The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - CIRCLE OF DANGER | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - CIRCLE OF DANGER

Circle of Danger review
An American travels to London to investigate the mysterious death of his brother.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jacques Tourneur

Starring: Ray Milland, Patricia Roc, Marius Goring, Hugh Sinclair, Naunton Wayne

Circle of Danger bluray

Horror fans rightly adore Jacques Tourneur for his collaborations with producer Val Lewton and his 1957 masterpiece Night of the Demon. In mainstream circles he's never quite gotten the respect he deserves, despite working in a variety of genres. Perhaps it's that very versatility that creates a misguided impression of Tourneur as a journeyman. If an auteur is defined as a filmmaker whose work carries a distinctive theme, then Tourneur fits the bill. There's a common theme in this director's work of an outsider coming to a strange place, often clashing with the local culture. Think of Simone Simon's Serb in New York in Cat People; the Americans in Haiti in I Walked with a Zombie; the European immigrants of his westerns. Like Night of the Demon, Tourneur's 1951 thriller Circle of Danger features an American who finds himself at the centre of a conspiracy while visiting the UK.

Circle of Danger review

The American is actually played by a Brit, Ray Milland, whose charisma makes you overlook his unconvincing American accent within minutes of his appearance. Milland's Clay Douglas has travelled to Britain seeking answers regarding the mysterious death of his younger brother during a WWII commando raid in which he was suspiciously the only casualty. Tracking down the surviving members of his brother's unit, Clay hits a brick wall of silence. Some of the men seem genuine in having no knowledge of the incident, while others are sketchy, as though they're hiding something, particularly a former commanding officer, Hamish (Hugh Sinclair).

On paper Circle of Danger reads like classic film noir, but its tone and visuals are decidedly British. Clay's quest takes him the length and breadth of Britain, covering the cities of England and the villages of Scotland and Wales. Rather than shadowy alleys, the drama mostly plays out in scenic rural locations. A tense climactic scene that sees Clay become part of a sinister hunting party plays like a forerunner to Straw Dogs, as does the hint of anti-American xenophobia that runs through the film, with Clay's brother's former colleagues describing him as loud and obnoxious.

Circle of Danger review

Tourneur's producer here is Hitchcock's great collaborator Joan Harrison, and the film often resembles something the master of suspense might have made in his early British period. Scripted by Philip McDonald, who honed his craft in the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto serials, Circle of Danger zips along at a breezy pace reminiscent of The 39 Steps and Young and Innocent. Many of the supporting characters Clay meets in his investigation are distinctively British eccentrics. A scene in which Clay finds himself stuck in a drawing room and forced to endure a bunch of kids' ear-splitting musical recital is reminiscent of the birthday party sequence in Young and Innocent. Naunton Wayne, best known as one half of The Lady Vanishes' comic relief duo Charters and Caldicott, pops up in a scene-stealing role as a former squaddie turned unscrupulous used car salesman. There's even a villainous figure who lives with his mother.

Harrison's influence may also have extended to the film's female lead, Elspeth, who finds herself romantically torn between Clay and Hamish. Played adorably by Patricia Roc, Elspeth is surprisingly progressive for a heroine of her era. Confronted by Hamish over her flirting with Clay, she's unapologetic, and makes it abundantly clear that she is to be no man's "property." So well developed is the romantic subplot, and so convincingly played by Milland and Roc, that it threatens to overtake the central mystery narrative. Clay's search for answers sees him stand up Elspeth at several points, and there's a wonderfully written scene in which she expresses how she needs to feel that she's as important to Clay as his late brother. By the final act you'll find yourself willing Clay to put aside his stubborn male pride, give up his investigation and focus on the very much alive woman who adores him.

Circle of Danger review

There's another surprise in the figure of Sholto Lewis, another of Clay's brother's comrades now turned ballet choreographer. Played by Marius Goring, the mincing Sholto intially comes off as a crude homophobic stereotype, but the character serves to expose the prejudices and preconceptions of both Clay and the audience. Clay initially laughs off the idea that Sholto could have been a badass soldier, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that Sholto is indeed a very dangerous man and not the sort of person Clay should be trifling with.

If there's a flaw in Circle of Danger it's perhaps that the movie never really lives up to its title until its final few minutes. Clay never seems to be in any immediate danger until the climax. While it resembles a Hitchcock movie in its Britishness, its wry humour and its aching romance, it never has the suspense of a Hitchcock movie, as we're never sure who exactly Clay should be wary of until the closing minutes. The reason for much of this is explained however by a final twist that's as melancholic as it is surprising. The movie ends on an upbeat note, but it also leaves us contemplating the hidden scars and psychological trauma the war left on a generation of men.

Circle of Danger
 is on UK bluray, DVD and VOD from February 5th.