Wednesday, February 17, 2010

#63: Tread Softly Stranger (Gordon Parry, 1958)

Released: August 1958

Director: Gordon Parry; Screenplay: George Minter and Denis O’Dell based on the play “Blind Alley” by Jack Popplewell; Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe; Music: Tristram Cary; Producers: George Minter and Denis O’Dell; Studio: George Minter Productions

Diana Dors (Calico), George Baker (Johnny Mansell), Terence Morgan (Dave Mansell), Patrick Allen (Paddy Ryan), Jane Griffith (Sylvia), Thomas Heathcote (Sgt. Lamb), Russell Napier (Potter), Norman Macowan (Danny), Maureen Delaney (Mrs. Finnegan), Wilfrid Lawson (Holroyd), Betty Warren (Flo), Chris Fay (Eric Downs), William Kerwin (Michael), Joseph Tomelty (Joe Ryan), Timothy Bateson (Fletcher

I’m almost certain that the excellent British noir Tread Softly Stranger is the least-viewed movie in this entire countdown. I know that Sam and Tony have seen it and I am confident that they will chime in with their usually excellent comments, and I’d probably be willing to bet that being from the UK, Judy has probably at least had the opportunity to see it. But outside of them, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if anyone else has watched it. Or, maybe I’m just completely out of it and this is more well-known than I think. I never would have seen it myself if it was not for Sam, who told me that I needed to see it before I completed a list for the noir countdown. He was right, of course, but even more than a placement in the countdown, it also deserves to receive more attention and be more widely viewed.

I have to admit that prior to watching Tread Softly Stranger, I knew absolutely nothing about Diana Dors. I could be wrong, but I’ve since come to the understanding that in the United Kingdom she was akin to the blonde bombshells of Hollywood lore. But don’t let such a label fool the uninformed – this was not just a pretty face, thrown on the screen to draw viewers just to ogle her. Now, granted that I am basing this on seeing exactly one of her movies, but it seems quite clear there was legitimate acting talent with her. Like Marilyn Monroe or other Hollywood starlets, it would be easy to dismiss her as just another pin-up, but that would be an unfair dismissal. Beauty may be the main reason that she was ever given an opportunity, but at least in this case that mysterious magnetism is what makes her character so effective.

The film opens on Johnny Mansell (George Baker), a high-stakes London gambler who has been on a losing streak. With bookmakers calling in his debts, and with no way to make good on his losses, Johnny decides to head back to his hometown of Rawborough until the heat cools. Arriving back home, Johnny takes a room next to his bookish brother Dave (Terence Morgan), an office worker at the local factory. Whereas Johnny has the carefree attitude of any big time gambler, Dave is the much more serious, practical type. But somehow, Dave has managed to land the alluring Calico (Diana Dors), a hostess and dancer at a local nightclub. Calico is a fish out of water in Rawborough, a dreamer who desperately wishes to escape the drab industrial town. Perhaps this is what draws her to Johnny, the fact that he had already shown himself capable of working his way to the big city.

Upon returning to town, Johnny quickly discerns the fact that his brother is struggling from severe financial difficulties. Pressing him for details, he learns that Dave has been embezzling money at the steel foundry in order to keep his hold on Calico. Dave has been cooking the books to cover his trail. But he reaches the point that he is paranoid that the entire office is going to be audited any day and he realizes that he is done for if his “creative accounting" is discovered. It is then that Johnny is told about the plan that Calico has been pressing on Dave – the idea to rob the foundry payroll so that the embezzled funds will be overlooked and the extra profit will set them up for life. Originally dead set against it, Johnny is eventually pulled into the plot, through a variety of noirish twists, which predictably goes haywire from the start.

The entire film has a wonderful working class, pulpy feel to it. The steel town feeling of Rawborough is easily relatable to cities throughout the United States, and presumably around the world, proving once again how universal many noir traits are. Probably the most appealing thing about the entire movie is how real the principal characters feel – the tenet of ambiguous characters that is so essential to noir is illuminated brilliantly. There is no completely good or bad character. As a gambler, Johnny is the one that would traditionally be identified as morally suspect, but as the story progresses he begins to show himself to be the most upright of the bunch. Dave, on the other hand, should be the more admirable of the two, holding a respectable job and working for a living. Instead, Dave too struggles to overcome his weakness for Calico and drags his brother down with him. And then there is the perfectly cast Dors as Calico. Director Gordon Parry introduces her with a memorable entrance and ultimately shows her to be the ultimate seductress.

I’ve read reviews around the ‘net that conclude that Tread Softly Stranger is a B-movie that has some merit but that is ultimately an average noir. Don’t listen to them – they’re dead wrong. This is a wonderful film noir and among the best that I have seen to come out of the UK.


  1. Yes Dave, this is a great noir, and as you say the three protagonists are so ambivalent, you want them to get clean away. The final twist is classic.

    Director Gordon Parry employs potent sexual imagery that flows with the narrative, and DP Douglas Slocombe renders the gritty atmosphere of a Northern English steel town using a moody noir pallete.

    Check out:

    1. The trailer I made for this one complete with 40s-style titles, wipes and dissolves at

    2. This clip I took from the movie, which has to be the most unsubtle metaphor for sexual union that I have seen in any noir

  2. Well, Dave, you correctly got me on this one. I am totally unfamiliar with this little gem. I am familiar with Diana Dors from a few films like “Theater of Blood”, “Deep End” and “Danger Route.” She even appeared in a couple of Alfred Hitchcock Presents including one called "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice" which I remember well. Wonderful review and an enticing film to look out for.

  3. Dave, I've heard of Dors but not of this film. Tread Softly sounds classic, though, and no one doubts the Brits' ability to do noir. Thanks for putting another film on my to-do list.

  4. Tony - Great links, thanks for posting them. This was one that I probably never would have heard of/seen without Sam, so I'm definitely indebted to him for cluing me in.

    John - I didn't know that about Dors, particularly that she was in some Hitchcock Presents episodes. Definitely keep your eyes out, or in the very near future I might be able to help you out on this one.

    Samuel - No problem... hopefully some others will pop up along the way!

  5. This is a great choice for this countdown, and it had completely escaped my consciousness for such. Dors is a combination Jayne mansfield and Marilyn Monroe, and she's a charismatic anchor and there's a cryptic feel to the narrative, which of course enhances and accentuates it's noirish qualities. And I love this description:

    "The entire film has a wonderful working class, pulpy feel to it. The steel town feeling of Rawborough is easily relatable to cities throughout the United States, and presumably around the world, proving once again how universal many noir traits are."

    I'm delighted Dave that this film has yielded one of your best reviews, and thanks so much for the generous acknowledgements!

  6. Dave, I have left off commenting on the site until the countdown was nearly over. It's now only got 2 places to be uncovered, and I'm hoping Out of the Past gets the no 1 spot, but we shall see.

    However, it's only fair I make this comment here, as it's your sole Brit noir (aside from The Third Man and Night of the City, made by Fox in Britain to ive Jules Dassin a job while he was persona non grata in Hollywood and Gene Tierney a chance to escape as well).

    You include TSS which is a very solid British noirt, but seriously, Dave, including this film but leaving off They Made me a Fugitive, Brighton Rock (THE best Brit noir, period) and They Drive by Night, is like leaving out Charles Dickens to find room for J.K.Rowling.

    If you haven't seen either of these, I'm amazed Sam didn't tell you to see them before this countdown if he told you about TSS.

    To see them missing and the likes of Side Street, He Walked by Night, The Street With no Name, Tension, Clash by Night, Kansas City Confidential, etc, is a bit laughable. I can just about forgive placing Force of Evil and Gun Crazy so low down like gold amongst sawdust, but there's a limit. Not to mention the absence of Walsh's classic noir westerns Colorado Territory and Pursued, Farrow's Alias Nick Beal (easily his best work), Dmytryk's Crossfire and, as you have French films in your list, such foreign classics as Allégret's Une Si Jolie Petite Plage, Melville's Bob le Flambeur (but Le Doulos ahead of it????), Visconti's Ossessione (10 times the film The Postman Always Rings Twice is).

    I applaud your endeavour, Dave, as I know what effort must have gone into it, but there's more glaring omissions than hoiles in a Swiss cheese.


  7. If the list disgusts you that much, Allan, I don't know what to tell you except perhaps not to read... I don't mean to come off as gruff, but I honestly don't know what else to say. If you were here at all in the build up to the countdown, I went into it acknowledging that there were going to be holes due to films that I have not seen (among the many you list) and others that I might not consider noir that others do. Everyone that frequents the blog encouraged me to go ahead with the countdown anyway and we've had a blast for the entire way. I'm not claiming to make a list like you are, of "greatest films," I make no claims to this list being definitive. This is a personal list as has been acknowledged the entire time.
    The inference that because some of his choices are not included then the countdown is completely void of worth pisses me off to no end.

    I have nowhere near the knowledge or viewing experience that you have Allan. Your movie knowledge is beyond impressive, it's more extensive than anyone I know of. But the high horse that you seem to perpetually be atop in regards to all things cinema is tiring. Sorry the list doesn't live up to your standards... everyone else seems to have been enjoying it.

  8. In the end, Dave, all lists are worthless, but some are more worthless than others. You need to state from the outset WHAT films you haven't seen or didn't rate so highly and why - if you're unable to do so, it's because you don't know of them. If you don't know of them - not seeing is one thing, not knowing them another completely. There are some films I haven't seen, as there are films that everyone hasn't seen, but you relaly have to try to minimise them to have credibility. Such lists should, NAY MUST, be left till you have seen all but everything possible. In everything I have written, if I didn't have that apologies section at the end that listed in detail the films that didn't make it, for whatever reason, including the handful I was unable to see, I may as well toss the damn thing in the bin. You will probably say I should anyway, and others will probably agree with you, but even so, thoroughness is not merely essential it should be mandatory. If you want to be taken seriously, take the task seriously.

  9. So because I didn't list what films would not be included BEFOREHAND, then I don't know of them? That's sound reasoning for sure, Allan...

    I'm not out "to be taken seriously" or harboring the pipe dream of having capsule reviews anthologized and published. Believe it or not, Allan, there is life outside of movies. I don't have the time, resources, or commitment to "have seen all but everything possible." I'm an average movie fan who likes to write about what he is watching or enjoying. Plenty of folks have joined in, taken part in the lists, and enjoyed themselves. You obviously haven't, so I'll once again repeat, if the list bothers you so much then by all means don't follow it. Trust me, you won't be missed. You're a gifted writer with movie knowledge that towers over anyone else in the blogging community, but you are an absolutely miserable human being to converse with.

  10. Diana Dors was a sexy sexy woman, her movies were amazing, she always emanated such sexuality in her roles, her beauty was uncanny.

  11. What a sensuality of this woman, now I know how men were so crazy for her, I'd like to live in those times i FEEL REALLY IDENTIFY with the way the wore and the feeling they had to perform.