An overwhelming sense of gimcrack seediness pervades the finest post-war British film-noirs. The Long Dark Hall is the tale of an outwardly respectable type who is impacted in the murder of a showgirl, and it stars the then husband and wife team of Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer as Arthur and Mary Groome. The screenplay by Nunnally Johnson was based on A Case to Answer, published in 1947 as the first of several accounts of crimes penned by the barrister Edgar Lustgarten, who was to become an unforgettable cinematic presence.
‘They were susceptible to an emotional appeal’
Lustgarten enjoyed performing while conducting a cross-examination before a jury – ‘they were susceptible to an emotional appeal’ he was to reflect in later life – or on the wireless. By the 1930s he was writing scripts for BBC radio while his most famous contribution to films were, of course, Anglo-Amalgamated’s Scotland Yard (1953 – 1961) and Scales of Justice (1962 – 1967) B-features. Edgar would host and narrate each tale with a certain lugubrious relish – ‘and it was here the villain made his fatal error’, he would intone before Russell Napier swept up in his black Wolseley.
The very early Scotland Yards directed by Ken Hughes display Lustgarten as quite an active figure, prowling around Merton Park Studio’s replica of his study, sardonically commenting on the actions and motives of Soho denizens. By 1959, Edgar was evidently so burdened by the wickedness of the nascent consumer society that he was capable of only sitting at his desk and reading the auto prompt. Fortunately, he rallied for Scales of Justice to wander around supermarkets and Wimpy-built housing estates, moralising amongst the Hillman Super Minxs. The Long Dark Hall is a full-length vision of Lustgarten’s world although censorship of the day meant that it was almost inevitably bowdlerised from the novel, in which “Kate Haggerty“ is a prostitute.
The ever-mercurial Harrison was to later dismiss the film as ‘near the top of the list’ of his worst picture’s which is both unfair and understandable. The shooting took place shortly after the Carole Landis scandal – Alexander Walker’s book Fatal Charm: The Life of Rex Harrison contains an extensive account of the tragedy – while a further reason for his disdain is that The Long Dark Hall is populated by the very finest of Britain’s character actors, each of who could dominate a frame without any apparent effort. Harrison was, according to many accounts, a thespian with more than his fair share of ego and therefore unlikely to warm to a drama populated by Raymond Huntley, Brenda de Banzie and, as Groome’s defence lawyer, the co-director Anthony Bushell.
There are also excellent performances by Michael Medwin, the ever-shifty Eric Pohlmann as “Mr. Polaris”, a pre-Callan William Squire as a Detective Sergeant, and a stern-faced Ballard Berkeley as a Superintendent. A very young Jill Bennett plays the murderer’s first victim, while Anthony Dawson dominates the narrative. No other British actor, with the possible exception of Denholm Elliott, could exude that toxic combination of over-oiled public school manners and barely suppressed rage.
But perhaps the major reasons for Harrison’s disdain for The Long Dark Hall were that neither a production with a budget of £95,000 made at Walton Studios, nor the part of a philandering office worker accorded with his self-image. Reginald Carey, the son of a cotton broker from Liverpool, had worked too hard and for too long to become “Rex Harrison” to return to a drab middle-class existence, even on screen. The irony is that Groome is one of his most interesting roles since Vivian Kenway of The Rake’s Progress – a blustering and faintly pathetic figure beneath the thinnest veneer of social poise.
Harrison was ‘completely natural and convincing in his characterisation of a man who is shaken by shame, fear and hopeful anxiety and is sustained by the loyalty of a wife who understands the weakness of the flesh’.
It would not be a betrayal of the plot to observe that, as with any Lustgarten tale, the law is infallible just as ‘crime does not pay’. What The Long Dark Hall, as with the best of the Merton Park thrillers, does infer is the heavy cost of human frailty to the main protagonist and to his wider circle. As Bosley Crowther noted in The New York Times, Harrison was ‘completely natural and convincing in his characterisation of a man who is shaken by shame, fear and hopeful anxiety and is sustained by the loyalty of a wife who understands the weakness of the flesh’. And where you can almost smell the rising damp, the boiled cabbage and the week-old Brylcreem worn by the patrons of “Joe’s Club”.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA