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Dick Barton Trilogy - Dick Barton, Special Agent / Dick Barton at Bay / Dick Barton Strikes Back, The
Beginning in the late-1920s, as Hollywood films began to dominate movie screens around the world, Britain's Parliament imposed laws to aid that country's anemic film industry. They required 30-50% of the movies shown on British screens be domestically produced. It was hoped that such restrictions would help turn industry around, but instead the opposite happened. While good British films continued to be made, the industry was plagued by the so-called "quota quickies," bottom-of-the-bill fodder produced solely to gain access to foreign films and fill out programs with a minimum of time and effort.
Quota quickies were rarely shown outside Britain, and few are remembered today. An exception was the Dick Barton trilogy, campy spy thrillers based on a popular radio series. DD Video has released The Dick Barton Trilogy, a handsomely packaged set that includes Dick Barton, Special Agent (1948), Dick Barton at Bay (1948, released delayed until 1950), and Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949). The three films were the first postwar successes of Hammer Films, which produced the series in association with the BBC.
Dick Barton, Special Agent
The first film in the series finds Barton (Don Stannard, who starred in all three films though not the radio series) investigating a smuggling ring with painfully unfunny sidekicks Snowey (George Ford) and Jock (Jack Shaw). A package inadvertently delivered to Barton leads him to former Nazis plotting to destroy England by poisoning its water supply. The enormous popularity of this picture attests more to Hammer's shrewdness in adapting a popular, pre-sold radio show than to the quality of the film itself, which is comically bad. The picture was directed by Alf Goulding, a longtime comedy veteran of two-reelers whose credits include Laurel and Hardy's late-period features A Chump at Oxford (1940) and Atoll K (1951). Though Goulding injects comic bits of business throughout, little of it is funny, and its Music Hall slapstick style seems at odds with the campiness of the characters and situations. Worse, the picture rarely rises above the level of an amateur film. Long passages are obviously shot silent (and often under-cranked) and looped in postproduction. Shots within a given scene don't match at all, and overall the picture has an Ed Wood-like ineptitude.
Dick Barton at Bay
The second film loses the grating slapstick, and overall is a substantial improvement. This time Dick Barton is on the trail of foreign agent Sergei Volkoff (Meinhart Maur, a poor man's von Stroheim) and his international gang of cutthroat communists, including deadly Chinese assassin Chang (Yoshihide Yanai). Volkoff kidnaps an esteemed professor (Percy Walsh) and threatens to kill the professor's beautiful daughter (Joyce Linden), unless he reveals the secrets of his deadly ray, which Volkoff plans to use against British aircraft. The picture has a bit more polish than the first entry, and good use is made of the villains' hideout, a remote island-lighthouse. An almost unrecognizable Patrick McNee has a small part as a spy being chased by Volkoff's men in the opening scene.
Dick Barton Strikes Back
This third film in the series was actually released prior to Dick Barton at Bay, possibly because Hammer knew this was far superior to the previous two. In this entry, Barton is on the trail of arms dealer Fouracada (Sebastian Cabot, very young and minus his trademark beard). He and his gang have developed a sound ray they use to wipe out whole cities. (In sharp contrast to the first picture, these scenes have an air of mystery and grimness about them, rather like the village sequences in Quatermass 2.) Eventually, Barton and sidekick Snowey (this time played by Bruce Walker) trace Fouracada and his high-tech weapon to Blackpool, where the device is being readied for another deadly attack from that city's landmark tower.
Dick Barton Strikes Back more than makes up for the tepid entertainment offered by the first two pictures. Played mostly straight, the picture works on many levels, and anticipates elements later standard issue in '60s spy films. The picture is so good, in fact, one suspects the series might have continued for years had it not been for the tragic death of its rising star. Stannard and his wife, along with (among others) Sebastian Cabot, had just celebrated the film's imminent release at a studio-sponsored party when their car overturned and Stannard was killed instantly.
Video & Audio
DD Video has done an acceptable if unexceptional job with the three Dick Barton movies. All are presented in their original standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio with the usual mono sound, spread over three discs. Dick Barton at Bay is the weakest looking of the bunch. The film element used seems fine, but the image has a strange quality about it: blacks appear gray and overall the film looks like it was transferred through a translucent curtain of grain. The picture is watchable, though, with daytime and interior scenes looking okay, but night-for-night sequences (and there are a lot of them) suffering. Dick Barton Strikes Back is sourced from a print owned by the National Film and Television Archive. All three pictures have their share of dirt and splice marks, but are all reasonably clean given their age and relative obscurity.
As with their DVD of The Quatermass Xperiment, DD Video is to be commended for its highly collectable, full-color booklet. The booklet runs 36 pages, and includes extensive background information about the radio series' origins and the famous theme music carried over into the films. ("The Devil's Gallop" is to Dick Barton what "The William Tell Overture" is to the Lone Ranger.) Each film is examined, supplemented with black and white photos and full-color advertising art. The booklet also profiles selected cast and crewmembers, including famed art director Ken Adam and future Hammer writer-director Jimmy Sangster. Finally, writer Mike Lepine notes Dick Barton's subsequent adventures on television, in comic books, and as a series of (comedy) plays.
Though Dick Barton, Special Agent and Dick Barton at Bay are mostly weak and even inept at times, Dick Barton Strikes Back is a minor gem, a crackerjack spy picture suggesting what the series might have been were it not for the death of its likeable star. That film and its fun and informative booklet make this DVD a fun package for genre fans, British radio buffs, and scholars of early postwar British cinema.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.