Studio Canal offer the unmolested version of the film on DVD this month and serve up a welcome opportunity to witness the dying days of Michael Balcon's studio in Seth Holt's visually assured, downbeat film noir crime thriller.

Balcon had already sold the Ealing production base to the BBC in 1955 and had struck a deal with Metro to make films under the Ealing banner at Borehamwood. But by 1958 times were changing and the claim by Balcon to "go on making dramas with a documentary background and comedies about ordinary people with the stray eccentric among them - films about daydreamers, mild anarchists, little men who long to kick the boss in the teeth" didn't generate much faith about the studio's survival as new forms of British cinema arrived to take centre stage, leaving Ealing behind as an anachronism.

Writer T E B Clarke clearly understood that the Ealing heyday, with its focus on community, would find it hard to survive at MGM Borehamwood, "I don't think any of us welcomed the change. There was little hope of the old team spirit being preserved now that we had ceased to be a self contained unit and the intimate atmosphere of our previous home was sadly missing from the new bleak areas of characterless buildings." (1)

In an attempt to ring the changes, Balcon went looking for new blood and after reading theatre critic provocateur Kenneth Tynan's article about Ealing in Harpers magazine, entitled 'Tight Little Studio', he offered Tynan the post of script editor in 1956. The £2000 per annum job lasted two years and did not prove particularly fruitful for either Tynan or the studio, with Nowhere to Go being the only film he scripted that made it into production. His projects that fell by the wayside included a Nigel Kneale adaptation of William Golding's Lord of the Flies and Lindsay Anderson's script about a hospital ward.

Tynan co-scripted and adapted Donald MacKenzie's novel Nowhere to Go with Seth Holt. Holt had joined Ealing in 1943, invited there by his brother-in-law Robert Hamer. As assistant editor he contributed to Ealing's Champagne Charlie (1944), Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and Passport to Pimlico (1949) and graduated to editor on Dance Hall (1950), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Mandy (1952) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) and was associate producer on The Ladykillers (1955). By the time Balcon offered Holt the chance to direct Nowhere to Go, Ealing was in decline.

For what he considered as "the least 'Ealing' Ealing film ever made" Holt stylishly embraced film noir and Nowhere to Go is a worthy addition to a whole clutch of British noir crime thrillers that explore feverish paranoia, claustrophobia and a specific male identity crisis found, for example, in I Became a Criminal (1947), Brighton Rock (1947), Odd Man Out (1947), The Third Man (1949) and Night and the City (1950).

Nowhere to Go's examination of one thief's descent into desperation also provides a lineage between Ealing's own It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) and Hammer's later thriller output, especially Hell is a City (1960). This particularly vivid flowering of the genre seemed to articulate the concerns about the post-war increase in crime just as Harold Macmillan declared we'd "never had it so good" in the economic boom of the 1950s.

Nowhere to Go opens with a prison break. Victor Sloane (Bernard Lee) silently negotiates a deserted railway station to go over the wall and break out accomplice Paul Gregory (George Nader, a handsome gay American actor who would benefit from Rock Hudson's lifelong friendship and estate). There is no music or dialogue, only the sound of muted conversation as prison guards leave their shift serenaded by trains roaring and dogs barking in the distance during a bravura slice of pure cinema. Holt and cinematographer Paul Beeson capture Sloane's progress in crisp black and white in a boldly expressionistic opening, as Gregory blows up his cell and goes over the wall, coolly supplemented with a downbeat jazz score from Dizzy Reece

He immediately becomes a man on the run and, after he finds his way to an apartment prepared by Sloane, Holt takes the opportunity to go into flashback as Gregory lies in the bath and recalls the recent past and a complex scheme to steal Canadian widow Harriet Jefferson's collection of rare coins, get jailed for the crime and stash the loot until he gets out. The back story is told in a pile up of short sequences, neatly compressing time, as Gregory's scam unfolds within an economic series of vignettes showing how he inveigles his way into Harriet's confidence. 
"nobody's gonna be on your side when it comes to doing much"
Nader plays Gregory with icy detachment, an alienated anti-hero caught in the space of the film's cold architecture delineated by Holt and Beeson in some stylish camera set ups. As the original crime is detailed, figures and objects are placed either in extreme foreground or diminish into the background. Dizzy Reece's sleazy, brassy music is dropped into the film but does not dominate, offering a musical punctuation to the criminality unfolding on screen and driving Holt's editing processes and his increasingly off kilter and forced perspective vision, 

In the valuation office, when Gregory sells the stolen coins, his face dominates the left of the screen as his anxiety escalates and he is suddenly aware that the office secretary may have spotted the bloody evidence of his break in, a finger cut on the broken glass of the coin case.

Holt's vision expertly articulates the growing anxiety of the central character as he ends up in jail longer than he expected and then, in a great twist, is threatened by his partner in crime, Sloane. In the apartment, the camera moves in rigid geometric lines, often simply tracking left to right, and is an extended expression of the meticulously planned escape and scheme.

Changing identity is central both to the con and to the man and Gregory pretends to be the club footed Milligan when Bridget Howard (Maggie Smith in her first major film role) turns up at the flat looking for its original owner. His sloughing on and off of the stacked shoe to effect this disability disguises him from those overseeing the safe deposit boxes containing the proceeds from the sale of the coins. It is also perhaps an indication of the disabling and fracturing of his own masculinity. There is the shoe, the cut finger, the beating that Sloane gives him and a final, fateful encounter with the local farmer that symbolise the breakdown of his detachment and the flight from London to Wales.

Sloane too undergoes a dramatic change, from avuncular partner into threateningly cold con man out to secure all the money for himself. He had already disguised himself as Lee Henderson to con Harriet in the flashback and now Holt emphasises the descent into the darker recesses of Sloane's greed by shooting low, showing Sloane savagely knocking Gregory to the floor and then shooting from floor level as Sloane ransacks the flat looking for the money recovered from a safe deposit box. Noir inflections in the lighting, Beeson's photography and Holt's crisp editing make this one of the most striking scenes in the film with its skewed perspective unveiling raw criminality and troubled masculinity.

Gregory's revenge is equally raw. He breaks into Sloane's home and attacks his wife and then coldly calculates his own physical attack on Sloane in another brilliantly executed sequence. Sloane is shown in a doorway peering down at a pile of sand that Gregory has placed on the hall floor until he's distracted enough for Gregory to cosh him over the head. Both men are shown as equally cruel and cold when Holt intercuts from close ups to a great shot of the two men in the doorway as Gregory moves the inert Sloane.

However, after Gregory ties up Sloane and his wife he desperately searches, to no avail, for the key to the safe deposit box. Holt imbues this frustration with great psychological tension. A chiming Christmas ornament gets louder and louder on the soundtrack as he searches the home and Gregory momentarily pauses while looking at a painting of a girl, the metal ornament reflecting across it as the chime increases. It tracks his frustration to the point that he smashes the painting, losing his cool, his criminal identity fracturing under the pressure. Holt shows him sweeping bottles and glasses directly into the camera.

After this, the film tracks his desperate flight across London. He attempts to break into a Mayfair residence to steal its contents now that the money from his previous crime seems out of reach. Again, Holt and Beeson create a claustrophobic atmosphere, full of looming shadows, objects forced into the foreground, a labyrinth of doorways.

It's a psychologically tainted visual expression of Gregory's troubles, exacerbated by the arrival of the housekeeper who then calls the police when she discovers his presence. A brilliantly composed shot shows Gregory at the top of the stairs watching the housekeeper speaking to the police, with her turning to see him and in two close ups their brief exchange before he tears off out of the door and into the night.

He turns to various associates: a nightclub owner who has gone straight and then shops him after he gets one of his hostesses, Rosa (Andree Melly sporting a rather unconvincing Irish accent), to harbour him overnight, and a criminal gang, led by Sullivan (a lovely cameo from a pre-Steptoe Harry H. Corbett), rejects him out of fear they will be tainted by associating with him. His escape from Rosa's flat is a well staged clamber across the rooftops at dawn after being woken by a cat, first shown prowling on a ledge in the foreground in another distinctive shot as the police arrive outside in the street.

Holt underlines the link between masculinity and the outcast or the transgressor with nationhood. When Gregory meets Sullivan the backdrop is Pall Mall and Mayfair, the city as an alienating presence when Sullivan informs Gregory that Sloane is dead and he has been elevated to the status of murderer.

He is now persona non grata, an isolated figure even in the criminal community where "nobody's gonna be on your side when it comes to doing much." It's then emphasised by Gregory's lonely figure walking away down the Mall. When Sullivan wishes him luck the film also continues its theme of fated goodwill that started with Sloane's 'be lucky' note in the apartment that greeted Gregory after his prison break out. It's a hollow form of luck that doesn't seem to do him any good at all and he is clearly a victim of fate right from the beginning. 

Gregory eventually meets Bridget again after a botched attempt to recover the money he has locked in a safe deposit box. She is the first person to whom he confides his failure and a woman we presumed was simply a minor character becomes a sympathetic figure, helping Gregory get out of London and hiding him in a cottage in Wales. Equally, Gregory generates some sympathy from the audience, becoming 'Greg' in the process, when his detachment and ambivalence give way to something approaching tenderness and compassion as they both discuss how he has cut himself off from "any decent human society". It all goes appallingly wrong, naturally, and his detachment is brought into sharp relief when on the drive to Wales he forces Bridget to run over a dog as they make their escape.

This is also a journey from city to country, briefly out of darkness into light, from the alienating forces within the urban landscape to a kind of natural release found in the regional space of the Brecon hills. However, even refuge in the cottage will not keep the forces of law and order away and his bleak odyssey is completed with a tragic anonymity as he dies slumped over the wheel of a lorry, losing control of the vehicle when a shotgun wound saps his remaining masculine vitality, all criminal solidarity and male power now subtracted. It's ironic that the last shot is of Bridget walking off into the landscape, under grey skies, framed by factory chimneys belching out smoke, the one woman who could have loved him and still unaware of Gregory's fate.

A rarely seen film, Nowhere to Go is a neglected gem and suggests that if Ealing had survived then Holt, like many of his predecessors at Ealing, may had found one way for the studio to look forward into the next decade. The film feels very much on the cusp of the 1950s and 1960s, its grittiness laying to rest much of the outmoded charm of the studio's earlier output. Nader is well cast, his stony faced detachment perhaps providing something of a one note performance and yet rather effective for a character that in the end only reveals a little of his inner self beneath an essential and calculating selfish masculine ambiguity.

He's supported by some recognisable British faces. Bernard Lee is excellent as the equally savage Sloane, Maggie Smith, in a BAFTA nominated performance, turns what could have been a limited character into an interesting female figure already caught up in the failures of one man only to become sympathetic to those of another and willing to subvert law and order to do so. As well as an early appearance from Harry H. Corbett also look out for Geoffrey Keen, as Gregory's nemesis Inspector Scott, and the likes of Glyn Houston, Noel Howlett and Lionel Jeffries.

(1) Charles Barr, Ealing Studios, A Movie Book

About the transfer
Paul Beeson's stylish, grainy black and white cinematography benefits from a decent presentation here in this digitally remastered edition. Contrast varies a bit, often becoming a bit grey and murky in places but on the whole is inky and solid. Picture quality does decline, as to be expected, when the film uses background opticals and that can be seen particularly in the sequences on Pall Mall. Overall though this is a decent transfer with very rare instances of specks of dirt and dust that is good on detail and atmosphere. A very enjoyable DVD viewing experience.

Special features

Revisiting Nowhere to Go (12:49)
Charles Barr charts the last days of Ealing, the work of Kenneth Tynan and the production of the film, including a few words on Reece's jazz compositions. First Assistant Michael Birkett recalls the shy Seth Holt as "the best brain" at Ealing and Tynan as a "very gifted creature" and Herbert Smith, Camera Assistant underlines something of Holt's drink problems that would eventually destroy his career.

Nowhere to Go
MGM presentation of an Ealing Films Production 1958
Cert: PG / Released 14 January 2013
Studio Canal DVD / Region 2 / Total Running Time: approx. 100 min / Black & White / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / English Language / Catalogue No: OPTD2400

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