Picturenose is delighted to herald the return of one of our very finest writers, Paul Stump, with his thoughts on a classic Ealing crime film, The Blue Lamp (1950). Take it away, Paul, and welcome back!
I declare an interest. I was born and (at least in part) brought up in London, and so have a sympathy for movies that convey, or attempt to, everyday life there at any point in recent history. But should I let it cloud my judgement of a film’s merits and demerits? I hope not; I try to avoid it. But, ultimately, can I? Indeed, should I? I count myself unfortunate to live in a country – the UK – where the notion of homeland or roots is a culturally very strong one. Not as strong as the mythicized aggrandisement of the concepts of Volk and Heimat under the Third Reich, but on the Celtic fringes of the UK, such as Wales, it may yet assume that form.
I prefer adherence to the dictum of arguably Britain’s greatest living Modernist cultural commentator, Jonathan Meades, who declares, memorably, that ‘only vegetables need roots’. Cultural artefacts that rely upon a share of a particular complex of identifiers with specific times and places become difficult to evaluate for outsiders. As such, The Blue Lamp (1950) has become a part of British cultural folklore that is so rooted in its time and place – it is in its own way for this reason that explaining it to those unfamiliar with the milieu is no mean feat. But I shall try, because I think the effort is worth it, as are the sterling work of cast and crew.
It often draws surprise from observers when they learn that the film is a product of Ealing Studios, synonymous with its monochrome comedies of tweedy grotesques, teachers in mortarboards, eccentric spinsters and idealised little people pitched against villainous authority. It’s a policer, and rugged enough in tone to have the posters boldly headlining it as ‘The Battle for the Streets’. Ostensibly, it is about a seasoned, kindly bobby, George Dixon (Jack Warner) training a greenhorn copper, Andy Mitchell (Tommy Hanley, popular wartime radio comedian and go-to guy for cheeky chappie roles).
Mark Duguid, a cinema historian, in an excellent series of contributions to the BFI’s website on the contrasting light and dark styles of Ealing pictures analyses it thus: “The Blue Lamp’s credentials…as part of our ‘dark’ strand are strong”, and justifies this by reference to the film’s most shocking and memorable scenes in which the quietly heroic Dixon confronts teenage tearaway Tom Riley (a very young, very pretty Dirk Bogarde) in the course of a petty local theft. Riley simply shoots Dixon in cold blood, and in so doing effectively extinguishes not just a life but a whole set of moral and social values that for a 21st-century audience may seem laughably quaint but which, in the London depicted by director Basil Dearden and writers T.E.B. Clarke (screenplay), Jan Read (original treatment), Ted Willis (original treatment) and Alexander Mackendrick (additional dialogue) formed a cohesive social glue.
Even London’s criminals team up with the police to help trap Riley in a stunning final sequence at the White City Stadium, so heinous is the murder to ‘ordinary folk’ – a trope loved by Ealing movies, both light and dark. In this it has a curious antecedent, Fitz Lang’s M (1931), an Expressionist meisterwerk in which the pursuit of a child killer unites police and thieves. Dearden is no Lang – never could be – but the crisp, taut direction, unusually unaffected performances and brilliantly evocative lighting, as well as the use of a time and place evocative of nostalgia to create something that transcends both its time and its place, make this no ordinary Ealing film, and no ordinary British one. This writer always misjudged it. Did you?