Friday, July 1, 2011

Coming To Grips With The Matter

The Crimes Of Stephen Hawke(1936)
Director: George King
Cast: Tod Slaughter, Marjorie Taylor, D.J. Williams

Despite the popularity afforded his The Demon Barber of Fleet Street(1936), the best Sweeney Tod adaption, this could very well be Tod Slaughter's best film. Slaughter stars as Stephen Hawke, a benevolent, respected money lender with a beautiful daughter whom he adores and devotes all his work to. By night he is the notorious "spine breaker", a ruthless killer who robs the rich and murders them by snapping they're backs with his hands! The film opens, quite bizarrely, with a radio program with an odd duet between two men named "Flotsam and Jetsam", not to be confused with the cult thrash metal band of the 1980s.Then a brief comedy skit is performed, before Tod is finally introduced as himself, the master of that "old new melodrama" and he begins to recall the story about Stephen Hawke.

 The plot begins in especially disturbing fashion with Hawke murdering a little boy in his garden. Now while it was an obnoxious child, the impact of this brutal act is felt the entire picture. We than learn about Hawke's company, a loan office and about his kindness and generosity. He keeps quite a convinving facade, despite his employment of a suspicious, hunchbacked assistant(Graham Soutten) sporting one leg and an eye patch, the missing leg, a real deformity of the actor. Hawke hopes to keep his daughter(Marjorie Taylor) happy by holdinh lavish parties and surrounding her with rich and important people, which he can also rob from. Eventually, an old friend(D.J. Williams, a frequent Slaughter collaborator) suspects Hawke of the crimes and he is silenced one evening. Unfortunately for Hawke, he told his son(Eric Portman) his fear and despite being engaged to Slaughter's daughter, he tricks Hawke into confessing by disguising himself under a shroud as his father's corpse in a particularly eerie vignette. Hawke is given a chance to escape and does, hiding in prison, but when hearing about his daughter being blackmailed into marriage by the police chief(Miles Archer), he escapes and murders him. This leads to the predictable Slaughter conclusion, with him sporting his traditional flintlock pistol and giving the line about having one bullet and holding off the police, where he is chased to the roof and falls to his death, before revealing that he adopted his daughter and tells her he loves her.

Not especially well directed by George King, the picture nonetheless moves at a lightning pace and manages to be both entertaining and fascinating. Perhaps, the static photography actually enhances this kind of story, though, so it may not be seen as much of a debit. The scene with Portman posing as his father's corpse is very effective and again, as with all these Slaughter films, the feeling for the period is just right.

 Slaughter is actually given a chance for once at developing a character that is somewhat sympathetic, showing genuine affection and concern for his daughter. He also has some truly hilarious bits of dialouge, which are a credit to the screenwriters for how well they play out. When the police chief is speaking to Hawke at his daughter's birthday party, he approaches Hawke about marrying his daughter, where the following exchange is made:
The Chief is unaware he is addressing the spine breaker says, "So further discussion is in order, sir?"
Hawke: "Naturally, then we can come to grips with the matter"
Chief: "Good. Then we can clinch the bargain, eh?"
Hawke: "Clinch is the word, Sir"

The film is full of darkly funny moments like this, illustrating why these dated melodramas were so much fun  in the first place. Overall, the acting is appropiate to the drama at hand, Slaughter and Soutten coming off best with the most juicy parts. Portman does have his moments towards the end, as his line readings begin to sound like Robert Donat at the conclusion of The Count of Monte Cristo(1934), as he hounds the fleeing Hawke mercilessly.

Most of Tod Slaughter's films are woefully forgotten today, and that's peculiar given the humongous cult status afforded the classic horror films of the 30s and 40s. His films are just good old fashioned, melodramatic fun and a perfect way to spend an hour for those wishing for some classic escapism, At the conclusion of the film, the radio announcer is shown dozing, as Tod smiles and walks away. It's ludicrous that anyone could find themselves falling asleep during a rip-snorter like this, though.

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