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The variety of violent American crime films produced in Hollywood in the immediate aftermath of World War II, which tendered tales of cynicism, fatalism, greed, lust, betrayal, revenge and redemption -- and which French critics would label film noir -- had a British counterpart that is rarely discussed outside of the United Kingdom. While crime films were given A-level treatment in Hollywood and cast with top-flight actors (Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Dana Andrews, Glenn Ford), Brit noir was considered somewhat down-market by a national film industry that was struggling for both an identity at home and a global profile that would allow it to compete internationally. With theatrically-trained English actors proving reluctant to sign on for a kind of film that might tarnish their reputations, British crime films often reached out to vacationing American actors (Jack LaRue, Brian Donlevy, Richard Conte, Victor Mature) for both marquee value and a touch of verisimilitous grit. There were, of course, exceptions and such an exception is Robert Hamer's The Long Memory (1953), which starred John Mills as a vengeance-minded ex-convict seeking redress for twelve years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
His father a mathematics teacher and his mother the box office manager of the West End's Haymarket Theater, John Mills (born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills in 1908) was already an established film star during the wartime years. An ex-chorus boy and juvenile actor in prewar "quota quickies," Mills had been declared unfit for active duty but excelled in such patriotic films as In Which We Serve (1942), We Dive at Dawn (1943) and The Way to the Stars (1945), as well as in such quality productions as Waterloo Road (1945), Great Expectations (1946) and The Rocking Horse Winner (1949), in which he had a hand producing. By the actor's own admission, The Long Memory was undertaken to pay rent and settle tax debts, with little forethought of its artistic merits. The rights for Howard Clewes' 1951 source novel had been purchased by Hugh Stewart, an independent producer who had gotten his start as a junior editor for Michael Balcon at Gaumont and had cut Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). To direct the picture, Stewart chose Robert Hamer, whom Stewart had known since their apprenticeship days as editors at Alexander Korda's Denham Film Studio.
A former cutting room assistant at Gaumont, Robert Hamer followed his mentor, Alberto Cavalcanti, from the GPO Film Unit to Ealing Studios. At Ealing, Hamer worked as an editor, associate producer and replacement director before Cavalcanti allowed him to helm a segment of the studio's horror omnibus Dead of Night (1945). Hamer's "The Haunted Mirror" is widely considered one of the film's standout chapters (although the sequence was cut from American prints of the film). He made his feature film debut with Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and scored an international success with Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), starring Alec Guinness. Following this, Hamer struggled to actualize a number of pet projects -- among them biopics of reformed Soho burglar Mark Benney and Edith Thompson, who became a cause celbr when she was hanged in 1923 for conspiring to murder her husband. (Alfred Hitchcock had wanted to make a documentary of the facts of the case but had to content himself with sampling elements of the story for his 1950 film Stage Fright.) Constantly at odds with his producers and studios and sublimating the homosexuality that had gotten him expelled from Cambridge through a string of doomed affairs with women, Hamer struggled through another decade of directing (and occasional scripting) before dying bankrupt of alcoholism-related pneumonia in 1963.
Despite the fact that all involved would have rather been doing other things, The Long Memory remains an artfully-directed and diverting drama, particularized by Harry Waxman's location filming in Gravesend and the mud flats of Morocco Bay. In adapting the source novel, Hamer and playwright Frank Harvey shifted focus from the book's cop protagonist, Bob Lowther (played in the film by John McCallum) to Mills' wronged Phillip Davidson, putting The Long Memory into the good company of such classic man-on-the-run thrillers as Cavalcanti's They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) and Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947).
The majority of contemporary British critics were unimpressed by the film upon its release, finding fault with Hamer's "fussy" direction and the casting of John Mills as the desperate protagonist despite the fact that the character is etched as gentle and disinclined to violence. Dissenting voices included The Observer's C. A. Legeune and The Star's Roy Nash. Several modern writers maintain that the film compares favorably with Mike Hodges' similar Get Carter (1971) while one critic has gone so far as to proclaim The Long Memory "the lost masterpiece of British cinema."
Producer: Hugh Stewart
Director: Robert Hamer
Screenplay: Robert Hamer, Frank Harvey (screenplay); Howard Clewes (novel)
Cinematography: Harry Waxman
Art Direction: Vetchinsky
Music: William Alwyn
Film Editing: Gordon Hales
Cast: John Mills (Phillip Davidson), John McCallum (Supt. Bob Lowther), Elizabeth Sellars (Fay Lowther), Eva Bergh (Ilse), Geoffrey Keen (Craig), Michael Martin-Harvey (Jackson), John Chandos (Boyd), John Slater (Pewsey), Thora Hird (Mrs. Pewsley), Vida Hope (Alice Gedge).
by Richard Harland Smith
"The Emergence of the British Tough Guy: Stanley Baker, Masculinity and the Crime Thriller" by Andrew Spicer, British Crime Cinema, Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy editors (Routledge, 1999)
John Mills and British Cinema: Masculinity, Identity and Nation by Gill Plain (Edinburgh University Press, 2006)
Essay on The Long Memory by Robert Murphy, The Cinema of Britain and Ireland, edited by Brian McFarlane (Wallflower Press, 2005)
"The Long Shadow: Robert Hamer After Ealing" by Philip Kemp, Film Comment, May-June 1995
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan (Regan Books, 2003)
"Riff-raff Realism," by Peter Wollen, Sight and Sound