Monday, July 13, 2015

1947 Blogathon: The October Man (dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1947)

Crime is the Trojan Horse by which observant realistic stories often make it into the movies and onto bookstore shelves. If it can be packaged as a thriller, it can be promoted. The enthusiastic audience for observant realistic stories per se is not very large.

The 1947 British thriller The October Man, written and produced by Eric Ambler, who knew a thing or two about thrillers, and directed by Roy (Ward) Baker, who apprenticed as an assistant director under Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes, is a film with just such a split personality. Given Ambler's and Baker's credits, you might guess that the thriller angles would be sharper than the quiet realistic material, but you would guess wrong. The movie is beautifully observed and rather unusual when it is not bothering about being a thriller, and becomes rather routine when it does.

John Mills, fresh off a triumph as Pip in David Lean's 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations, does exceptional work as Jim Ackland, an industrial chemist whose life utterly changes when he is involved in a horrible bus crash - a bravura opening scene for the film. A young girl he was taking care of for a friend dies in the accident, and he himself suffers a severe brain injury. During his protracted convalescence, overcome by guilt and the effects of the injury, he tries suicide twice, and in fact remains in a state of suicidal ideation for the entirety of the film.

Now this is unusual. I can recall few films, and none as early as 1947, in which the protagonist is so situated. Ambler's writing and Mills' performance together do a marvelous job of limning such an experience. It is clear from the beginning that even if the story achieves a "happy ending," it will be a qualified one because Jim Ackland will always struggle with the effects of brain trauma (he is apologetic when he explains this to others)  and will always live under the shadow of that child's death. No plot resolution can take these away.

When he is finally released from hospital, Ackland starts a new chemistry job and takes up residence in a rooming house where, despite his disinclination to socialize, he will brush up against both ordinaries and eccentrics (in the grand British tradition). The rooming house is across from a commons that is wonderfully atmospheric, and a trifle sinister by night.

Ackland slowly resumes some semblance of a "normal life," begins dating the sister of a colleague, but can't shake the worry that things will never be quite right for him. These scenes are wonderful, and form the real contribution of the movie.

When the thriller gears are set in motion, Ackland is circumstantially caught up in a murder investigation and can't be privately sure that he wasn't involved - maybe he had an episode? This is the hook, but of course we can see what will develop from it. Ackland will have a hard time exonerating himself, but finally will be able to do so.

Some Hitchcock scenarios are predictable in that way, too - Saboteur, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest. (I understand full well why Hitch wanted to have Cary Grant be proven the villain in Suspicion, because it would have broken the usual pattern.) But Hitchcock was a master at building unforgettable set-pieces within the movement to an inevitable finish, and at keeping the tension level very high.

The October Man does not try for that intensity or memorability as it moves towards the finish. The strengths of the later scenes are exactly the same as those of the early scenes - the interplay among the residents of the rooming house (including one busybody who gets a memorable comeuppance) and the self-doubts that nag at Jim Ackland, now resulting in a deepening of his suicidal impulses.

So as a thriller, rather ho-hum. But as a character study and social study, first-rate. Put it all together, and that amounts to a solid positive recommendation. The October Man fails in areas where other films excel, and excels in areas where most other films don't bother to go.

1947 Blogathon


  1. This sounds like a terrific character study. I was quite taken by your description of that death casting such a huge shadow over Mills' character's life. For that alone, I want to see this film. Thanks for the introduction!

  2. The last time I saw "The October Man" was on the late show with commercials. Tired and annoyed (at commercials) is no way to watch this sort of thing. Thanks for putting it back on my radar so I may enjoy John Mills.

  3. Haven't seen this one, enjoyed the post and thanks for taking part in the blogathon.

  4. A nicely constructed piece on an interesting and finely shot film, Patrick. I like both the crime and social (realistic) aspects of the movie - the portrayal of life in the rooming house is especially well done in my opinion.
    Ambler was one of Britain's finest writers, both as a novelist and screenwriter, and Mills made for an excellent lead in a number of good thrillers around this time (The Long Memory and The Gentle Gunman also spring to mind) while Baker was always a solid presence behind the camera.