The Challenge is a British film, roughly in the film noir tradition, written and directed by the prolific John Gilling. The movie dates from 1960 and was known in the US as It Takes a Thief. Neither of the titles is particularly inspiring, and given that the lead role was allotted to Jayne Mansfield rather than Anthony Quayle, I sat down to watch it without very high hopes. I soon realised that I was actually watching a film which is surprisingly gripping, and at times rather dark and disturbing.
Quayle plays Jim Maxton, an essentially decent if rather dim widower with a young son. He is besotted with a glamorous blonde woman called Billy (Mansfield), and dreams they'll have a life together on a farm. But Billy is mixed up with a bunch of criminals, and persuades Jim to take part in a violent robbery. Things go awry, and just after Jim has hidden the loot in a remote rural location, he is picked up by the police following a tip-off. He is sent to prison, but keeps his mouth shut about his fellow villains and about where he's hidden the cash.
When he emerges from jail, the gang want their share of the money. The police are also keeping a close eye on things, as they are determined to arrest the criminals who evaded detection. Jim goes to live with his mother (Barbara Mullen) and six year old son, but things take a nasty turn when Buddy is kidnapped, and one of the gang members, a psychopath called Bud (Peter Reynolds) contemplates killing the boy.
Quayle, a fine actor, makes us root for Jim, despite his stupidity, but for me the revelation was Jayne Mansfield. Her role is a tricky one to play, since Billy is torn between greed and a dislike of violence, and although Gilling wrote the action scenes very well, I don't think characterisation was his strength. Even so, I felt that she did a good job. Some reviews I've seen disagree, perhaps because Mansfield is widely regarded as a stereotypical "blonde bombshell", whose success owed much to assets other than her acting. On looking up her biography, however, a different picture emerges. It's apparent that she was a highly intelligent woman, gifted musically and quite a capable actress, whose looks and lifestyle probably did her no favours in the long run: she died in a car crash at the age of 34, after three marriages, countless affairs, and five children. Her performance as Billy suggests that she had genuine and significant acting talent, and it's sad that she found few roles that made the most of it