TOWN ON TRIAL, John Guillermin, director/Powerhouse Indicator Blu-Ray I suppose I should begin with a disclosure – I was happy to provide a to-camera extra discussing this Blu-ray issue of a classic tale of murder and detection. As I wrote in British Crime Film, John Guillermin’s Town on Trial (1956), issues of class – on the peripheries in earlier British films – are now up for grabs. An intriguing grafting process may be seen to be at work in Guillermin’s film: at the centre is the classic hard-boiled police detective (played by John Mills at his most intransigent) but the presentation of the seething eponymous British town appears to owe something to Grace Metalious’ scandalous Peyton Place, with its colourful array of simmering sexual transgression, corporate corruption and individual mauvais fois. Mills’ tough cop’s attempts to solve a crime open up unpleasant ramifications for many in the town, and his scattershot approach allows for a penetration of the various social strata (much in the fashion that such literary American detectives as Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer made similar odysseys stretching from the cheap bars to the snooty country club). While the snarling hero’s working class credentials are posited as the reason for the acute dislike of the upper middle-class characters he interrogates, the film is hardly an encomium for the thrusting, iconoclastic qualities of the detective’s background – the variety of social settings that Guillermin presents for us shows no favouritism; but Town on Trial wishes plagues on multiple houses. Perhaps the caustic social criticism articulated by the central character is thrown back upon him by the director’s clear identification of the John Mills character as a damaged, unfulfilled figure; while another reading of the film might suggest that had the detective achieved the requisite social standing (or have been born into it like Elizabeth George’s patrician copper Inspector Lynley), his confrontational manner would not have been so insistently present. But given that the moneyed characters in the film are presented in such a uniformly unsympathetic fashion – and that the various sexual peccadilloes are not given an attractive gloss, Town on Trial might be read a something of a tabula rasa, in which each individual viewer take from the film exactly what they wish to. Such a view, however, probably overestimates the level of ambition on the part of Guillermin and his writers Ken Hughes and Robert Westerby.
Guillermin’s film was based on a Sunday newspaper series written by crime novelist Francis Durbridge under the title ‘Nylon Murders’, and the American note sounded in this original title was echoed in the US-style economy with which the film was made. Following up a murder in an English country town, Superintendent Halloran appears in de rigueur trench coat and sporting the no-nonsense manner that audiences would expect from brusque British cops. But it becomes clear within a very short time that Mills is cannily investing this stock character with a richer inner life than audiences had any right to expect in the conventional-seeming context. It is clear that Halloran regards himself as someone who has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and is bitterly aware that his progress up the professional ladder has been a slow and halting one. Halloran is fully cognisant of the fact that his social background has constrained his chances, and that those colleagues further up the social scale could expect quicker promotion (he points out bitterly that it has taken him ten years to reach even the middle-rung position he has attained). Halloran is also a man without a family (they have been killed in the war), and this has left him with an anger which has no direction – and, what is more, is something that indirectly powers him in his job. He is notably gruff with everyone around him, particularly the suspects. Interestingly, though, the characterisation is fleshed out when Halloran is allowed to develop a romantic attachment during the course of the narrative, and a further humanising factor is his barely concealed liking for children (not, thankfully, rendered in sentimental fashion). When so many British crime films presented police officers as utterly one-dimensional, clichéd figures – and complacently ensured that the police procedural aspects of the narrative were by far the least interesting things on view – it is a tribute to John Mills’ performance in Town on Trial that his bitter copper is quite as interesting as the murder he is attempting to solve. Town on Trial demonstrated the omnipresence of the American model. The casting of the American character actor Charles Colburn was no doubt part of a strategy to make the film saleable abroad, but such is his unpleasant authority in the film (along with a determined attempt to integrate his accent and demeanour into the British background) that there is no sense of awkwardly shifting gears. The English social system is explored with a rigour previously more evident in the American models’ examination of their society, but the unsparing attitudes to snobbishness and covetousness are very British. What is perhaps most overtly American about the film is the conspicuous level of energy and movement, and the barely contained visceral qualities which are more reminiscent of the American films of Fritz Lang than British product of the time.