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Magnet, The (1950)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK Ltd

Main image of Magnet, The (1950)
35mm, black and white, 79 mins
Directed byCharles Frend
Produced byMichael Balcon
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ScreenplayT.E.B. Clarke
PhotographyLionel Banes
Music byWilliam Alwyn

Cast: William Fox (Johnny Brent); Stephen Murray (Dr Brent); Kay Walsh (Mrs Brent); Meredith Edwards (Adam Harper); Gladys Henson (Nannie); Wylie Watson (Pickering)

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10-year-old Johnny tricks a younger boy into giving him a precious magnet. Troubled by his conscience, he gives the magnet away - but the guilt isn't so easy to lose.

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This lesser-known Ealing comedy, from the pen of T.E.B. 'Tibby' Clarke, is most interesting today for its representation of mid-20th century Merseyside (even though much of the location work was actually filmed elsewhere) and for its glimpse of a juvenile James Fox (billed here under his real name William).

With its childhood theme and fantasy interludes, The Magnet was evidently an attempt to revisit the success of Clarke's earlier Hue and Cry (d. Charles Crichton, 1947). But while that film was carried along by the energy of its young protagonists and by its endearing comic-book, crime-busting plot, The Magnet is somewhat burdened by cumbersome moralising and too many credibility-stretching coincidences and misunderstandings.

Fox is certainly lively enough as the over-imaginative Johnny, who cruelly tricks a small boy out of his prized magnet and spends the rest of the film driven to ever greater lengths to escape both his conscience and the forces of law he supposes are pursuing him. But there's little real indication here of the very interesting actor that he became by the time of The Servant (d. Joseph Losey, 1963).

More engaging is the lively quartet of Liverpudlian boys (amateurs all) Johnny encounters late in the film, and who possess some of the few authentic local accents on offer. This section, marked by Johnny's crossing the Mersey from suburban New Brighton into Liverpool proper, is the film's most vivid and (for a time) convincing. The working-class Scousers - who he finds playing cricket in the shadow of the imposing Anglican Cathedral - view the clean-cut, well-spoken outsider with suspicion and hostility, until he wins their respect by persuading them (as he has persuaded himself) that he is wanted for murder. Johnny's arrival accentuates divisions between the Scouse boys (who, very unusually for a British film of this time, include one of Chinese parentage), and sets up a dangerous rivalry with their intimidating, self-appointed leader. But the tensions this opposition creates are too quickly dissipated, and the over-neat ending disappoints.

Director Charles Frend was evidently happier with more serious fare: none of his three comedies for Ealing stands comparison with his best work, which included Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and The Cruel Sea (1952). For Clarke, meanwhile, the relative failure of The Magnet was a temporary blip: his next comedy was the evergreen classic The Lavender Hill Mob (d. Charles Crichton, 1951), with Fox reappearing in a minor role.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
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Monthly Film Bulletin review
Banes, Lionel (1904-1996)
Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)
Cole, Sidney (1908-1998)
Fox, James (1939-)
Gribble, Bernard (1927-2004)
Hird, Thora (1911-2003)
Watson, Wylie (1889-1966)
Ealing Comedy
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