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Fire Raisers, The (1933)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Fire Raisers, The (1933)
DirectorMichael Powell
Production CompanyGaumont-British Picture Corporation
ScriptMichael Powell
 Jerome Jackson
ProducerJerome Jackson
PhotographyLeslie Rowson

Cast: Leslie Banks (Jim Bronton); Anne Grey (Arden Brent); Carol Goodner (Helen Vaughan); Frank Cellier (Brent); Francis L. Sullivan (Stedding)

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An insurance assessor is lured into joining a gang of arsonists but later reforms.

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The Fire Raisers was the first production in a four-picture deal between Michael Powell and his writing partner Jerome Jackson and Michael Balcon's Gaumont-British studio. Gaumont-British was then one of the two biggest companies in the British film industry (alongside British International Pictures), so this was a considerable step up for Powell and Jackson.

The film cost around £12,000 to produce, a bargain even in those days, and featured West End stage star Leslie Banks in the lead role. "It was the first time that I had worked with a great actor", Powell later wrote. "He was an actor's actor. He had speed and he created magic." Banks appeared in three further Powell films, including Powell's early favourite, Red Ensign (1935).

Described by Powell as "a sort of Warner Brothers Newspaper Headline Story" and based on a contemporary scandal about Leopold Harris an insurance assessor convicted of arson, The Fire Raisers is a mixed success. The narrative moves at great speed, and Banks' performance is restrained and elegant. But the direction is often crude and lacks the subtlety and genuine insights of Powell's later work.

Two scenes do stand out, however. In the first, Bronton's assistant Bates (Henry Caine) is tied up and interrogated by Stedding (a chilling Francis L Sullivan) and his men, who suspect him of double-crossing them. We don't see Bates being beaten. Instead, Powell cuts from Bates to the faces of each of the interrogators. As the camera gets closer and closer to the men's faces, the editing gets faster, until holding on an extreme close-up of Bates' face, at which point he faints.

In the most atmospheric scene, Bronton (Banks) returns to his office looking for Bates. The office has been wrecked. As Bronton takes this in, he hears a faint tapping sound. Bronton looks around, and sees a window blind cord tapping against the glass. He pauses and realises that there is another noise, coming from inside the large wall safe. He opens it to find Bates inside, bruised and near death. The scene, played without music, convincingly underscores an air of brutality.

With thanks to Sergio Angelini

Ann Ogidi

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Video Clips
1. 'Out of money' (3:17)
Production stills
Banks, Leslie (1890-1952)
Junge, Alfred (1886-1964)
Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
B Pictures
Early Michael Powell