It’s my birthday today, the 8th of January. Every year, on this day, I post a review of a film that features someone born on January 8. This year, it’s William Hartnell. Born on January 8, 1908 in London, Hartnell was best-known, in the early decades of his career, for his role as Sergeant Grimshaw from the popular Carry On films. In 1963, however, came a breakthrough that was to immortalize Hartnell on screen: he became the first Doctor Who.
In 1948, however, Hartnell acted in this somewhat unusual film about a fugitive, the girl who helps him, and the police inspector who’s on his trail. Hartnell was not the protagonist; that role went to Rex Harrison—but Hartnell put in a nuanced and restrained performance as a cop who’s not infallible, not hard-bitten and cynical, not incompetent or corrupt. A human being, and a cop.
Escape begins with a brief scene in a prison in the English countryside. As guards go about checking up on prisoners, the camera zooms in on one prisoner (Rex Harrison), who’s looking out through the bars of the window, his expression grim.
We then go into flashback. Harrison is Matthew Denant, an obviously well-heeled man, since we see him at the tiny Hendley Aerodrome, where he’s test-flying a plane with the intention of buying it. Having told the man in charge that he’ll soon get in touch regarding the formalities for the purchase, Denant bids farewell. He mentions he’s off to the races, and the man in charge wishes him luck. They’re obviously old acquaintances, comfortable with each other.
When the boss has gone, and just before Denant leaves, the assistant, Rogers, comes up and asks Denant if he will do Rogers a favour. Place a bet of £50 on so-and-so horse at the races. But don’t tell the boss, because he doesn’t approve. Denant agrees.
Later that day, after the races, Denant phones Rogers with bad news: the horse came in sixth. Rogers (who doesn’t seem to have a lot of money) says it’ll take him a couple of days to send the money to Denant, if that’s all right. Denant assures Rogers: that is fine. Which, while it has little to do with the main plot of the film, reveals something about Denant’s character, and about his relationship with Rogers and Rogers’s boss. There is friendship here, and trust.
That evening, Denant is walking back through Hyde Park when he sees a lone woman sitting on a park bench. She asks him for a light, and they get talking. The woman complains bitterly about the police: how, as soon as they see her sitting here in the park, they haul her off because they think she’s up to no good. She admits to Denant that she’s guilty of nothing more than ‘original sin’, and Denant agrees that that’s no reason for the cops to be pestering her.
As he’s leaving, the woman gives him her card and tells Denant to pay her a visit sometime (it turns out she’s a palmist). Barely has Denant moved away than a policeman materializes out of the gloom and comes for the woman. It’s as she’d expected: he accuses her of soliciting (and of Denant, who’s still holding her card and has turned around to see what’s happening) of being the prospective ‘client’.
The long and the short of it is that Denant tries to stop the cop. The cop gets angry, fists fly, and a chance blow from Denant fells the man—and, as he falls, he bangs his head on the iron bench beside them. When Denant bends down to check, he finds the man dead.
… and Denant, being an upright citizen (and never dreaming of the trouble this is going to get him into) stays there while a nearby constable comes running to see what’s going on. Denant is arrested and taken away, and the next time we see him, it’s at the Old Bailey. He is accused of manslaughter.
Yes, the jury agrees, there was no intent on his part to kill the man. But all said and done, Denant’s trying to stop a police officer in the enforcement of his duty led to the said officer’s death. Intentionally or not, Denant is responsible for the man’s death.
No arguing has any effect. The verdict, when it is passed, is for three years of penal servitude. Three years being lenient, and taking into consideration the fact that Denant has a distinguished record from his RAF service during the war.
This is how Denant has now landed up in prison, and he’s a bitter, angry man. He thinks this is unfair. And, being the nonconformist that he is (remember his matter-of-fact acceptance of the Hyde Park woman’s admission to original sin?), Denant is not one to think that it’s only a question of three years, so he can wait it out.
One day, out as part of a detail working on the moor, Denant finds a dense fog descending. A quick chat with a fellow inmate, and Denant asks the man for some directions. He, Denant, is planning to escape. The man tries to dissuade Denant: nobody who ever tried to escape got very far. The moor is a cruel, harsh place, and the cops always catch anybody who attempts escape.
But Denant is scornful; he has a plan in mind, and is certain he can get away easily. Sure enough, under cover of the fog, he manages to slip away. But he’s not been gone very long when his absence is discovered by the warder, and the alarm raised. Soon, the police have set up road blocks on all roads leading out of the area, and the cops are searching high and low for the escapee.
Denant makes his way across the moor—and nearly runs into a fox hunt. The riders and their hounds pass him by, hot on the heels of the fox [rather telling, this, considering that Denant, too, is being ‘hunted’ by the cops]. One member of the hunt, a young woman named Dora Winton (Peggy Cummings) goes for a toss, as a result of which she falls behind and comes face to face with Denant. They stare at each other, surprised, for a moment or two before Denant turns and hurries away into the vegetation while she gets back on her horse and goes home.
At home, Dora is met by her elder sister Grace (Jill Esmond). From the brief conversation between them, it’s apparent that the two sisters are very different from each other. Grace mentions a note received from Charles. The contents of it are short and innocuous, but what is said is enough to establish a couple of things:
(a) Charles is a man in Dora’s life, possibly a lover;
(b) He’s not, at any rate, faithful to her—Dora knows about ‘other women’; and
(c) Dora doesn’t care.
Grace is a little miffed at Dora’s attitude, but beyond a passing mention of the escaped prisoner—about whom everybody in the neighbourhood now knows thanks to the police—no more conversation passes between them. Dora asks their maid to bring her breakfast, while she (Dora) goes off to fill the bathtub for herself.
While she’s inside the bathroom, through the open window, we see Denant approach furtively. He climbs in, looks about to make sure the coast is clear, and then, noticing the breakfast tray sitting there, takes the opportunity to feed himself. He’s busy tucking in when Dora emerges from the bathroom. She’s taken aback (obviously) but rallies around quickly, having recognized him.
Dora and Denant are in the middle of sizing each other up when there’s an interruption. The police has arrived, in the form of Inspector Harris (William Hartnell), accompanied by a constable. They search the house—Harris is at all times the picture of quiet, efficient and polite dignity—but Dora succeeds in keeping Denant undiscovered.
She even manages, while the cops are in another room, to open a cupboard and take out a coat and a few other things: fishing flies, a flask, etc. She hurries back to Denant, asks him if he can fish, and when he replies in the affirmative, hands him everything she’s brought along. It’ll be a good disguise. It’s her fiancé’s, she tells Denant, when he asks. So the unseen Charles is Dora’s fiancé.
Denant thanks Dora and dons the disguise. When she tries to point out that this is not an endeavour that’s likely to succeed, he assures her he knows what he’s doing.
… and what that is, soon becomes clear, when (having first stolen a pair of trousers drying on a clothesline), Denant makes his way into the village and asks to use the telephone at a local shop.
He telephones Hendley Aerodrome, where of course they are sympathetic. Denant is just starting to ask for a favour when the shopkeeper’s wife—who’s been suspicious from the moment Denant’s entered the shop—begins blatantly to eavesdrop on the conversation. Denant tries to fool her by pretending to be a cop on Denant’s trail, telling the person at Hendley what he thinks Denant is likely to do (take so-and-so plane and take off for France)…
…but the woman isn’t convinced. Even more so when she demands sixpence for the use of the phone and Denant can’t produce even that. She calls for a constable who’s strolling by, and Denant (after one desperate attempt—he’s still trying to pretend to be a cop—to get the constable to pay the woman for him), takes to his heels.
He soon throws off the pursuer, gets into a small used-car-salesroom, and shows an interest in buying a car. The car salesman is happy to accompany the prospective buyer on a test drive into the countryside, and Denant of course heads in the direction of Hendley. Midway through, with just a few miles left, the salesman begins to get suspicious, so Denant ditches him and carries on.
Only to have the car (which Denant recognized, early on, as being on its last legs anyway) come to a halt. Denant gets out, and, with the hood open, is peering inside when a car draws up. It’s Dora and her sister Grace.
Is Denant’s goose cooked? Or not? Will Dora, so obviously inclined to help when they first met, be sympathetic? Or will her more sensible, more proper sister dictate matters? What with the shopkeeper and his wife, the constable, and the car salesman all now witnesses to Denant’s very suspicious behaviour and Dora knowing that he’s the convict being hunted, what hope is there for Denant?
What I liked about this film:
The somewhat unusual way in which it proceeds: it’s a little unpredictable when it comes to genre (if you are expecting genre). When I started watching Escape, I thought this was going to be a film about justice and injustice and other weighty issues. Then, when it switched to Denant escaping from prison, it seemed to fall into a Hitchcock style: the sort of chase one sees so frequently in several of his films, like The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, and Saboteur. And then, suddenly, in the last few minutes of the film, it changes, the tone and the message becoming something else altogether.
And yes, I especially liked William Hartnell as Inspector Harris. After Rex Harrison and Peggy Cummings, his is the largest role, and I liked him a lot. Not just because Harris was not (as I’ve mentioned earlier) a cardboard cut-out of a cop, but also because of Hartnell’s portrayal of the character: an efficient and intelligent cop, but not heartless, not inhuman.
What I didn’t like:
The far too swift pace of the film. Escape clocks in at less than an hour and a half, and while that’s perfect for the depiction of Denant’s escape from prison and the adventures that follow, it’s not enough to build much in the way of character. And the romance between Denant and Dora is just too precipitate to be believable.
But, yes. Not a bad film.