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The Man In The Back Seat
Director: Vernon Sewell
review (contains spoilers) by Richard Bowden

Writer, documentarist and director Vernon Sewell is one of those half-forgotten figures in British cinema whose work can still give considerable pleasure today, even though his long career (over 35 years and over 40 films) never really reached the heights. His 'Latin Quarter', a well received horror film, was released in the week after the now much better known Dead Of Night (1945), ended the wartime horror movie moratorium in the UK. He was regularly working on less prestigious productions, including several taut low budget thrillers that typically included supernatural elements, during the early 1960s. House Of Mystery (1961) Strongroom (1962) and, above all The Man In The Back Seat are amongst his best work, much better than many other undistinguished 'quota quickies' of the time, each making a virtue out of the necessities of brevity, and budget.
   Small-time crooks Tony and Frank rob a track bookie, discover that his money is in a security bag chained to his wrist and, having first piled their victim into the back of his own vehicle, drive off with him in a panic. The injured bookie remains huddled there for most of the film thereafter, as the two grow increasingly desperate seeking his disposal. Although mute, he is as much a character as the two leads, his silence making its own accusation. This is the case from the very start. The title and credits of the film roll out over a defining shot (one repeated often as a point of view through coming scenes), in which we are looking through the windscreen at Frank driving. Tony peers forwards from the back, anxious and expectant. Next to Tony is an empty seat, an unoccupied space to our minds already tainted with foreboding Even when, as is usual, he is invisible to the audience, the bookie’s presence remains oppressive. The stricken passenger is both a symbol-in-situ of Frank and Tony's transgression, and a precognition of their fate.
   Whenever the two try and ditch their inert charge, some accident intervenes, making the guilty go on again with their burden. They can't open the bag without tools. They park in front of a busy garage door to try and open the bag, and are brusquely moved on. They get a blowout, and a suspicious road service man helps them on their way. They run out of petrol. They can drop the bookie, then urgently have to reclaim him, and a policeman confronts them at the roadside, and so on. Frank and Tony's desperate ride feels, and is, ultimately futile. Most obviously through the final catastrophe, on their drive up north. But it is also a circular journey: their crime is committed at a racetrack, the car stolen, the victim abducted. By the time they finally come to shake off the body, in order to make their final escape, they are back at a dog track again - as if none of their previous journeying had happened, or mattered. Fate is all pervasive in this film. No man, it seems, can escape his destiny or his desserts. Its existential gloom recalls the similar fatalism which informs Edgar Ulmer's Detour (1946), another low budget tale, which takes a similarly pessimistic view of human actions.
   Benefiting from some excellent, atmospheric, night-time location shooting, The Man In The Back Seat has been dubbed an 'anxiety dream' by one critic (David Pirie), and that is certainly true: as events succeed each other they have the quality of a nightmare. But this is also a film with supernatural overtones. The bookie's slumped body comes to haunt the two men (and at the end actually appears in the mirror as an accusing apparition to a startled Frank), like the ghost at Macbeth’s feast, staring in silent recrimination of their crime. The fatal nature of this hallucination is emphasised at the close of the picture, with an audio 'exclamation mark'. Frank painfully whispers the title of the film and, at that instant, the burning car explodes. (A similar effect, gained through jump cutting occurs after the opening tracking shot in Welles' Touch of Evil)
   At the centre of the film is the relationship between Tony and Frank (Derren Nesbit and Keith Faulkener, who also act together in Sewell's Strongroom). As Tony, the dominant of the two, Nesbit gives an excellent (and entirely characteristic) early performance. Soft spoken, wiley, immoral, and with a black sense of humour, he is an utterly contemptible villain. Normally restricted to supporting role status, here he is perfectly at ease in the lowlife milieu Tony inhabits. His character also has a prominent handicap, his leg in plaster giving a visual echo of his crippling moral shortcomings. As the more conscience-stricken and weaker Frank, Faulkener gives a creditable performance. Biggest surprise is to realise that his girlfriend, Jean, is played by Carol White, later star of Ken Loach's Poor Cow and the historically important UK TV drama Cathy Come Home.
   The Man in The Back Seat is probably unavailable on video and only surfaces occasionally on late night television. It is a salutory reminder of what gems still lay unnoticed in the backwater of British film, when critical attention is often focused elsewhere. As an outstanding example of what imagination can achieve on an enforced budget, and as a tour-de-force of fatalistic cinema, rare in English film, it is well worth seeking out.

Richard Bowden

DOWSE Guide to the Movies is compiled by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus Press
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