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In 1940, former "Little Tough Guys / Dead End Kids" actor Hally Chester changed his name to Hal E. Chester to produce "Joe Palooka" movies for Monogram. By the time the series ended ten years later, he had already branched out, producing small pictures like Cy Endfield's scathingly critical The Underworld Story. Chester is now most associated with the fantastic thrillers The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Curse (Night) of the Demon, the latter made after he moved to England. Just before Demon, Chester engaged Val Guest to direct The Weapon (1956), a suspense thriller backgrounded in a London still scarred by the bombings of a decade earlier.
Writer Fred Freiberger has some decent credits to his name, but Val Guest would seem the main force behind The Weapon. A strong proponent of location shooting, Guest adopted a documentary look for much of his 1955 Hammer hit The Quatermass Xperiment. Although his best-remembered pictures are in the sci-fi genre, Guest would return to the English streets for several later crime thrillers. With its low-key story idea and interesting cast, The Weapon generates its share of excitement. Sixty years later, its biggest appeal is the many scenes filmed on the streets of London. Olive's excellent HD transfer makes us feel like we've stepped into history. We soak up the period detail in cars, store windows and street signs.
The story begins much like the celebrated Little Fugitive, only for real. Little Erik Jenner (Jon Whiteley of Fritz Lang's Moonfleet) finds a gun while playing in a bombed out lot, and accidentally shoots one of his playmates. His mother Elsa (Lizabeth Scott) is the widow of a British soldier, working as a waitress. Convinced that he's a murderer, the traumatized Erik hides out as best he can while Elsa deals with several lawmen. She's not happy that finding the boy seems of secondary interest to these men. The bullet recovered from the wounded boy matches one associated with the killing of an American officer, ten years ago. Police inspector Mackenzie (Herbert Marshall) pulls in U.S. military C.I.D. cop Mark Andrews (Steve Cochran), a hard-nosed officer hated and feared by the men of his command. Mark knew the murder victim. He tracks the gun through the nightclubs of London, pulling information from prostitute Vivienne (Nicole Maurey), the victim's long-ago fiancˇé. What the Army, the Bobbies and Elsa don't realize is that the gun belongs to a man in the neighborhood, who has already hired the local kids at a penny a day to find Erik. He offers to help the distraught widow find her son -- so he can keep the gun out of the hands of the police.
The Weapon initially reminds us of later TV shows - especially the 1961 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Bang, Your're Dead", in which little Billy Mumy finds a gun, assumes it is a tody and inadvertently threatens people with it. Little Erik Jenner knows immediately what he's found, and the accidental shooting occurs when another boy fights him for possession. The movie carries no message about guns or even gun safety, preferring to set up a manhunt thriller. The real menace is the man who hid the gun in the first place, a killer who won't mind eliminating Erik and his mother.
The best scenes in the movie -- and there are many -- show Eric dodging his way across London, sneaking food and avoiding the cops. Elsa's fellow waitress gives him some food but doesn't know that he's a fugitive; when someone asks him about the gun in his pocket Erik takes it on the lam again. The best scene is at an outdoor produce market, where a friendly trucker treats Erik to a full meal. The city is not presented as a hostile place, but Erik's situation requires that he keep on the run, dirty and hungry. Is it realistic for Erik to hit so many interesting places in the course of a day or two of wandering? We get plenty of up-close, child-level widescreen views of The Embankment, an ancient bridge, Trafalgar Square and part of Piccadilly Circus. Those are touristy locations, but Guest's coverage is not. Every curbstone is history.
The leading players do not fall into a romantic embrace, exactly. Having been let go by Warners several years earlier, the apparent dame magnet Steve Cochran had put most of his bad behavior (beating up women, racing his car in Culver City, buzzing the town in his airplane) behind him in pursuit of jobs. His Mark Andrews undergoes a character arc similar to Robert Ryan's in On Dangerous Ground, but less drastic. While drilling his men at the rifle range, Mark seriously reprimands a private for a simple error delivering a phone message. When his C.O. asks him to soften up, Mark continues with the same 'the Army isn't tough enough' arrogance. Mark's business with Elsa begins badly because he coldly concentrates on his part of the inquiry, recovering the gun. Along with the standard scenes of investigation, we see Cochran's character softening, learning that the cold enforcement of regulations is not a good personal policy.
The weak link in the movie is the conception of Lizabeth Scott's character. The talented and dependable Ms. Scott always had the look of a woman who's prevailed through tough times. Her Elsa is scraping her way forward on her own. Her kid plays in the dangerous bomb ruins while she waits tables. All's fine until Erik disappears: Elsa isn't affected nearly as much as she should be. There's no panic in her reactions, and even when Erik's been gone over a day, she's going to work and cooking meals for impromptu guests like Mark. She even strikes up a friendly relationship with neighbor Joshua Henry (George Cole of The Vampire Lovers), who is eager to find Erik for the wrong reason. The finale sees Elsa and Erik put in even worse jeopardy by the vicious, desperate Joshua.
Gorgeous Nicole Maurey has an okay couple of scenes as Vivienne, a fallen woman who expresses her shame and helplessness to Mark. The actress has worked steadily since the end of the war and is known best for her starring role in the misshapen sci-fi picture The Day of the Triffids. Maurey had just previously appeared in Hal E. Chester's The Bold and the Brave, also playing a prostitute. But her immortality is assured through her early appearance in Robert Bresson's classic Diary of a Country Priest. Child star Jon Whiteley had a brief but accomplished career, starring in Fritz Lang's CinemaScope costume picture but also good pictures by Charles Crichton (The Hunted) and two excellent features by the underrated, almost forgotten Phillip Leacock.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Weapon is their typical high quality, plain wrap presentation. The B&W images look great, with an authentic feel that elevates the show above many a low budget English picture of the time. I personally love to watch vintage shows filmed on location in big cities. They're like a time machine into the past. I'll put on The Ipcress File just to relax in London, 1965, or Night and the City to review where the London locations might have been filmed. The Weapon has scenes with the same appeal. Oh, and the villain drives an incredible sports car. One might easily kill a kid to avoid losing it. Well, the villain would.
If you're not familiar with the story of actor Steve Cochran, you might want to look at his wiki page. What a life! A high testosterone guy, Cochran was one of those irresistible hunks that had what women of the time wanted. He was also a tabloid king for whom hardly a season passed without another front-page gossip scandal. But Cochran played major roles in pictures for William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives), Howard Hawks (A Song Is Born), Raoul Walsh (White Heat), Don Siegel (Private Hell 36), Michelangelo Antonioni (Il Grido), Roger Corman (I Mobster) and Sam Peckinpah (The Deadly Companions). Dig a bit deeper into his story: his untimely end sounds like a fantasy from a men's magazine -- he died on a boat surrounded by an all-female crew.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Weapon Blu-ray rates:
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