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The October Man

Posted by martinteller on March 25, 2015

Jim Ackland (John Mills) is taking his friend’s young daughter home on the bus one dark and stormy night when one of the wheels comes off.  The little girl dies, and Jim suffers from a fractured skull… and a feeling of guilt.  The experience has aroused suicidal impulses, and he spends a year in the hospital.  Upon release, he takes up residence at a hotel.  Among the other residents are a judgmental gossip (Joyce Carey), a bookish man rumored to be wealthy (Edward Chapman), an elderly woman who is constantly cold (Esme Beringer), and Jim’s neighbor, Molly Newman (Kay Walsh), a model who is struggling to pay her rent.  Jim gets a job as a chemist, and falls in love with his colleague’s sister Jenny (Joan Greenwood).  Just when his life is starting to look bright again, Molly borrows money from him and that same evening is strangled in the commons.  With his check found crumpled in a ball near her body, and his history of mental illness, Jim is hounded by Inspector Godby (Frederick Piper).

Roy Ward Baker’s debut feature is a solid Britnoir.  It’s much in the vein of Hitchcock’s “wrong man” pictures (and the opening sequence is loaded with Hitchcockian suspense and dread), but with less humor and more psychological drama.  It’s not humorless — there’s comedy in the interactions among the hotel residents — but for the most part it’s a gloomy, moody affair.  As Ackland butts heads with the stubborn Godby (does he only seem shockingly poor as a detective because we know Ackland is innocent, or is it reasonable to ask our law enforcement not to single-mindedly focus on a single suspect while ignoring all other possibilities?), he begins to doubt his own sanity.  It’s a theme similar to Curtis Bernhardt’s High Wall, from the same year.  How do you reconcile your knowledge of innocence with everyone else so certain of your guilt, especially when your mind has worked against you before?

Mills is great, as he pretty much always is.  Greenwood has a haunting elegance to her.  Piper and Carey are appropriately loathsome.  The real star of the film may be cinematographer Erwin Hiller.  Hiller has previously shot two films with the Archers (A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going!).  Here he displays a strong sense of atmosphere, with enveloping shadows and ethereal clouds of smoke and fog.  The hotel takes on claustrophobic closeness with canted angles and tight framing.

The movie is occasionally sluggish, especially in the first third.  After that it becomes more “slow burn” than “sluggish”, although one punctuated with a couple of thrilling moments.  It’s also all too easy to guess who the killer is, but it’s revealed quite a while before the end anyway so it’s not that big a deal.  In general, it’s a satisfying picture without any nagging flaws.  Rating: Very Good (83)


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