|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Dec 23, 2005)
THE BLACK RIDER
RT: 65 mins
Pro Co: Balblair Productions/Butcher’s Film Distributors
Dir: Wolf Rilla;
Pro/Wr: A.R. Rawlinson.
Phot: Geoffrey Faithfull;
Film Ed: John Trumper;
Mus: Wilfred Bunrs;
Art Dir: John Stoll.
Cast: Jimmy Hanley, Rona Anderson, Leslie Dwyer, Lionel Jeffries, Beatrice Varley, Michael Golden, Valerie Hanson, Vincent Ball, Edwin Richfield, Kenneth Connor, Robert Rietty, James Raglan, Peter Swanwick, Frank Taylor, Edie Martin.
One of the most enduring and ubiquitous names to emerge from British commercial filmmaking is that of Butcher’s. Established at the end of the 19th century, and therefore almost as old as the industry itself, the company really came into its own with the establishment of the quota system in the 1930s. While many of its competitors and contemporaries failed to survive subsequent changes to the system, which actually ended up benefiting the UK production arms of major Hollywood studios more than anyone else, Butcher’s continued acting as a producer or production partner until the mid-1960s, and as a distributor until the start of the 1980s, no mean achievement in such a transient industry.
Throughout their long existence, the company, under a variety of names such as Butcher’s Film Services and Butcher’s Film Distributors together with a number of different owners, remained stubbornly unambitious in the type of product they handled. In the 1930s and 1940s they tended to exploit the popularity of regional British regional comedians such as Arthur Lucan (Old Mother Riley 1937), Elsie and Doris Waters (Gert and Daisy’s Weekend 1942) and Norman Evans (Demobbed 1946). From the end of the 1940s onwards Butcher’s concentrated largely on turning out a string of crime melodramas and thrillers, usually based on radio plays, provincial theatrical successes and minor novels. Typical of these are MacLean Rogers’ Send for Paul Temple (1946), John Guillermin’s Operation Diplomat (1953) and Francis Searle’s Gaolbreak (1962). Occasionally, their tight budgets would allow them the luxury of importing a fading American star such as Richard Denning (Assignment Redhead 1956) and Lex Barker (The Man from Tangiers 1957), but overall their movies could be best described as cheap and cheerful.
Some of Butcher’s productions ventured away from the company’s usual roster into darker territory, as evidenced by Norman Lee’s The Monkey’s Paw (1948), Henry Cass’s The Hand (1960) and John Gilling’s The Night Caller (1965). On the surface, the film under review here, Wolf Rilla’s The Black Rider may look as if it belongs with this select group.
Under cover of darkness a small boat comes ashore on a secluded beach near the seaside town of Swanhaven. Two men disembark. One of them dons a monk’s cowl and climbs aboard a specially silenced motorcycle. He then makes his way inland in the direction of a ruined castle. Meanwhile, at the Brockham Arms pub in Swanhaven, the local drunk George Amble is being shown the door by the landlord. Instead of taking his usual route home, George has decided to take a shortcut home via Brockham Castle. This is despite a good-natured warning from the landlord that it is the night of a full moon when a satanic monk is said to haunt the ruins of the castle. The drunk dismisses the rumours. As he makes his way through the crumbling pile, George is disturbed by sounds of what he belies are a horse galloping nearby. He is then terrified by the sight of what appears to be a spectral monk standing by a fence. He runs off into the night. The “monk” then gets on his motorcycle and rides off in the direction of Brockham Manor. Amble’s ghostly encounter appears on the front page of the local newspaper the Swanham News & Mail, and attracts a lot of attention from tourists to the area when a copy is displayed in the local library’s reading room. All other copies of the paper have sold out. Its editor Robert Plack, the father of Mary, the town’s head librarian, seems to be the only one not to be impressed by the story which was written by his only reporter Gerry Marsh, the boyfriend of his daughter. .He chastises him for such gimmickry and assigns him the more conventional assignment of covering a baby contest in a nearby town. Plack also complains about Marsh’s unusual recent behaviour and warns the reporter about playing with his daughter’s affections. As the editor is distracted by a phone call, Gerry makes a discrete exit. Plack then meets Ted Lintott, the head of the local motorcycle club who hands him an advertisement for an upcoming event.. The newspaperman makes it quite clear that he hates motorcycles and everything connected with them but grudgingly accepts the ad. Lintott cracks a joke about spectral monks. That evening, Marsh is late for a dinner attended by his mother, Plack and Mary. Mrs Marsh and Plack begin to suspect that Gerry is two-timing Mary and appear to have their worst fears confirmed by overhearing a telephone the reporter makes. In fact it turns out that he has bought a brand new motorcycle and had been spending a lot of time recently looking for the right one. Despite the protestations of both their parents, Mayr and Gerry ride off together to follow up the story about the monk. Arriving at the Brockham Arms they find George Amble regaling the new owner of Brockham Manor, Bremmer, and his niece Karen, about his encounter in the castle ruins. A squaddie standing at the bar tells Gerry and Mary that George is talking nonsense and probably heard the sound of work being carried out at a nearby experimental tank testing facility, although he admits that they do not carry out their duties at night. Eventually Bremmer and his companion make their excuses and leave. George decides to talk to the witness himself and buys drink for the purpose. Outside in his car Bremmer believes that no-one really takes the drunk seriously and that their activities can continue. However, additional precautions should be taken…
In fact, despite its macabre trimmings, the tone for The Black Rider is set early on by composer Wilfred Burns (The Strange World of Planet X 1957) who provides a distinctly jaunty, upbeat score for the movie based around horns and woodwind instruments.
The setting for the picture, a small seaside community somewhere on England’s South coast (possibly the town of Swanage in Dorset) is a decidedly cosy affair. Here life revolves around a few well-established institutions such as the local library, the public house and the weekly newspaper. The place of Lord of the Manor has also remain unchanged after centuries with the new occupant of Brockham Manor, Bremmer, being immediately accepted by the locals, even though he is not from anywhere near the area and has just moved in. In a sign of how much esteem the town’s population hold the gentry, upon arriving in the district, Bremmer announces, with almost no notice, the staging of a fete and virtually all the townspeople show up to turn it into a major social event.
Even local criminal activity has its roots in the distant past in the form of smuggling. Previously, the cargoes imported illicitly by smugglers consisted of alcohol and tobacco. More recent excursions had involved diamonds and drugs. The route used by those involved in the trade, however, remained consistent, utilising isolated coves, overland paths and secret passageways.
Apparently there are only two concessions to the post-war era the film is set in. The first is the presence of an experimental tank testing unit which is located near Swanhaven. However, this appears to be largely ignored by the populace and the only representative from the facility shown onscreen is a lowly corporal (Frank Taylor) seen drinking in the pub. The second is the creation of a motorcycle club headed by Vincent Ball (Corridors of Blood 1958). This is treated with the utmost suspicion by the newspaper proprietor (Leslie Dwyer) and the hero’s mother (Beatrice Varley, The Horrors of the Black Museum 1959), but it quickly becomes clear that the organisation is made up entirely of model citizens, mainly middle class and middle-aged males, unlike their counterparts in 1960s and 1970s biker flicks.
Screenwriter A. R. Rawlinson (here also acting as a producer for his short-lived Balblair production company) had something of an eclectic career since entering the film industry at the star of the 1930s after some success as a playwright. Among those he worked with over years were figures such as Alfred Hitchcock, Tod Slaughter (Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror 1937) and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Rawlinson also worked on the screenplay of Thorold Dickinson’s original version of Gaslight (1940). By the 1950s his output consisted largely of quota fillers and potboilers (based at Nettlefold Studios in Walton-upon-Thames), usually in the thriller genre, when he was not toiling away on episodic television.
With The Black Rider, the air of cosiness inherent in the film’s setting is underlined by Rawlinson’s screenplay whose plot is seemingly lifted almost intact from the pages of a Boys’ Own adventure or the writings of children’s author Enid Blyton. So familiar is the material from these quintessentially English sources that some viewers may find it disconcerting that the venture is in fact populated entirely by adults.
While the story and its backdrop may be considered mundane to many viewers, Wolf Rilla’s film does possess a number of positive points of interest which elevate it above many of its B-movie contemporaries.
During the 1950s and 1960s, many of the productions released under the Butcher’s banner attracted an unusually high calibre of acting talent to their ranks. This is usually attributed the fact that these movies offered more substantial roles to the support and bit part players who littered efforts from the big studios like J. Arthur Rank and Associated British. The Black Rider is a good example of this.
Of particular note here is Lionel Jeffries (The Revenge of Frankenstein 1958) as the villain of the piece. Although only in his late 20s, Jeffries already looks much older than his years and effortlessly brings to the role the gravitas it requires. Employing a surprisingly resonant speaking voice along with clipped speech patterns, his cool demeanour is such that he easily commands respect from both his cohorts and those locals he encounters. Jeffries also succeeds in making A.R. Rawlinson’s mediocre dialogue sound far better than it actually is.
Also making an impression are an almost unrecognisable Kenneth Connor (What a Carve-Up! 1961) as the comic town drunk who first encounters the sinister monk, Leslie Dwyer (Monster of Terror 1965) as the perpetually perplexed newspaper proprietor, and Valerie Hanson (later a television director) as Jeffries striking-looking niece/accomplice. Although she is reduced to the status of a mere damsel-in-distress in the plot’s latter stage, Scottish actress Rona Anderson (Scrooge 1951) makes for a feisty heroine, something of a rarity for this type of picture, who proves to be as game as the hero to dig in and solve the mystery. Extra value is added by the appearance of a delightful collection of eccentric minor characters such as the harassed dad (Peter Swanwick, Circus of Horrors 1960) and dotty old dowager (Edie Martin, Meet Mr Lucifer 1953).
Star Jimmy Hanley was a familiar second lead and supporting actor in a number of major British films of the 1940s, notably as the rookie cop in Basil Dearden’s ground-breaking police procedural The Blue Lamp (1949). In The Black Rider he makes for a rather bland, constantly upbeat leading man. Hanley really came into his own from the late ‘50s onwards as presenter of commercially sponsored soap operas and quiz shows on the fledgling ITV network where his overly cheerful personality was ideally suited.
Overall, however, the real creative force behind this production belongs to its director Wolf Rilla.
Rilla, the son of German émigré actor Walter (The Gamma People 1956) was one of the leading lights behind the establishment and development of the embryonic BBC television drama department based at Alexandria Place from 1946. He moved into feature films in the 1950s where most of his work (often for the government-sponsored Group 3 production house) was generally considered to be of a distinctly minor nature However, his efforts did attract enough critical attention to land him a contract with MGM-British by the end of the decade. Among the projects he was involved there is the genre classic Village of the Damned (1960). Based on the John Wyndham’s best-seller “The Midwich Cuckoo’s”, the success of this work kick-started a second-wave of British sci-fi filmmaking that included Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1961), John Krish’s Unearthly Stranger (1963) and Alan Bridges’ Invasion (1965).
With The Black Rider, Rilla makes quite striking use of composition which is bolstered by deep-focus cinematography from Geoffrey Faithfull (The First Man into Space 1959). The use of deep-focus adds considerable lustre to the picture’s overall appearance, giving the impression of a bigger budget than was actually the case.
Also, unlike many of his colleagues who worked on similar ventures at Butcher’s, the director avoid the use of long, static takes that plagued the company’s output, instead making inventive use of camera dollys and tracks to inject some visual variety into the proceedings. This is a surprisingly stylish piece of filmmaking overall. Most importantly, Rilla succeeds in keeping the narrative moving at a brisk pace.
At a time when low-budget British productions remained resolutely studio-bound, The Black Rider features a refreshing amount of exterior footage. Among the lengthiest sequences occurring outdoors an obstacle course at fete that takes on an almost newsreel-like quality, and an endurance race across the downs by members of the motorcycle club. While many of these sequences appear to have been shot in or near Walton-upon-Thames, where Nettlefold Studios were based, a number do appear to have been filmed much further afield on the South coast. Also featured is some rather good day-for-night process work.
For some viewers, the real joy of watching Wolf Rilla’s movie will the presence of a several models of classic British motorbikes. These include such well-known marques as Triumph and BSA along with a variety of motor scooters and mopeds. The appearance of these machines has virtually guaranteed the movie cult success, its other elements not withstanding.
While the more macabre elements contained in the production are kept to a minimum, and indeed are red herrings, The Black Rider does occasionally veer off into darker areas. Employing a subjective camera and suddenly bombastic piece of music from Wilfred Burns, the encounter between Kenneth Connor and the monk in the castle ruins still proves startlingly effective even after some fifty years. All the sequences, in fact, shot within the confines of Brockham Castle are in fact very atmospherically shot thanks to moody lighting, unusual compositions and a roving camera. The castle set itself, created by art director John Stoll (The Collector 1965), is a surprisingly large-scale creation which the director makes full Gothic use of. It is unfortunate that Rilla never made a foray into the horror genre. An additional frisson is added by the appearance of the hooded motorcycle riding across the moonlit hills near Swanhaven, sometimes seen against a glowering, cloudy sky.
A tangential science fiction element is introduced with the main reason the smuggler’s activities. It transpires that a new generation of miniature atomic weapon has been developed by some foreign power and which can be remotely detonated from some distance away. To this end, the parts have been smuggled into the country piece by piece and assembled by Valerie Hanson who is revealed to be a nuclear scientist.
The movie ends rather lamely with a badly staged climactic brawl in the castle dungeons between the enemy agents, the coast guard and Jimmy Hanley (Satellite in the Sky 1956) along with his chums from the motorcycle club.
Wolf Rilla and producer A.R. Rawlinson (together with Rona Anderson) reunited the following year for the motor racing drama Stock Car.
Jimmy Hanley is the father of both Hammer starlet TV presenter Jenny Hanley (Scars of Dracula 1970) and former Conservative government minister and MP Jeremy Hanley.
Robert Rietty who plays Lionel Jeffries’ flunky in The Black Rider is probably best known for his prolific voice work on British productions, providing the speaking voices for a variety of foreign actors, especially on James Bond movies like Terence Young’s Thunderball (1965) and Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice (1967), as well as dubbing cancer-stricken British actor Jack Hawkins on many of his latter pictures, including Freddie Francis’ Tales That Witness Madness and Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood (both 1973).
©Iain McLachlan 2005