(6/10) Did you ever wonder what it would have looked like if Hammer made a James Bond film? Well, look no further than to this 1949 spy-fi quota quickie. Here Barton, Dick Barton, chases a villain wielding a secret super-weapon which turns people’s brains into jelly. Plot holes abound, but it’s a surprisingly solid juvenile action movie.
Dick Barton Strikes Back. 1949, UK. Directed by Godfrey Grayson. Written by Elizabeth Baron and Ambrose Grayson. Starring: Don Stannard, Bruce Walker, Sebastian Cabot, James Raglan, Jean Lodge, Peter Wyngarde. Produced by Anthony Hinds & Mae Murray. IMDb: 5.1/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Only the second British sci-fi (ish) film of the forties is something of a spy-fi precursor to James Bond. The special agent of this mystery yarn featuring a secret futuristic super-weapon goes by the name of Dick Barton, and the name of this 1949 film is Dick Barton Strikes Back.
Dick Barton – Special Agent was a BBC radio show that ran between 1936 and 1951 and was extremely popular with the juvenile audience, boys in particular. Dick Barton was an ex-commando who solved crimes with his trusty sidekick Snowy White, and was famous for the ease with which he got himself out of the most impossible situations. The target audience was clear: the focus was on adventure and sensationalism, there was seldom any doubt of who were the good guys and the bad guys, and in case there were, ample clues were always given. More than a whodunnit, it was a howdunnit. There was also a strict code of conduct for the screenwriters of what Barton could or could not do, including the famous statement that ”Sex plays no part in his adventures”.
The British equivalent of the American B movies of the era were the “quota quickies”. These came about because of the country’s film legislation that stated that a certain quota of films showed in UK cinemas had to be British. In 1935 the quota was increased from 10 to 20 percent, a demand that the major studios weren’t capable of filling. This gave rise to a number of both bloated bank-and-bust companies and small American and domestic studios that focused on making cheap, quickly made B grade films in order to fill the said quota. The increased quota allowed the bankrupt Hammer Films to make a comeback as a quota quickie company. And the rest, of course, is history.
Hammer acquired the rights to a number of BBC radio shows, including Dick Barton – Special Agent, in 1947, and the same year released the first Dick Barton film, the originally named Dick Barton – Special Agent. All in all three Dick Barton films were made, and there is some confusion regarding the timeline. Dick Barton at Bay was the second film to be produced, but actually the third to be released. The last Dick Barton film made was Dick Barton Strikes Back, but Hammer released it as the second film, because they thought it superior to the other two, and the studio hoped to win a bigger audience for the franchise before releasing the third film. A fourth film, Dick Barton in Africa, was already in the pipeline, but Hammer terminated the franchise after its star Don Stannard tragically died in a car accident.
The first two Dick Barton productions had been studio-bound productions, but the “third” movie, Dick Barton Strikes Back, called for a large country estate as a backdrop, and that was when Hammer realised that it could make its films a lot cheaper by renting abandoned country estates than by renting a studio. This was to become the operating standard for Hammer for years to come. Most of Hammer’s legendary horror films were made in a large, derelict London estate that the company fixed up and adapted as a de facto studio.
According to accumulated internet knowledge, the first Dick Barton film was a comedy-heavy pile of turd, and Dick Barton Strikes Back is said to be in a whole other league. The film follows Barton (Stannard) and Snowy (Bruce Walker) on the tails of international arms dealers Fouracada (a beardless Sebastian Cabot), who serves a master villain who uses a secret weapon to kill entire towns at a time, by turning the resident’s brains into jelly. The two agents set up shop near the village at the mansion of a Lord Armadale (James Raglan) and his secretary Tina (Jean Lodge), the latter who seems to be connected to the murders.
Despite the jelly brains, the film is decidedly non-gory, and we don’t even see many bodies, as the authortities have conveniently emptied the whole town of dead people when the agents arrive. Some of the best scenes of the movie are of Barton and Snowy inspecting the deserted town. This is one of the first sound films to play around with the ”empty world” idea, which would become increasingly popular through the fifties and particularly the late sixties and seventies. The only feature film to take the notion to its full potential before the fifties was the Danish meteor disaster film The End of the World (1916, review). In Dick Barton Strikes Back it’s just an empty town, but the scenes have a very eerie quality nonetheless.
The scenes in the mansion play heavily on the horror genre and the mood and lighting anticipate the Hammer horrors of the future, in particular The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). The use of music and sound is also outstanding. First there is the superb title theme Devil’s Galop by Charles Williams, which was also used as the theme for the radio show. The sense of urgency and drama in the piece makes it feel like a light version of Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries. Then there is the clever use of a dramatic ”gypsy tune” as a central plot element, and as a theme played throughout the movie in different incarnations, and becomes a leitmotif for approaching doom. Some critics have complained about the too obvious use of music as emotional cues in the movie, but this, I think, is completely acceptable in a movie like this. Then there is the use of a specific sound effect that overpowers much of the ending of the movie, as well as the highly dramatic end scene itself where a wounded Dick Barton climbs a tall tower to save a town from utter destruction and battle it out with the deranged mastermind trying to take over the world!
The climax where Barton fights for his life while climbing up the Blackpool Tower is a highlight of the film, featuring some nice fistfights up in the air, a wrestling match in an elevator and death-defying climb, actually shot on location in Blackpool. It’s sometimes easy to forget that you are not watching a James Bond movie. Even the rough but sophisticated agent Barton is a direct predecessor of Sean Connery’s James Bond, much more so than Ian Fleming’s colourless literary original.
The film is well-paced as a juvenile adventure story and has a clearly defined dramatic arc divided in distinct segments on different locations, many shot ”on location”, rather than being cramped in small studio spaces as so many American serials and B movies of the time were. The set designs are also impressively detailed and well-executed, maybe in part thanks to assistant art director Ken Adam, who would later go on to win two Oscars for his design on Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Madness of King George (1984). He also worked with Stanley Kubrick on the masterpiece Dr. Strangelove (1964), for which he won a Bafta. The Art Directors Guild gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2002 and he won a special prize along four other art directors in 2013 for their combined work on the most successful and long-running franchise in movie history: the James Bond movies.
This said, the film is still unable to completely overcome its quota quickie limitations. The main characters sometimes act excruciatingly stupidly and much of the dialogue makes you cringe in your seat, it’s so badly written by Elizabeth Baron and Ambrose Grayson (brother of director Godfrey?). Some scenes are filmed in no more than a few takes, giving the setup a static feel, and there is little grace or fluidity in the camera work. There are, however, some really nicely done shots with beautiful angles and the ending scene at the tower is especially well filmed. Some scenes feel like they have been stretched to their limit to meet the duration requirements and the acting is so-so.
Modern critics almost uniformly give Dick Barton Strikes Back good reviews. Timothy Young at Mondo Esoterica is still somewhat critical, summing it up: “A slow moving but well written plot builds to an exciting but drawn-out climax. Direction and production is strong.” John Grant at Noirish states that it is “still a B-movie, have no doubt about that, but it’s a glorious B-movie”. TV Guide gives the movie 2/4 stars: “The film moves at such a fast pace that the holes in the story blur and are overlooked. The action is tight and entertaining.” AllMovie has the picture at a similar 2.5/5 stars, and Bruce Eder writes: “There are lots of holes in the plot, and the moments of humor still don’t quite work, but they don’t interrupt or slow down the story, either”.
Stuart Galbraith IV at DVD Talk is very positive: “Dick Barton Strikes Back more than makes up for the tepid entertainment offered by the first two pictures. Played mostly straight, the picture works on many levels, and anticipates elements later standard issue in ’60s spy films. The picture is so good, in fact, one suspects the series might have continued for years had it not been for the tragic death of its rising star.” Derek Winnert award the pictire with 3/5 stars, writing that the screenplay is “playfully preposterous, and the film is all very jolly fun with an element of sci-fi adding to the espionage mystery, making it a notch or two up from Dick Barton – Special Agent. The very basic […] production values and rudimentary handling are the demerits.” Finally there is pseudonym “Dr Lenera” at Horror Cult Films, who gives Dick Barton Strikes Back a whopping 7.5/10 stars, calling it “a solid ‘B’ thriller that is good fun from beginning to end and sometimes even grips”.
I’ll let Dan Stumpf at Mystery*File sum it all up, because I couldn’t have said it better myself: ”This is a little kid’s idea of a Spy Movie, with transparent trickery, obvious “surprise” villains and character development just below the level of a CLUE game, but it was clearly also the precursor of the James Bond films, with the suave, hard-fighting hero flung in and out of the clutches of sinister villains and predatory females with equal aplomb. It’s a time-waster, sure, but a fun thing, with death rays, a sinister carnival and a really gripping final set-to up and down a (rather unsettlingly phallic) tower.” (And by the way, I just adore the word “aplomb”.)
Don Stannard had a couple of leads in quota quickies behind him when he started filming the first Dick Barton film, and he is by no means a great actor. His straight-faced no-nonsense demeanor feels a bit strained. But he brings great energy to the role when he gets going and is very believable as an action hero, and has the right clean-cut, strong features and the commanding presence to make the role believable. According to information on Hammer’s own website, Stannard died in a car accident of the way home from the wrap party for Dick Barton at Bay, but this is incorrect, as that film was made before Dick Barton Strikes Back. Since Sebastian Cabot was also in the car, one would assume, then, that it was the wrap party for the latter film. Stannard was the first real movie star of the reformed Hammer company, and could probably have continued to even greater acclaim through a continued Dick Barton franchise, but alas, we will never know how his career might have taken shape.
The young Sebastian Cabot, sporting a moustache, is almost unrecognisable without his trademark beard, but does some superb hamming as the arrogant arms dealer. Cabot might best known for his role as Mr. Giles French in the popular sitcom Family Affairs (1966-1971). He is also beloved by millions and millions of children as a voice actor. He voiced Bagheera in The Jungle Book (1967), Sir Ector in The Sword in the Stone (1963), and narrated the animated Winnie the Pooh short films in the sixties and seventies. He had a brief encounter with sci-fi in 1960, when he played Mr. Pip in the episode A Nice Place to Visit of The Twilight Zone and played the sceptical Dr. Hillyer in George Pal’s hugely influential adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
B movie actress Jean Lodge is stiff and overacting, but has some nice moments as well. She is perhaps best known as Queen Guinevere in the 1954 film The Black Knight, starring Alan Ladd. Her last films were all horror cheapos, and she even got the chance to work with legendary cheapo director/producer Roger Corman in The Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price (1964). Her last film was the little known sci-fi movie Invasion (1966). After that she wisely chose to retire. As of February 2020, she is still alive and kicking at a respected 92 years of age.
In a small role as a henchman we see swarthy, gap-toothed Larry Taylor, who was destined to play henchmen and bandits throughout his long career, appearing in such diverse films as the classic Zulu (1964) and the 1962 nudist romp Nudes of the World. Taylor had a bit-part in First Man Into Space (1959), appeared as an Arab in an episode of the TV series The Invisible Man (1959), as a Mexican in the series UFO (1971) and had another bit-part in Christopher Lee vehicle The Creeping Flesh (1973). Friends of really bad eighties sci-fi may know him as King Marlenus in Gor (1987) and Outlaw of Gor (1988).
In a really small part as a soldier handing Dick Barton a pair of strange ear muffs we see character actor and flamboyant personality Peter Wyngarde. Wyngarde had a number of high-profile supporting roles in the sixties and seventies and became a household name as the womanising Jason King in the spy series Department S (1969-1970). He headlined one episode of the Boris Karloff-presented series Out of This World (1962) and appeared on one episode of R3 (1965), and starred as Timonov on four episodes of Doctor Who in 1984. He will forever be remembered by sci-fi fans, though as Emperor Ming’s commander-in-chief, the cyborg Klytus, in Flash Gordon (1980).
The producer for the film was Anthony Hinds, son of Hammer Films founder William ”Hammer” Hinds, and produced most of Hammer’s legendary horror movies in the fifties and sixties, including The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), X: The Unknown (1956), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Quatermass 2 (1957), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), and the TV series Journey to the Unknown (1968).
The other key Hammer player involved in the film was Jimmy Sangster, here on duty as assistant director, a role he would have on a number of movies, including his second run-in with sci-fi, Spaceways (1953). Encouraged by Hinds, Sangster tried his hand at writing in the mid-fifties, and the result was another science fiction film, X: The Unknown. The studio liked his writing so much that Sangster got the job of writing most of Hammer’s classic horror movies, including The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959). Growing tired of horror films, he decided to focus on mystery thrillers in the sixties, but agreed to re-write a Frankenstein script for Hammer in 1970, on the term that he got to direct it. The result was the crappy horror comedy The Horror of Frankenstein. In the early seventies he relocated to Hollywood, where he wrote mostly for TV, including some episodes of Wonder Woman in 1976. Of his Hollywood films the 1978 horror thriller The Legacy is probably the best known.
Dick Barton Strikes Back. Directed by Godfrey Grayson. Written by Elizabeth Baron and Ambrose Grayson. Starring: Don Stannard, Bruce Walker, Sebastian Cabot, James Raglan, Jean Lodge, Morris Sweden, John Harvey, Humphrey Kent, Sidney Vivian, Tony Morelli, George Crawford, Larry Taylor, Jimmy O’Dea, Peter Wyngarde. Music: Rupert Grayson, Frank Spencer. Cinematography: Cedric Williams. Casting: Edgar Blatt. Art director: Ivan King. Make-up: Jack Smith. Production management: Donald Wynne. Editor: Ray Pitt. Produced by Anthony Hinds and Mae Murray for Hammer Films.