This 1956 British crime movie (Alternate title The Third Key) begins as a burglar alarm goes off and we watch someone with very soft soled shoes emptying a safe at Stone & Co. However, when the police arrive, in under 2 minutes, nothing seems out of order, nor has the night watchman seen a burglar or anything else that might warrant police attention.
The next morning when the safe’s contents are discovered missing, detective superintendent Jack Hawkins (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai) is sent to investigate, on his first case with a new partner. Next we encounter the familiar police procedural dynamic of the older, seen-it-all expert paired with the keen fresh-faced new detective, played by John Stratton (Abandon Ship, and much seen on TV). The first thing they discover was that was no night watchman– the real one’s been in hospital for a while. (Reminding me of The Simpsons line “of course we have a night watchman; he watched the whole thing happen”)
So begins the investigation, which relies on shoe leather and brainstorming and chasing tiny possibilities. These are the days of the massive index card police database, and the “profiler” who seems to know by heart what’s on all those cards. This is Google personified, with a ciggie hanging from his mouth, much more jovial, and nearly as fast, without asking you what you meant. And I like what he has filed under whiskey. Partners Hawkins and Stratton seem an awkward fit in the start, with Stratton assuming his youth and sensitivity give him an edge, though he does know his stuff, while Hawkins assumes his experience is superior, though of course he can learn from Stratton (and also from his own little son). The detectives quickly hit it off, and really complement each other. Their interactions are well done and each gets to prove his way of doing things has its value; when Stratton gets his moment to be resourceful and think fast, it leads to major break in the case.
The figurative key turns out to be a string of robberies, mostly of the same make of safes. The literal key is actually many keys, extras secretly made over decades, each time a safe was manufactured and sold to a high profile client. In the next robbery we discover the thief has an accomplice, a driver who runs down a witness played by the prolific Ian Bannen (Flight of the Phoenix, The Hill). A newspaper found in that abandoned car with a cryptic scribble on it turns out to be a big clue involving a totally fascinating explanation of newspaper markings to designate printing editions, times, locations and deliveries. That leads to a retired handyman who is remembered for letting someone out of a locked washroom, and so on. The clues build like that, each one clever and not contrived, each step involving memorable characters and informants, and finally there’s one surprise twist that, like the best of those, seems obvious in retrospect.
Director Charles Frend worked his way up from editor of early British Hitchcock films to editing for MGM, to directing films; The Cruel Sea, which featured both Hawkins and Stratton was an early success. For The Long Arm Frend was recognized with a Silver Bear (second prize, essentially) at the Berlin film festival that year, and deservedly so; the whole movie’s nicely paced and believable, with little human and personal but not sappy or forced moments sprinkled in regarding Hawkin’s home life. Hawkins is just great; low-key, wise and bemused, sweet to his wife and kid, eager to please them but committed to his work. When it comes to investigating, he’s not above admitting when he’s made a stupid mistake and respectful of Stratton while also putting him in his place when needed. No wonder Hawkins was nominated for the BAFTA for his performance.
The photography is beautiful, using high noir contrasts in the city, at night or around buildings, rain soaked streets, stake-outs and train stations, and during the action at the end, with Hawkins holding on for dear life on the hood of a speeding car. Scenes like those are balanced with milder softer grays out in Welsh towns or at home with Hawkins’ family. The music by Gerard Schurmann (The Bedford Incident) is really rich and good and slightly tailored to each setting (e.g. horns and fanfare at Royal Festival Hall) which is a nice touch. The only thing that sticks out as odd is an arty little sci-fi theremin/ blurry zoom in-and-out camera moment as dying hit-and-run victim Bannen tries to focus on Hawkins and his questions, but other than that the movie’s style is very consistent and engaging. It all makes for a really great and cerebral procedural that deserves a place among the best of that genre.
This post one of my contributions to the SCENES OF THE CRIME event which you can check out by clicking on Cody here; go see all the other great entries: