Ealing Studios. The name conjures up memories of the great British comedies such as The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob and Kind Hearts and Coronets. Film noir, however, is not the genre that usually comes to mind although Ealing rubbed shoulders with it occasionally in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) and Pool of London (1951). Oddly enough, one of the studio’s final releases, Nowhere to Go (1958) was pure, unadulterated noir and a stylish, terse little thriller to boot. Sadly, it has been overlooked and unappreciated for years even though it marks the feature film debut of director Seth Holt and gave actress Maggie Smith her first major screen role. A late entry in the noir cycle, Nowhere to Go has a cool, stylish feel to it unlike American-made noirs and seems more closely influenced in tone and visual style by the French crime films of the late fifties/early sixties such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur and Le doulos. Like those films, trust and treachery are the ying/yang components which are put into play from the start when we are immediately pulled into an ingenious prison breakout sequence, all of it taking place without dialogue and utilizing only natural sound.
The film then follows the escapee, Paul Gregory (George Nader), as he makes his way from the prison yard to a hideout where he ponders the circumstances that brought him to this moment in time. In flashbacks, we see how Paul, posing as an aspiring playwright, managed to charm a wealthy widow into letting him handle the sale of her late husband’s valuable coin collection. An experienced con artist, Paul double-crosses his client, selling the collection for hard cash and depositing it in a safety lock box of which he possesses the only key. Later, when he’s picked up as the logical robbery suspect, Paul pleads guilty, thinking he’ll get off in a few months but instead, the judge decides to make an example of him and delivers a sentence of ten years.
Once Paul escapes from prison, his life takes an even more severe downward turn: his former partner Victor (Bernard Lee) steals his safety box key, most of his underworld connections shun him and he finds himself stranded without money or lodging. Soon he’s on the run again after Victor is murdered and he’s the prime suspect. Then he meets a young woman, Bridget Howard (Maggie Smith), who offers him refuge. Should he trust her and why should she take the risk?
Part of the unexpected appeal of Nowhere to Go is the way it exploits in subtle ways your identification with Paul, a charming, intelligent but clearly sociopathic personality, while encouraging your growing suspicion of Bridget, the only seemingly innocent character in the story. Also, the bitterly ironic ending puts it in a class with the fateful climaxes of such cinematic gems as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Killing.
The film passed unnoticed by most film critics of its day and the few that took the trouble to review it were either brain dead from viewing too many bad movies or unappreciative of a B movie which succeeded on a much higher level. Films in Review dismissed it as a “so-so suspenser…Mr. Holt’s directorial style is so terse you’d better not let your attention wander if you want to follow the none-too-probable and ever more complicated ins-and-outs.” Variety was one of the few to post a postive review proclaiming Nowhere to Go “a well-made, literate crime yarn with the usual polished stamp of the Ealing Studio…Nader’s performance is an intelligent study. Bernard Lee gives solid support…Maggie Smith provides an interesting new face and….suggests that she has a worthwhile future in pix.”
Smith, in her first major role in a movie (she had previously appeared in a bit part in 1956 in Child in the House), is superb as a lonely, sensitive rich girl who has trouble staying in school (she’s run away from five of them) and doesn’t seem to click with her own age group. This partly accounts for her empathy and willingness to help a shady character on the lam.
Smith was cast in the film due to the influence of drama critic Kenneth Tynan who had recently seen her perform on stage in the play Share My Lettuce and was co-writer (with director Seth Holt) of the screenplay for Nowhere to Go. Tynan, who had been a script editor at Ealing, was much more famous, influential…and controversial as a theatre critic at the Observer and literary manager of London’s prestigious Royal National Theatre. Still, he tried his hand at another screenplay many years after Nowhere to Go when he worked on the script for Roman Polanski’s version of MacBeth in 1971.
A fascinating individual, Tynan deserves a blog tribute of his own if only to remind people that he was much more than the infamous creator of that once daring Broadway musical revue, Oh! Calcutta! He was highly quotable in his day and you’ve probably heard some of his witticisms such as “What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober,” or, on the subject of Roman Polanski, “The five-foot Pole you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.”
Tynan was good friends with Seth Holt (he once referred to him as one of the three best conversationalists in London) and Nowhere to Go was indeed a promising debut for both of them as well as Maggie Smith. For a while, Holt’s career looked promising with features such as Scream of Fear (1961), a superior psychological thriller in the Hitchcock mode starring Susan Strasberg, and Station Six-Sahara (1962), a favorite film of director Martin Scorsese featuring Carroll Baker. Unfortunately, Holt never graduated to A-feature projects and died unexpectedly, six weeks into the shooting of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971), a Hammer horror film. But back to Nowhere to Go. Among the many pleasures of watching the film is the evocative black and white cinematography of Paul Beeson, which gives us a crook’s tour of London complete with back streets, dive bars, shabby flats and seedy neighborhoods. A downbeat mood of desolation and overwhelming loneliness is further driven home through the film’s score, composed and performed by jazz musician Dizzy Reece and his quintet. It remains the jazz trumpeter’s only film score to date. In addition, James Bond fans will get a kick out of seeing Bernard Lee – four years before his appearance as “M” in the series beginning with Dr. No (1962) – as the ruthless and completely loathsome villain of the piece. While all of the supporting players are an integral part of Nowhere to Go‘s success, the real surprise here is George Nader as the debonair confidence man. It’s an impressive performance that goes from silky self-confidence to animal cunning to sheer desperation.
During his Hollywood career he was rarely given the opportunity to play characters with any complexity or depth and was usually marketed as a beefcake hero in movies like Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955), The Second Greatest Sex (1955) and The Female Animal (1958). Except for the notoriously bad Robot Monster (1953) – a true guilty pleasure – most American moviegoers are probably unfamiliar with his work, although in Europe, Nader still has a cult following due to his appearance in a series of spy thrillers as secret agent Jerry Cotton. It’s interesting to note that on the poster for Nowhere to Go the poster tag line announces “Meet a new star..tough, handsome George Nader” even though Nader was hardly a “new” star but in some ways it was a new beginning for the actor and the unofficial launch of his European career. For many years it was rumored that Nader’s Hollywood career was sabotaged by his own studio, Universal, which felt pressure from the tabloids to expose gay actors. The story goes that the studio sacrificed Nader’s career in order to protect their major asset and boxoffice champion, Rock Hudson. The reality was that Nader and Hudson were close personal friends in real life; in fact, Nader and his longtime companion Mark Miller, Hudson’s personal secretary, were the main beneficiaries of Hudson’s estate when the actor died of AIDS in 1985.
Nader relocated to Europe in the early sixties after a brief stint in U.S. television and he found steady work there until he was involved in a serious car accident that damaged his eye and made it impossible for him to work with bright lights on film sets. After that he turned to writing and one of his novels, Chrome (1978), a gay-themed science fiction novel with ideas possibly inspired by Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) has earned an underground following of sorts. Nowhere to Go is currently unavailable on any media format in the U.S. but if you have an all-region DVD player you might be able to still find a PAL DVD copy of it from Studio Canal in the UK. It also occasionally surfaces on TCM which is where I first saw it.
*This is a revised and updated version of an article that first appeared on the Movie Morlocks blog.
Other Links of interest: