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Smokescreen (1964)

Courtesy of Renown Pictures

Main image of Smokescreen (1964)
35mm, black and white, 66 min
Directed byJim O'Connolly
Production CompanyButcher's Film Service
Produced byJohn I. Phillips
Story / ScreenplayJim O'Connolly
CinematographyJack Mills
EditorHenry Richardson
MusicJohnny Gregory

A parsimonious insurance assessor is assigned the task of investigating the mysterious death of a businessman. Was it an accident? Suicide? Or something more sinister?

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From its arresting pre-credits sequence of a blazing 1953 Hillman Minx Convertible hurtling over Beachy Head and the off-beat promise of Johnny Gregory's minor key theme, Smokescreen is an utterly charming B-film comedy-thriller that emphasises character as much as plot and makes full use of extensive location footage. The standard British second feature crime setting - a nightclub run by Cypriot/Maltese/Generally Swarthy types and populated by a dozen underpaid extras - is mercifully absent, as is any hint of a low-budget car chase. Filming at Brighton's tiny film studios allowed the narrative to explore an England where men still wear collars and ties as a matter of course, where Brighton Station still bears the 'Southern Railway' logo and where branch line stationmasters bemoan the impact of the Beeching Report.

As a director, Jim O'Connelly may be best described as rudimentary, but his screenplay encompasses fascinating period detail, from our hero Mr Roper, ace insurance investigator (and expense account fiddler) informing his boss that "the pips have gone" on a public telephone to the revelation that, in 1964, chaps still addressed business acquaintances by their surnames. The principle offender here is Gerald Flood's spectacularly slimy villain, played as a form of provincial Terry-Thomas who favours cardigans and Hillman Super-Minxes. Meanwhile John Carson, the future voice of Hamlet Cigars, visibly relishes the chance to escape playing Detective Inspectors in favour of Roper's not-terribly-bright sidekick. In fact, the entire cast offers excellent value, from Sam Kydd's cynical hotel waiter to Derek Guyler's lugubrious station master and John Glyn Jones' irascible insurance manager. There is also Yvonne Romain as a possibly duplicitous widow, Penny Morrell's flighty secretary and Glyn Edwards as a phlegmatic Detective Inspector.

But what really elevates Smokescreen above the morass of British B-films is Peter Vaughan's lead performance (demonstrating the way second features could offer middle-aged character actors opportunities they were denied elsewhere). Mr Roper is one of 1960s British cinema's more memorable heroes, a dogged individual whose dedicated parsimony runs parallel to a sharp wit and, in Vaughan's beautifully understated performance, a man whose eccentricity hides a personal tragedy. The scene where he confronts the doctor who wishes to remove a mortally ill Mrs Roper to a nursing home best highlights the film's appeal. The set may be cheap and the shooting schedule limited, but the entertainment value is far greater than many an over-inflated epic.

Andrew Roberts

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Video Clips
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Never Back Losers (1961)
Insurance Man, The (1986)
Vaughan, Peter (1923-)
B Pictures