It is the morning of April Fool’s Day, and a gang of rambunctious kiddies run through the streets of Camden, London, playing tricks on every adult they encounter. Meanwhile, radio cab driver, Tom Manning (Richard Attenborough), is running late for work.
When one of the little girls in the gang stops Tom and tells him that she’s lost her doll in a nearby bomb site, he happily takes her by the hand and leads her off to find it. It’s a beautiful day and the jaunty soundtrack tells us that all is well in the world. Even when the crying little girl cracks a smile and shouts out, “April Fool!” Tom merely shakes his fist at her and chases her around for a brief moment while she giggles. Then he lets her be and goes to work.
But hours later, the little girl is found dead. Strangled. Covered in mud. A discarded heap amid the wreckage of a bomb site.
Sure enough, Tom is implicated in the crime by several witnesses, and he is later arrested for the murder. Now it’s up to young Peter Tanner (Derek Farr), inexperienced but sympathetic counsel for the defence, to do what he can to oppose the damning but circumstantial evidence against Tom.
And meanwhile the real killer keeps a close watch on proceedings …
The ‘wrong man’ narrative places this one squarely in film noir territory. The film’s opening twenty minutes do their utmost to depict a happy-go-lucky young man and wife embarking on a new life together. Tom is hard-working and wife, Jill (Cathy O’Donnell), is devoted to her husband, and together they are dead set on a life of aspirational respectability.
But fickle fate has other things in store for them.
It has to be noted, though, that the black path is not followed through ruthlessly to the end, and any noir fan wanting a merciless denouement may well be disappointed.
The film’s strongest scenes concern the hoopla around the trial, which takes up a good half of the picture. It is important to note that this is a film set during a period of capital punishment in England, a full ten years before the final hanging took place in 1965. And the film has something to say about an innocent man’s life being in jeopardy due to the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.
The movie, it’s true, is not entirely explicit in its social outrage. It is not a haranguing, passionate plea for change. It is more a question of tone than anything — one that is implied by several strong, though subtle, scenes. The public follows Manning’s trial with a mixture of self-righteous horror, gleeful fascination and matter-of-fact boredom:
Outside the court, members of the public queue for spaces in the gallery, sitting on chairs on the pavement outside, knitting, obviously having been there for hours to secure themselves a spot. One clucking hen proudly tells those around her that she hasn’t missed a murder trial since 1947. Inside the courtroom, the foreman of the jury is happy. “We’re in luck,” he says. “We get our lunches free with a murder.” An important witness disappears to go shopping. And in a story strand that strangely goes nowhere (almost as if it were rewritten to make way for a happy ending), the presiding judge, though fair and professional during the trial, is preoccupied by the ill health, and subsequent death, of his wife.
These scenes reminded me of Fritz Lang’s superior Fury (1936), in which an innocent man (Spencer Tracy) is seemingly burned alive by a baying mob of vigilantes, while townspeople gather to cheer on his death, eating hotdogs, cackling with laughter and gossiping with their neighbours.
It is almost as if nobody but Tom and Jill Manning truly cares about the truth.
All, that is, except Tanner, who is presented as a modern, empathetic man of law, who to the horror of his stuffy colleagues actually visits Tom in jail, rather than merely handling the evidence for his defence objectively.
The film seems to be making some sort of statement about a need for change in British law — a more progressive approach, a more human face. But it doesn’t come right out and say what it seems to be hinting at.
But then again social outrage might not be exactly what you wanted anyway. The question is, with an innocent man about to have a noose placed round his neck, and a sickening child murderer still stalking the streets, is the film thrilling?
Well, to put it bluntly, no, not really. Perhaps it’s personal taste, but the courtroom scenes — as such scenes often do — slow the picture down and drain it of its energy. Energy, that is, that it starts with, with abundance.
My favourite scene — if this isn’t in poor taste — is the child’s early murder scene. She sits on the bank of a canal and sings the popular nursery rhyme, ‘Oranges and Lemons.’ A shadow of a man in a hat appears on the water beside her. The girl goes on singing as the shadow edges nearer. Suddenly the little girl turns around and squints confusedly up at the man, with the sun now behind him. The shadow falls over her face and a nearby train screams as it passes. Fade to black.
As child murders go, it’s pure black poetry. What a shame, then, that the rest of the picture can’t live up to it.