Wednesday, 24 November 2021

A Jolly Bad Fellow aka They All Died Laughing - 1964 film review

C.E. Vulliamy wrote his crime fiction in two phases. First came the Anthony Rolls books in the Golden Age - two of them have appeared as British Library Crime Classics. And then, for a dozen years from 1952, he wrote a further set of novels. Francis Iles was, I think, his principal inspiration, but his writing had a distinct flavour of its own.

That 1952 novel was Don Among the Dead Men. Twelve years after it appeared it was made into a film with an equally punning title, A Jolly Bad Fellow. It's a black comedy directed by the accomplished Don Chaffey, and although it wasn't a box office success, it still remains very watchable today, because of the range of talents which contributed to its making, not least the principal scriptwriter, Robert Hamer, who is best remembered for the wonderful Kind Hearts and Coronets. The jaunty soundtrack was written by the great John Barry. And the cast is terrific.

The setting is an august university, Ockham. Professor Bowles-Ottery (Leo McKern) is a chemistry don with a taste for publicity that irritates his collegues. Conversely, their prudishness irritates him. He's married to an actress (Maxine Audley) and has an extremely glamorous lab assistant called Delia (Janet Munro). Whilst working in the lab alongside a junior assistant (Dinsdale Landen) he comes across a poison which causes lab mice to dance manically before expiring. Soon he is putting the poison to work as a means of disposing of people who make a nuisance of themselves, while embarking on a dangerous dalliance with Delia.

The lead actors perform with gusto and the supporting cast is distinguished. To name but a few, we see: Dennis Price, Miles Malleson, Leonard Rossiter (a very small part, alas), Alan Wheatley, John Sharp, Ralph Michael, Mervyn Johns, Duncan Macrae, and George Benson. I found the film to be really good escapist entertainment.

Long before his days as Rumpole, McKern gives a performance of great verve. Incidentally, I was sorry when I researched the cast to discover that Janet Munro died, after a period of alcoholism, at the age of 38. She was well-known for her exceptional good looks, but like her rival in this film Maxine Audley, she had a compelling screen presence and a great deal of acting ability.




RJS said...

And Cliff Michelmore , the TV interviewer!

Martin Edwards said...

A galaxy of talent!