“You must be disgracefully bad not to have worked with the Danzigers.” (Geoffrey Bayldon, actor)
“When working on a film for the exploitation director/producer Harry Alan Towers, an actor was told to crouch down. Instructed to crouch lower, he protested he was as low as he could get. Came the voice of the cameraman: ‘You should be working for the Danzigers!’” (Leslie Halliwell)1
“Notorious” is the first word that appears in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s entry on the Danziger Brothers in Brian McFarlane’s Encyclopedia of British Film.2 By contrast, “legendary” is the word the actor Dermot Walsh used when recalling his work on several of their productions. For filmgoers who regularly populated British cinemas in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, the name “Danziger” was synonymous with a certain species of B-movie preceding the main feature, lasting around 6o minutes and offering entertaining monochrome melodrama of comforting modesty and reliable mediocrity. For film students and historians of that era of British film, however, they could now fairly be regarded as something of a cultural phenomenon. Leslie Halliwell referred dismissively to their production of “hundreds of second features and TV episodes” and remarked that “hardly any [were] worth recalling”.3 If the Danzigers’ emphasis was indisputably on quantity rather than quality, Halliwell’s judgment nevertheless seems harsh overall; and one of their features that is certainly worth recalling is Tarnished Heroes.
The Brothers Danziger
Who were the Danziger brothers? Richard Lester, who directed some episodes for their television series featuring a private detective called Mark Sabre (played by the one-armed actor Donald Gray), remembered them as resembling little white mice in appearance but being distinctively different in temperament: one all mildness and charm, the other mean and menacing. Their early lives had certainly been different. Edward J Danziger (1904-99) had studied law and had been an assistant at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, whilst younger brother Harry Lee Danziger (1913-2005) had taken courses in music at the New York Academy. They had teamed up in the mid-1940s in New York, dubbing foreign films into English. Arriving in England in the early 1950s, they set about producing a string of low-budget material for the cinema and television, renting space from a variety of British film studios for the purpose. Undoubtedly their most memorable feature from this era was Devil Girl from Mars (1954), in which a leather-clad female Martian, equipped with ray gun and accompanied by bargain-basement robot, descends on a Scottish inn with the intention of taking healthy males back to Mars where there is a shortage. At the time even that most rigorous of film magazines, the BFI’s Monthly Film Bulletin was bewitched by its madness, suggesting that “there is really no fault in this film that one would like to see eliminated.”4
In 1956 they acquired a property in Hertfordshire that had previously been used during wartime as a factory for aero-engine testing and set up their own studio there, calling it New Elstree Studios. It consisted of a production headquarters, six sound stages, and a seven-acre backlot that could be deployed for exterior filming. Between 1956 and 1961, they were to produce countless productions for television, including two series of 39 half-hour episodes, and around 60 hour-long features to fit into the supporting slot of a double-feature programme.
When the head of Ealing Studios, Michael Balcon, used to talk of the team spirit which existed there, director Alexander Mackendrick would wryly remark that “team spirit” was synonymous with low pay. That philosophy was even more pronounced at the Danziger studios. Economy was all. Half-hour episodes for television were allotted two-and-a-half days for filming and no more. An hour-long feature film would be given 8 to 10 days of shooting, with budgets that very rarely exceeded £15,000 to £17,000 per movie. Anyone rash enough to request a pay rise would be promptly shown the door.
Yet it was employment; and over this period, the studio provided jobs for around 200 technical and administrative staff. It also began to gather a sort of repertory company of seasoned professionals in their own sphere who, whilst recognizing it would not make them rich, nevertheless enjoyed the continuity of work and liked the studio atmosphere, for the Danzigers had a rare and much appreciated quality amongst film producers: they never interfered. Accomplished actors such as Dermot Walsh, Francis Matthews and Trader Faulkner made regular appearances; Jimmy Simpson was their most trusted cameraman; and directing chores were shared between the likes of people such as Godfrey Grayson, Max Varnel, Ernest Morris and others, whose names never became well-known even to film scholars but who could be relied on to deliver what was required. Ernest Morris deserves a special mention, for he is not included in the BFI’s supposedly comprehensive 2006 publication devoted to British and Irish directors, and yet he directed 18 films for the Danzigers as well as other movies and was respected by his actors and crew as a competent, considerate film maker. Then at the start of a distinguished screenwriting career, Brian Clemens worked for the Danzigers for four years, becoming in effect their resident staff writer. He recalled being told by the brothers that there was no mystique to writing; you just sat down at a desk and did it. That might seem simplistic, but, in essence, it was the same as Mark Twain’s basic rule for writing (“Apply seat of pants to chair”) and Clemens found it valuable advice.
At the beginning of the 1960s, even the critics were noticing an improvement of quality and an increase in ambition in the Danziger product. Films that attracted attention included a creditable adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (Ernest Morris, 1960), starring Dermot Walsh and Laurence Payne; a film version of Agatha Christie’s stage success, The Spider’s Web (Godfrey Grayson, 1960), starring Glynis Johns, which was released as a main feature; and So Evil, So Young (Godfrey Grayson, 1960), where Jill Ireland suffered the torments of the unjustly accused in a girls’ reformatory. Another Godfrey Grayson film, The Pursuers (1961), developed into a standard hunted man scenario, but its context was interesting, the pursued individual being an ex-Nazi war criminal hiding (amongst others) under the cloak of respectability in post war Britain. Unusually for a British film of the time, the horrors of Auschwitz and the Holocaust were explicitly evoked. (Did Edward Danziger’s first-hand knowledge of the Nuremberg trials come into play here?) The Silent Invasion (Max Varnel, 1961) was a thriller set in a small French village during the Nazi Occupation and explored the emotional conflict which arises when the sister of an executed young Frenchman, assigned to seduce the German officer in command into unwittingly disclosing information she can relay to the French Resistance, finds herself falling in love with him. The ending delivers a visual sleight-of-hand that is deft and deceptive. The film at this time which particularly exemplified the Danziger product at its best was Tarnished Heroes.
Tarnished and afraid
The film’s title is intriguing. One presumes it was the invention of its writer Brian Clemens, but what was the inspiration? There is a famous passage in Raymond Chandler’s essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (1944), which as a thriller writer, Clemens would probably have known, where Chandler is describing the character of his detective hero Philip Marlowe and writes: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”5 The ‘heroes’ of the Danziger film are both tarnished and afraid. Or might the inspiration have been Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels (1957), a title Sirk much preferred to that of the source novel on which it was based, William Faulkner’s Pylon? Any connection between the two films is speculative, since the milieu of Sirk’s movie is obviously very different – the lives of performing flyers in Depression America – and one is not suggesting comparability in terms of ambition and accomplishment. Nevertheless, it is curious that the themes that Sirk identified in his film as of particular interest to him – what he called “the irony of heroism” and “loyalty to a lost cause” – are not dissimilar to those that will predominate in Tarnished Heroes.6
The most striking aspect of the narrative, however, is the way it anticipated by a good six years the theme of Robert Aldrich’s smash hit of 1967, The Dirty Dozen: that is, a suicide mission behind enemy lines in wartime undertaken by a motley array of condemned men. In the Danziger film, these are thieves, drunks, cowards and deserters, who are, in Army terms, expendable and who have, in their own terms, little to lose, since they are facing lengthy imprisonment or a possible firing squad. Their commander, Major Bell (Dermot Walsh) addresses them as “dregs” and describes the mission as “a last opportunity to show you’re worth something”. The irony of his situation is that he is no more likely to survive than they are. In fact, his choice of action is not much different from theirs: either lead this dirty half-dozen reprobates and outcasts (plus a distinguished but mysteriously disillusioned officer who has joined the ranks of deserters) or, when told strategic withdrawal is out of the question, stay behind to defend at all costs an army position unlikely to withstand the German advance.
Tarnished Heroes was filmed in around ten days in the studio and on the backlot of New Elstree studios and, for the bridge sequence, at Tykes Water Lake, Aldenham Country Park in Hertfordshire. Having economically established characters and situation in the opening scenes, the film settles into an ostensibly conventional patrol movie, in the tradition of something like Harry Watt’s Nine Men (1943) and, anticipating by a year or two, more prestigious high-profile Hollywood movies in the same vein as Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes (1962) and Roger Corman’s The Secret Invasion (1964). The storytelling is brisk, and the action scenes are well staged. The destruction of a bridge, which is transporting supplies to the German army, inspires a sequence which excitingly crosscuts between three different planes of action: the planting of the explosives, the killing of the Germans on guard, and the approach of the supply column itself. The soundtrack is effective, even piquantly catching the occasional sound of birdsong as the men trudge their way across fields and towards the bridge: after all, this might be the last time in their lives they will hear that sound. The tension is maintained not simply through the danger of the mission and the hazardous sheltering inside a church as the men ponder a route back to safety, but also through rebellion within. This is inflamed by a disgruntled and volatile member of the group, Tom Mason (Maurice Kaufmann), who hates the Army, appears anti-authoritarian by nature (the very word “Sir” seems anathema to him), and thinks Major Bell’s strategy of escape is a recipe for disaster. Although the film does not endorse Mason’s surly insubordination, which borders on treachery (at one stage he even looks on as a German soldier is about to attack Major Bell from behind), his emotions are at least understandable, arising from a desperate will to live rather than what seems to him a resigned submission to one’s fate.
In fact, one of the things that lifts the film above the conventional is its attention to detail in motivation and performance. The demoted Irish sergeant, Riley, whose love of the bottle has brought about his military disgrace, might seem something of a cliché, but the part is played with real swagger by that fine character actor Patrick McAlliney; and there is a nice narrative twist near the end whereby his addiction to drink will come to his aid and save his life, as he has earlier saved Major Bell’s. The discovery of a young Frenchwoman Josette (Sheila Whittingham) hiding in the church crypt with her dying uncle might seem to introduce an unnecessary romantic distraction, but a conversation she shares with Major Bell is acted sensitively enough to avoid sentimentality and expand the film’s emotional range, as they share a wistful remembrance of past times and a tentative hope for a better future after what she calls this “lousy” war.
This “lousy” war
Two responses to this “lousy” war are particularly noticeable in the opening scene when the Army prisoners climb out of the van in a small French town but are told to “Get down!” as there is a sudden explosion nearby. One of them, Conyers (Anton Rodgers), remains cowering in terror after the danger has passed and Major Bell orders him sharply to “get up!” before realizing what he is looking at: not a snivelling soldier, but a shell-shocked one. “It’s all over,” he says to Conyers quietly; a lot is said about both characters in that moment. At the other extreme, when the explosion has occurred, Hoyt (Hugh David) has remained on his feet and must be shouted at again to get down before obeying orders. Only later do we discover the reason for this. Awaiting a fresh assault on the church by the Germans (“They won’t be in the mood to take prisoners” we are told later), Hoyt seems almost to welcome oncoming Death, for, as an officer, he has found the guilt of leadership impossible to live with and it has prompted his desertion. “They were my responsibility,” he tells Bell about the deaths of the men he commanded whilst he remained unharmed. “The stench of death was all around me… I couldn’t stand the responsibility of seeing one more of my own men die.” The speech is finely acted and carries some weight because there is a sense that Major Bell is close to the same realization. “My responsibility,” he murmurs as he comes across the dead body of Hoyt after the raid. At moments like this, the film quietly exposes some ugly truths about war, about sacrifice and survival, about orders and responsibility, and about the human toll it takes on ordinary lives, numerically and psychologically.
“How many medals are you trying to get?” Mason has asked Major Bell contemptuously as they have set off on their assignment. He has misread the situation and the man, for if medals are to be won, the Major expects them to be posthumous. He even refers to himself as “the late Major Bell” at one stage. If this had been a British A-war movie at the time, the role of the commander might have been given to an actor like Richard Todd or Kenneth More, calm under fire, clean-shaven, and with stiff-upper-lip firmly in place. There is none of that in Dermot Walsh’s Major Bell, who is unshaven, short-tempered, disheveled (he has not slept for three days), war-weary, entirely shorn of false nobility, a professional soldier to the last but bitterly fatalistic about what he clearly perceives might well be his last mission. Walsh’s edgy, urgent performance drives the film forward and catches its troubled spirit.
On completion of Tarnished Heroes (which went on to be an international hit), the Danzigers moved straight on to making the popular television series, Richard the Lionheart (1961), with Dermot Walsh in the title role, and whose 39 half-hour episodes were shot in the space of 26 weeks. They then used some of the sets, costumes and props from that series on what was to prove their final film, The Spanish Sword (1961), after which production came to a halt. The Danzigers, it seems, had decided to return to running their luxury hotels in London (the Mayfair) and Monte Carlo. The studio was closed and converted into a storage warehouse in 1965 before being later demolished.
Theirs was surely one of the strangest interventions in British film production history. Their productivity was astounding, yet comparatively short-lived and fundamentally mysterious, because they were essentially entrepreneurs who seemed to have little interest in film other than as a commodity they could make cheaply and sell as programme fillers. Often critically derided for their shoddy products, they nevertheless were remembered with affection by employees and provided a useful training ground for new talent. A young Richard Lester worked for them before moving on to making feature films; Nicolas Roeg was a focus puller on some of the television features. When an asthmatic, penniless and blacklisted Joseph Losey arrived in the UK as an exile from Hollywood during the McCarthy years, it was the Danzigers who proved his early saviour, paying him £100 a week in cash under the table (in order to avoid tax) if he would supervise and occasionally direct a television series for them, providing he would agree that his name should not appear on the credits. Losey was only too willing to oblige: the series, he said, was “absolutely appalling, but it was work”, and was essentially what he lived on whilst he set about trying to re-build his career. Brian Clemens observed that, after working for the Danzigers, nothing ever fazed him in his future writing career. He thought of them as “a force for good”, and, for all their cost-cutting limitations, it is a judgment that stands. One might even see them as tarnished heroes of the British B-movie scene.
This is one of five pieces on British film posted on this site as a tribute to Network. Return to the introduction here: Tribute to Network.