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The Forgotten: Lock-Up

David Cairns


"To see a man, to see a man about a dog, or to see a man about a horse is an English language colloquialism, usually used as a smiling apology for one's departure or absence - generally as a bland euphemism to conceal one's true purpose." —Wikipedia.

So, this is number three in a series of three pieces with a connection to the anti-communist blacklist in post-war America. While John Berry was blacklisted, and Leo McCarey was a friendly witness before HUAC in 1947, the director of Obsession (1949), had a more complex relationship with the various struggling factions.

In 1950, Dmytryk appeared in a short film, The Hollywood Ten, puffing thoughtfully on a pipe, under the direction of John Berry. In the company of eight screenwriters and one producer, Dmytryk, who was riding high after the success of early film noir hits Murder My Sweet and Crossfire. All ten were being menaced by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, threatened with prison for refusing to discuss their political allegiances or to name those who with whom they had associated.

Dmytryk went to prison for his beliefs, but the trouble is, while he was there, his beliefs apparently changed. The next time he appeared before the Committee, apparently at the personal request of Ronald Reagan (who made it his mission to "help" blacklisted talents recover their careers), Dmytryk named names and denounced the other nine as treasonous traitors. Later in life, he would always say that his eyes had been opened to the dangers of communism and that his political shift had nothing to do with self interest. It's hard to wholeheartedly accept this.

Interestingly, before his prison sentence and Damascene conversion, Dmytryk was a dynamic and engaged filmmaker who could work social critique into genre entertainment, and seemed gifted with a knack for transforming budgetary limits into stylistic innovations. After his self-reinvention he tends towards turgidity, and the films have lost any animating passion. They appeared to have no reason for being. He did however write some very good books on filmmaking, later collected into an anthology entitled, appropriately enough, On Filmmaking.

Obsession, based on the novel A Man About a Dog by Alec Coppel, is the last film directed by the first Edward Dmytryk, before he was secretly killed in prison and replaced by the second Edward Dmytryk, a doppelganger with the appearance and pipe and some of the personality of the original. Fascinatingly, it deals in part with a man who is unjustly imprisoned for several months and finally released with a new outlook... I'd say it's the last film Dmytryk made with actual resonance, even if it's resonating off events that hadn't happened yet.


"Fog, fog, fog." —Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.

Obsession is a foggy London crime thriller—Dmytryk had briefly relocated to England, perhaps in hopes that the heat would die down back home. The same optimistic thought would lead Jules Dassin to shoot Night and the City there the following year. But while Dassin's film is a jazzy and modern thriller, partaking of the expressionistic noir style Dmytryk had helped to conceive (chiaroscuro lighting, wide angle lens distortion, propulsive camera moves), Dmytryk's own film is more in the way of a gaslight melodrama, even though its setting is more or less contemporary.

We open in a gentleman's club, which is always a good idea. Self-assured doctor Robert Newton is distracted from the tedious conversations around him by the contents of his coat pocket. His coat is hanging on a hook, but he can't take his eyes off it. There is a revolver in his pocket.

Newton's wife, Sally Gray, has been enjoying some kind of dalliance with a visiting American, Phil Brown, and Newton has resolved to kill the next man she toys with. He's plotted the perfect crime.

(Husband, wife and American lover. And soon a Scotland Yard detective. the dramatic personae are identical to Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder. Only the imperfect perfect crime really differs.)

To torment his faithless wife, and to insure against arrest, Newton has decided to keep Brown prisoner for some few weeks, longer if necessary. A dingy basement lock-up near his garage has been fitted out as dungeon for this purpose. (Perfect crimes are always insanely complicated, you will notice.) Once Newton is satisfied that he is not a suspect, he can proceed to assassinate his prisoner, and dispose of the body using a handy acid bath he's filling progressively with hot water bottles. It's a pretty terrible plan from the point of view of escaping detection, but an excellent one from the standpoint of dramatic suspense.


"Alone in the hissing laboratory of his wishes, Mr Pugh minces among bad vats and jeroboams, tiptoes through spinneys of murdering herbs, agony dancing in his crucibles, and mixes especially for Mrs Pugh a venomous porridge unknown to toxicologists which will scald and viper through her until her ears fall off like figs, her toes grow big and black as balloons, and steam comes screaming out of her navel." —Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas.

Not only do we get lovely shots of Newton fidgeting with his chemistry set beneath a brilliant overhead lambency, shading his eyes like Brando's Don Corleone, we get a slow war of nerves between captor and captive, plus a rather suspenseful bit with a dog called Monty.

I shall explain: Monty belongs to the bad doctor's wife, and one day he slips his collar and follows Newton to the makeshift prison. The dog knows too much, and with some regret the urbane murderer announces his intention of depositing the troublesome pooch in the acid bath, by way of a test of his potion's efficacy. Brown is powerless to intercede, since he's fixed to the wall by a chain: a circle on the floor marks out the area where he is free, and Newton is always careful to keep out of that circle when delivering Brown his newspapers, chicken sandwiches and flasks of martinis (he's a very considerate kidnapper). So the only chance of saving the poor dog is to entice him to safety in the circle: it becomes a uniquely tense version of the "Come to the one you love the most" scene from Lassie Come Home.


The movie has more than a daffy plot motor and suspense highlights on its side. The cast is pretty delightful, with Brown charming in a lightweight way as the young philanderer in over his head (Brown is best known now for playing Luke Skywalker's stay-at-home uncle). Sally Gray, a stunningly glamorous and generally very sympathetic actor (see They Made Me a Fugitive for her best role) gets to have fun as a rather awful woman who won't go to the police, initially at least, for fear of ruining her reputation. And Robert Newton is, as always, remarkable, although he's all the more impressive here because Dmytryk somehow prevents the uncontrollable ham from going nuts, the way he usually does. He's a simmering volcano, waiting to explode, but his violence is kept in. He never chews the furniture, although he does blast a hole in a doorjamb. You wouldn't know it was the same man who played Bill Sykes in Lean's Olver Twist, although it's the same beady eyes burning out of his face like hot cinders in a plate of tapioca.


"I always hated that pipe-smoking pose of Dmytryk's." —John Berry, quoted in Tender Comrades by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle.

But the film's secret weapon is its Columbo, Superintendent Finsbury of the Yard, played by Naunton Wayne. Like so many detectives of later years, this is a brilliant criminologist with a mind like a steel trap, disguising his cunning with a casual manner and air of absent-minded bumbling. Wayne, the shorter half of Charters and Caldicott, the duo of blustering Englishman abroad first featured in The Lady Vanishes and subsequently in a series of films mostly made by that movie's screenwriters, Launder and Gilliat, is a very funny man.

And that's the thing: while Newton seethes with malevolence amid his gigantic toy train set, and Gray languishes glamorously, and Brown grows his whiskers in captivity, the movie really belongs to a cute little doggie and the amiable fuddy-duddy of a cop who claims to be searching for it. It's not noir at all, it's more like baby blue.

So there's a happy ending, and by the time Brown is released, he's lost all interest in Sally Gray, but bonded decisively with Monty the dog. So, in my prophetic interpretation of this, Sally Gray is the communist party and Monty the dog is HUAC. Grotesquely flattering to both organizations, I know.



The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


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