Written by Eric Ambler
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Jim Ackland (John Mills) is riding the bus with his niece one dark and stormy night. The vehicle is filled to the brim with passengers, some fast asleep, others enjoying time with their loved ones. Fate sees that Jim’s life is turned upside down however, as a mechanical failure sends the bus off track, crashing into a wall. The last thing Jim recalls before blacking out is the harrowing horn of an oncoming train. Months later, Jim is finally relieved from his hospital stay, although warned by the doctor that his recovery from the fracture in his skull will require time, and that he may even experience difficult episodes of relapse. Confident that things are on the mend, Jim rents a hotel room as his new living quarters and finds employment at a nearby chemical lab. Life goes swimmingly for while, notwithstanding interactions with some of the less sociable characters dwelling the establishment, until one of its tenants, model Molly Newman (Kay Walsh), turns up dead in the nearby moors. Suddenly, the police and some of tenants begin to question Jim, what with his nasty head injury and all. Making matters even worse is when Jim himself eventually begins to doubt his innocence…
Director Roy Ward Baker and screenwriter Eric Ambler give viewers one of the rare non-American noirs of the era with The October Man. For so many reasons, not the least of which was the post-World War II societal shift in mood when returning U.S. veterans set foot back home and had to live with the grim experiences of combat, film noir of the classic era is generally considered to be an American film movement. The truth of the matter is a bit more complex than that however. For one, many of the directors that flexed their filmmaking muscles in such thrillers and mystery tales were originally from European countries that evaded their motherlands out of fear of the oncoming war, finding safe haven stateside. Another reality is that the British have, for the longest time, had an affinity for stories, be they told in books, in film, or on the stage, that are akin to what aficionados find in film noir. Many Sherlock Holmes tales could just as easily be fall into that very realm were it not for cinephiles’ propensity to automatically categorize them as strictly mystery yarns.
While there is no Sherlock Holmes to be found in The October Man, the endeavor is a finely tuned, appropriately moody story of one man’s dealings with those who reject and question him due to his handicap. The movie even makes a valiant attempt at establishing a mystery, although it sadly plays its cards a little too evidently to keep audiences guessing, thus making the answer to the film’s ultimate question quite obvious long before the filmmakers go for a surprise with the reveal. Despite that blemish, the movie is a very handsomely crafted piece of 1940s cinema, its visual identity steeped in what many recognize as film noir lighting techniques and set design, and aided in no small part by a delightful, colourful cast of characters that populate its world.
Among the artistic endeavours practiced in England that most people think of first is theatre. Granted, even though there are many sequences in the movie that transpire outside the confines of the hotel where Jim is residing, about half the running is restricted to the many rooms of the hotel run by Miss Shelby (Catherine Lacey). As Jim makes the acquaintances of its many tenants, the picture occasionally takes on the aura of a televised play. To some this may be a hindrance to enjoying a cinematic project, but when played as keenly and with tact, as is the case here with Roy Ward Baker at the helm, the proceedings never feel too confined, or as if the filmmakers lack vision. A myriad of personalities either welcome Jim as one of their own, remain cautious as to his inclusion in the gang, or outright shun him for various reasons. Among the recurring faces are Molly Newman a model working small contracts to make ends up meet and pay off some debts, Mr. Peachy (Edward Chapman), a retired investor, jealous of Molly’s interest in Jim, and Mrs. Vinston (Joyce Carey), a amateur card player who does not take a liking to Jim’s mannerisms, mistaking his desire for solitude during his occasional relapses as an unwillingness to socialize.
All of these characters and more come and go throughout the movie, adding a lot of different sides to life at the hotel. Then there are the individuals Jim makes friends with outside of his home, such as co-worker Harry Carden (Patrick Holt), another biochemist, and his sister Jenny (Joan Greenwood), with whom Jim shares a deep love. Their affair takes a dramatic turn, unfortunately, once the police begin to seriously suspect Jim of having committed the murder of Molly Newman. Everyone fills their roles admirably, chief among them the leading man, John Mills. Mills is excellent in The October Man, juggling extremely different ranges of human emotion derived from having experienced a terribly disturbing trauma in the recent past. He badly wishes to get along with his life as before, yet the occasional mental breakdowns remind him that he is still partially a broken man. Worse still, since the hotel is situated near a train track, the locomotive’s nightmarish toot regularly recalls that fateful evening in the bus when he lost a loved one.
The hero’s slight mental handicap is the trampoline the film employs to explore the discomforting reality that those who do not fit in the presumed parameters of normality are always put to question. In life, there is the normal majority and the minority, the latter lumped into this oft-maligned category for a host of sometimes barely acceptable reasons, other times for completely superficial ones. Of course, some of the reasons why Jim is ostracized the way he is, and certainly the reason why the police inspectors have their eyes on him more than any other suspect, has more to do with a grossly out-dated understanding of what is implied when a person is recovering from a severe head injury. Even the doctor’s explanation at the start of the picture is more of a creepy warning that seems to imply that Jim could go psycho at any moment when the outside world proves too disruptive for his weak mind. Thankfully people have learned a lot about issues relating to the brain since 1947, yet the film nonetheless serves as a potent reminder that humans are a frighteningly fickle lot. When faced with the inclusion in society of people that are different, they are quick to point their fingers at them as scapegoats for a multitude of new or existing problems. In that regard, the times have changed very little.
The only obvious blemish in the entire film is the obviousness of the killer’s identity. Director Baker makes some plot-based attempts at sending sleuths in the audience off track, but his direction of the actors really gives the answer away shortly after the tragedy occurs. Subtlety was lost on the filmmakers, and although the theatrics prove beneficial in many regards for The October Man, in this one instance it is a missed opportunity to build a truly great mystery story.
When the pros are weighed against the cons, Roy Ward Baker’s The October Man is a classy, character driven, and lively production. The picture is often beautiful to behold, injecting the film with an unnerving creepiness even though it is not in any shape or form a horror film. Entertaining and lavishly produced, The October Man is a film for all seasons.