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  Pink String and Sealing Wax Withers Never Dithers
Year: 1945
Director: Robert Hamer
Stars: Googie Withers, Mervyn Johns, Mary Merrall, Gordon Jackson, Jean Ireland, Sally Ann Howes, Colin Simpson, David Walbridge, John Carol, Catherine Lacey, Garry Marsh, Pauline Letts, Maudie Edwards, Frederick Piper, Valentine Dyall
Genre: Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Mr Sutton (Mervyn Johns) runs a chemist's shop in Victorian Brighton and prides himself on his impeccable customer service, taking care to identify the correct medicine for the correct ailment and wrapping the box in brown paper, pink string and sealing wax for that special touch of care. But for amusement, he likes to attend the courts and sit in the public gallery to see the sentencing, and if he witnesses someone given the death sentence, then so much the better. His family of wife and three children each have their own ambitions, but Sutton is a strict man who demands they follow his orders while under his roof, which leads to friction and injustice, not to mention murder.

Is this the first film to mention flatulence? You would never think anyone broke wind in any movies before the mid-seventies looking at the history of cinema, yet there was Mervyn Johns in his capacity as a chemist providing a cure for a chronic case in the first scene. It was a mark of how strange and off-kilter this was, which would only become more blatant as the plot drew on, identifiably part of the Victoriana movement of its time, yet also bringing in textures of the burgeoning American film noir style that was beginning to take the world of entertainment by storm. And what does a film noir need? Well, usually? A femme fatale, but she wasn’t a member of the Sutton brood.

No, she was the wife of the owner of the local pub, Pearl, played with great relish by Googie Withers, a star who had been in films for a good ten years but was seeing her fame rise thanks to being cast against type in more prestigious pictures at Ealing. This was the role that made audiences really sit up and take notice, she had been in some hits before, notably Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and the portmanteau horror Dead of Night, but here she got to show what she was made of as the thoroughly conniving villainess of the piece. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for Johns she would have been the most memorable aspect of the story, but objectively she nevertheless walked away with the acting honours.

Withers wasn't a conventional beauty by any means, but when she displayed a confidence in her performing as she did with Pearl she conveyed an undeniable allure, which made it more believable that she should be wrapping these males around her little finger, only meeting her match in her abusive husband who she schemes to get rid of in drastic fashion, which also engenders a curious sympathy for her as she may be a potential murderess who sleeps around behind his back, but you can tell it's his bad behaviour that has brought her to this, and that has you pondering whether she deserves the fate dictated by the script (based on Roland Pertwee's play and adapted by Diana Morgan, who appears to have some sympathy for Pearl, and no wonder when she must have been the most fun to write).

But Johns was there too, steamrolling over his family’s dreams, as son Gordon Jackson is refused permission to marry his true love, eldest daughter Jean Ireland's singing career is nipped in the bud, and er, youngest daughter Sally Ann Howes has her wishes to keep Sutton's guinea pigs destined for vivisection as pets, so keeps slipping them cabbage leaves. High drama, that last one. Anyway, the point was presumably to contrast his overbearing nature with Pearl's manipulative one, since it’s oddly unsettling if you're used to something more conventional to see the focus switch between the two (and others) with such enthusiasm. It did mean it held your attention, on the other hand, thanks to its sheer unconventional qualities, on the surface your typical setbound Victorian yarn but making observations the cut a little deeper than simple nostalgia, and director Robert Hamer, a talented man whose personal demons sabotaged his career, again demonstrated his skill with actors and sustaining an intriguing tone. If you were looking for a period drama that was a little different, in a good way, this was just the ticket. Music by Norman Demuth.

[Studio Canal's luminously restored Blu-ray has interviews with Withers' daughter and a film expert, along with a gallery, as extras.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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