Director: Jim O’Connolly
Cast: Peter Vaughan, John Carson, Yvonne Romain
Synopsis: A fastidious insurance assessor investigates a potential case of insurance fraud in Brighton and uncovers a murder.
Peter Vaughan’s small, beady eyes and sharp features prevented him from claiming many leading roles, so he makes the most of the part of unlikely hero Roper, the penny-pinching insurance investigator at the heart of Smokescreen, a modest British B-movie from the Butcher’s Production Company. Sporting a bowler and wielding a brolly, Roper travels from London to Brighton to investigate the death of a businessman whose blazing car is seen diving off of Beachy Head in the movie’s opening scene. His foxy young widow (Yvonne Romain) hasn’t yet put in a claim, but the fact that the dead man only took out insurance on his life a few weeks prior to his apparent death, and that his body hasn’t been found at the crash scene sets alarm bells ringing.
Although Butcher’s had been around since the early days of the cinema, they were always firmly rooted to the lower echelons of the British film industry. The company knew its place, and catered for a niche market, but unlike so many minor production companies, they didn’t settle for churning out an homogenous product of bland mediocrity, and their movies were often tightly-plotted, fast-paced pieces of entertainment. Smokescreen was written and directed by Jim O’Connolly, whose best known work is probably the cowboys-vs-dinosaurs mash-up, The Valley of Gwangi (1969). The clever little plot, and an unexpected depth to Roper’s character, suggests a level of conscientiousness on O’Connolly’s part which pays off handsomely on the screen. Roper’s miserliness is given a poignant motivation which, when revealed late on, transforms him from an odd, and faintly dislikable figure, into a much more sympathetic one. The more important supporting roles are also fleshed out enough to make us believe these are people involved in an unfolding drama into which Roper has politely intruded, and O’Connolly does a decent job of maintaining the mystery surrounding the victim’s apparent death until the final scenes.
Smokescreen packs a lot of plot into its 70 minute running time, but it doesn’t feel rushed. It also provides some tantalising views of mid-1960s Brighton, and you have to wonder how they managed to persuade the town’s prestigious Grand Hotel to lend its name and facade to such a modest little production. The film also treats its audience to rare glimpses of some familiar 1960s character actors such as Sam Kydd, Deryck Guyler, Glynn Edwards, and Derek Francis.
(Reviewed 14th August 2015)