The Shadowplay niche market DVD label has released the obscure British film noir crime thriller Room 43. The 1958 B&W film was directed by Alvin Rakoff and features some intriguing star turns. The real star of the film is Odile Versois, a French actress who is largely unknown in English language films. She plays Marie Louise, a young Parisian waitress who is framed for a petty crime in a human trafficking scheme. Faced with trial and jail, she accepts the help of a British benefactor, Aggie (Brenda de Banzie), a middle aged tourist who invites her to immigrate to London to work as her personal assistant. Once in London, she is housed with many other comely young women in a building run by Aggie. She is also introduced to Nick (Herbert Lom), an assertive but seemingly kindly businessman who pretends to have her best interests at heart. In reality, Nick runs a loan agency in London that is a front for an organized crime ring of which Nick is the ring leader. They manipulate innocent victims such as Johnny into taking out loans then use their clout to get them to engage in illicit activities. Nick also owns the house that Aggie runs and it is actually a bordello staffed by young women who find it impossible to escape his wrath. Nick is immediately smitten by Marie Louise because of her beauty, innocence and naivety (she doesn't realize that the "boarding house" she lives in is a house of ill repute.) Nick devises a scheme to convince the young woman that her status as an immigrant will lead to her being returned to France to face criminal charges unless she participates in a quickie marriage scam designed to get her a green card. She reluctantly agrees and Nick enlists Johnny McVey (Eddie Constantine), a luckless Canadian cab driver who is indebted to Nick to marry her. McVey does so out of a sense of obligation. Nick had loaned him the funds to purchase his own taxi cab but doesn't realize he was also behind the destruction of the vehicle as part of a plot to ensure the loan could not easily be paid off. As soon as Johnny lays eyes on his bride-to-be on their wedding day, he is also smitten by her. Events move quickly from there. The couple is supposed to have the marriage annulled almost immediately but Johnny learns that he has been a pawn in Nick's scam and that Marie Louise is now being held captive in the bordello until she agrees to serve as a high end prostitute. Her refusal finds her placed on the streets where Nick intends to break her spirit by forcing her to work as a common hooker. By this point Johnny is determined to come to his wife's rescue and enlists a virtual army of fellow cabbies in his attempt to save her. The film climaxes in a major brawl at the bordello with Johnny going mano-a-mano against Nick atop the flaming building.
Room 43 is typical of the low-budget British cinematic fare of the 1950s in that it proves be an engrossing film populated by an interesting cast. Although the largely unknown Odile Versois was the female lead, the advertising campaign played up the supporting appearance by Diana Dors, who gives a good performance as another young woman who, along with her sister, has been lured into prostitution by Nick. The ads depict Dors clad in a sensual bustier but this blink-and-you-miss-it sequence was obviously included simply to justify the image on the movie poster. Constantine plays the role of tough guy with a heart of gold in the style of old time cinematic heroes and he suits the requirements of the role adequately enough. Brenda de Banzie is quite good as Nick's one-time paramour and now long-suffering partner in crime who runs the bordello but the film's best performance comes from the always-reliable Herbert Lom, seen here at his best as an urbane villain who is especially sensitive about anyone reminding him of his boyhood roots as an East Ender. He drips with charm and sophistication even as he schemes to heartlessly exploit everyone around him. Noted British character actor Robert Brown (James Bond's future "M") also appears a heroic cabby and gets to indulge in some rough-and-tumble, a far cry from the roles he usually played. Director Alvin Rakoff makes the most of his limited budget by shooting in and around the seedier sections of London and never overplays the melodramatic aspects of the story. The climactic fight at the bordello is exciting and well-directed.
The Shadowplay DVD is problematic. We have great sympathy for niche market video labels with limited capital, especially those that have to rely on the "take what you can get" nature of releasing public domain titles. However, the transfer of Room 43 barely passes muster. It seems to have been struck from a VHS master, and one that was several generations down as evidenced by the fact that there is actually some double imaging around the actors in certain sequences. Still, had they not released this interesting title I would have been immune to its merits as a worthy British film noir entry.
Available through many on-line retail sites.
Update: As usual, my co-publisher Dave Worrall has to upstage me by providing certain key facts I had overlooked in my review! He reports: " Room 43 has many interesting facts. Made and released in the UK in 1958 as Passport to Shame, there were two "unknowns" (and uncredited) in it - Michael Caine and Jackie Collins. The camera operator was Nic Roeg."