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Ask A Policeman (1939)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Ask A Policeman (1939)
DirectorMarcel Varnel
Production Co.Gainsborough Pictures
ScreenplayMarriot Edgar, Val Guest
StorySidney Gilliat
PhotographyDerick Williams

Cast: Will Hay (Sergeant Samuel Dudfoot); Graham Moffatt (Albert Brown); Moore Marriott (Jerry Harbottle/Harbottle Sr); Glennis Lorimer (Emily Martin)

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After being told that there is not enough local criminal activity to justify their station's existence, three incompetent policemen decide to start manufacturing crimes to fiddle the figures.

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Ask A Policeman is a prime example of the comedic skills of Will Hay, Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt who provide richly detailed characterisations of three village policemen with the help of an inventive storyline, witty dialogue and the brisk direction of Marcel Varnel.

Although the plot recalls Oh, Mr. Porter! (d. Varnel, 1938) with its phantom and its rhyme (and there is perhaps a hint of Jamaica Inn (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1939) in its villainous squire), this film is far more caustic. Whereas the Will Hay character is normally a man of good intentions, too weak willed to resist temptation, his Sergeant Dudfoot is a thoroughly corrupt figure, eagerly abetted by Harbottle and Albert.

The extent to which the trio will go in framing motorists in their speed trap, concocting false evidence and attempting to shift the blame when anything goes wrong is quite breathtaking (especially given that the British Board of Film Censors had decreed that a crooked policeman could not be shown seriously on the screen, as it could undermine respect for authority). These scenes are hilarious because they continually backfire on the trio, and, when they could have charged a motorist with lacking a driving licence and insurance, they miss the opportunity and let him go.

The film's only real lapse is a brief scene in the final chase during which Dudfoot takes advantage of a slow-witted milkman to relieve him of his vehicle. The long climactic sequence is cleverly sustained, with the three policemen progressing through a variety of vehicles to sustain the chase, and it is notable that their misconduct is not conveniently overlooked at the end.

Allen Eyles

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Video Clips
1. Radio interview (4:27)
2. Hedge stakeout (6:23)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Convict 99 (1938)
Goose Steps Out, The (1942)
Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)
Windbag the Sailor (1936)
Gilliat, Sidney (1908-1994)
Guest, Val (1911-2006)
Hay, Will (1888-1949)
Launder, Frank (1906-1997)
Llewelyn, Desmond (1914-1999)
Ostrer, Maurice (1896-1975)
Roome, Alfred (1908-1997)
Varnel, Marcel (1892-1947)
Will Hay