Robert Hamer's third Ealing film as director is a bleak, claustrophobic melodrama, showing a seamy side of life. Beautifully shot, with film noir-ish touches and a final pursuit sequence up there with the best. What we see is a morally bankrupt microcosm of post-WWII society, where most characters grab what they can, with no regard for anyone else. Lighter moments can be found, mostly surfacing as sarcastic asides.
Very early in the film, and reprised at the end, the locked grilles of Whitechapel Underground station stand indicative of enclosure, of being trapped; whether it be by prison (Swann), domesticity (the Sandigates), the rain (everyone). Escape, even by suicide, is (perhaps) impossible - even the parallel but entirely separate attempts by the two leading characters are doomed to failure.
Tensions between notions of decency, and of family (mainly the Sandigates and the Hyams) permeate the film. There are few 'decent' characters: George (Edward Chapman) is one, as is daughter Doris (Patricia Plunkett), and Ted (Nigel Stock). The Sandigates act like a family, but one which may be on shakey ground once we know that Rose (Googie Withers) isn't the mother of the two daughters, particularly as Rose is the one who, in choosing between George and Tommy Swann (John McCallum), could tear the family to shreds. While it is perhaps too fanciful to suggest the ripping of Vi's (Susan Shaw) smart dress by Rose as they struggle for control of the bedroom door could serve as a metaphor for the tearing apart of the family unit, the skirmish emphasises the problems beneath the surface. The Hyams family, meanwhile, is tested by Morry's (Sydney Tafler) womanising, with its older generation scandalised by Lou's (John Slater) apparent wheeling and dealing.
Apparently, Bethnal Green residents of the time protested at their portrayal (many of the characters are crooks or chancers, and at least one kills), and there were censorship problems. The Cinematograph Exhibitors Association's reviewer declared it "an unsavoury film... with appeal only to those with very broad minds". Despite this it was Ealing's box office hit of the year.