Movie: The Frightened City (1961)

It’s hard to believe there was a time before Sean Connery was the fully fledged icon he would become.  The first James Bond film was just around the corner when he made 1961’s The Frightened City, and it is interesting to see how much progress he would make between the two pictures.

The most notable trait he had yet to hone at this point was the Scotch accent.  I don’t recall ever having a problem understanding him in the movies he made starting with Dr. No, but the thickness of his accent here made it awfully tempting to turn on the subtitles.  At one point, I could have sworn he said, “What a lousy turnip” when he allegedly said, “What a lousy turn-up.”

At least he already had the presence and physicality Bond required.  He is very believable here as a former cat burglar hired to be the enforcer for a syndicate newly formed from several gangs which were formerly hostile to each other. 

John Gregson plays a police detective who should be appreciative of the local gangs organizing themselves to run more like a business.  Early in the movie, he laments, “Why can’t these villains keep normal hours?”

This is after he fails to get the owner of a bar to file charges against the men from a protection racket who wrecked his place.  An odd touch I found amusing is a male patron hides behind a couple of women while this place is being destroyed.  Turns out chivalry was dead long before its reported demise. 

Also, this place is next door to a Vaseline store. Imagine, an entire store devoted to selling whatever products that company was making at the time.  There’s a sign advertising their product as a hair tonic, which makes my skin crawl as I write this.

Herbert Lom is the brains behind the new syndicate, though he keeps himself hidden from the participants.  I always like seeing him in movies.  Those who only know him as Inspector Clouseau’s put-upon, twitchy-eyed boss don’t know his usual mode is cool, controlling and detached—though possibly to the extent of outright carelessness here, as he records dictation of his threatening letters.  I wondered if his secretary then composed the resulting communication using letters she has cut out of newspapers.

And yet, this is a man with goals.  His aspirations are eventually revealed to be widespread extortion, targeting entire retail chains instead of individual shops. 

Unfortunately for him, his plans will start to unravel when one of the old-school gangsters decides this isn’t what they do.  It seems a bit odd for a criminal to have such standards, but I guess one can have pride in their work regardless of their line of work.

The cracks in the criminal enterprise will give Gregson the opportunity to bring it down.  One surprising element of this is how low he is willing to stoop to prosecute criminals.  He is revealed to be little better than the gangsters he pursues as he does things like dangling the threat of deportation over immigrant business owners who won’t testify against the extortionists.  Admittedly, the detective seems a bit confused, as he has such lines of dialog as, “Let’s exchange some saliva with Mr. Sanchetti.”  I know he means, “Let’s have a talk with…”, but you have to admit that sounds very odd.

The Frightened City is a so-so British crime picture, to be seen mostly for Connery just before he is about to fully flower as Bond.  In an oddly prescient moment, Lom asks this man, who will come to use swords in a great many pictures, if he can hoist an antique scimitar he owns.  Connery proves up to the challenge, in a moment that is almost like he is holding Excalibur and is about to be made king.

Dir: John Lemont

Starring: Sean Connery, John Gregson, Herbert Lom

Watched on StudioCanal UK blu-ray (region B)