But mostly Cosh Boy is a cracklin' little thriller, its story revolving around a weaselly, unrepentant, cowardly and crass punk (James Kenney) whose inevitable comeuppance at the end is among the most satisfying I've ever encountered. I wish I'd seen it in a crowded theater; no doubt they'd have roared with approval.
Based on a play called Master Crook by Bruce Walker, the movie opens with 16-year-old gang leader Roy Walsh (James Kenney) egging on nasal-voice confederate Alfie Collins (Ian Whittaker, later an acclaimed set decorator) into mugging a helpless old lady, beating her with a "cosh" a kind of nightstick.
The boys are caught, with Roy and his mother, Elsie (Betty Ann Davies), in total denial of her son's thuggery, even implying at the sentencing hearing that hapless Alfie, not Roy, is the ringleader and true culprit. Both are sentenced to a year's probation. Emboldened having escaped more serious punishment, Roy leads his teen-gang into more purse-snatching, he always careful to be on the sidelines in case the job goes wrong.
He postpones one robbery after eyeing Alfie's kid sister, Rene (Joan Collins, just 19 years old), at a local dance, and has his gang viciously beat Rene's boyfriend to clear the playing field. He's scolded by his Gran (Nancy Roberts) for forgetting his mother's birthday, hurting her feelings, but makes up for it by giving Mum a stolen gold compact. Later, he steals Gran's life savings, hidden under her mattress, to cover his gambling losses at the dog track. Later still, a devoted but distressed Rene announces that she's pregnant. The first things out of his mouth: 1) maybe I'm not the father; and 2) beat it.
And on and on. James Kenney's scenery-chewing performance may be unpardonably hammy, but you got to hand it to him: within minutes of his introduction you really want to pound this kid into oblivion.
Ah, but British Board of Film Censors justice comes fast and furious. (Spoilers) Elsie's in love with a Canadian, Bob Stevens (Michigan-born Robert Ayres) who, after marrying her and thus becoming Roy's stepfather, isn't about to indulge the little punk the way his mother has all his life. Meanwhile, Rene's no-nonsense Cockney mum (Hermione Baddeley) is livid after a despondent Rene throws herself into the Thames, leading an angry mob not far removed from the torch-carrying villagers in the Frankenstein movies. Moreover, Roy's latest job, an attempted robbery at the Palindrome Dance Hall, ends in a shootout in which Bob, no-less, is the intended victim, and its farcical failure turns the other gang members against Roy.
In a small role, the wonderful character actor Laurence Naismith plays a police inspector who confronts Roy at the end, just as his new stepfather is about to give the boy the beating of his life. Naismith's little scene, no more than a few lines of dialogue, is perfect. One can hear 1953 British audiences cheering.
The actors playing members of Roy's gang are unremarkable, but Joan Collins, despite her inexperience, is undeniably pretty; one can see why Rank thought she might be the next Elizabeth Taylor. The movie offers a double-dose of Hermiones - Baddeley and Gingold - the latter playing a friendly if alarming-looking neighborhood prostitute. Sid James turns up as a desk sergeant, the kind of part he'd play innumerable times before striking it rich in the "Carry On" series.
The X-rating the film received clearly is more the result of its themes: Teddy-Boy hoodlums senselessly beating old ladies heading home after a pint. The film coming two years before MGM's seminal Blackboard Jungle, the very notion of this emerging postwar trend was probably deeply disturbing to native audience all by itself. Add to that Roy's terrible treatment of his mother and grandmother, his lack of conscience and empathy toward the pregnant Rene and her suicide attempt, etc. must have seemed pretty gritty in 1953, though as director Gilbert noted nearly a half-century later, "Today you'd show it to 10-year-olds."
Video & Audio
Presented in its original 1.37:1 standard format and in black-and-white, Cosh Boy looks great, the title having been earlier restored by the British Film Institute. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is more than adequate, though no subtitle options are provided. Region "A" encoded.
The lone extra is, in standard-def, alternate opening titles with The Slasher title card. That title is as inapt as the Blu-ray cover art. Roy never slashes anyone.
Not great but mightily satisfying and eminently entertaining, Cosh Boy is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.