To call the enigmatically titled The Clouded Yellow a British film may be stating the obvious, given its cast, its crew and its country of origin. But it's also, for want of a better term, very British in the development of the story and the behaviour of its characters. That's not meant as a knock, as there's something rather charming and certainly enjoyable about this, a period of our country's cinematic development in which lead characters were almost universally middle class, emotions were kept in check, and fair play was usually the order of the day. This included our secret service agents, who were thoroughly decent fellows, ex-public schoolboys who didn't get into a flap when the going got tough.
That's certainly the case with Major David Somers (a most likeable Trevor Howard), who at the start of this film is being politely advised by Security Service Chief Chubb (André Morell) that, due to an unspecified mistake on Somers' part, his career in the Service has unfortunately come to an end. He's advised that it might be time to look for a position in civilian life, but preferably one that allows his former employers to keep an eye on him, just in case. In search of a quiet post away from the city,
Somers accepts a position cataloguing butterflies for kindly old Nicolas Fenton (Barry Jones, one of the loveliest voices in the business and a favourite here for his role as Professor Willingdon in Seven Days to Noon) and his wife Jess (Sonia Dresdel). All, however, is not well in the Fenton household. Somers is warned up front about Jess's niece Sophie (Jean Simmons), who was the first on the scene after her father killed himself after murdering his wife. Jess keeps Sophie on a brutally tight leash, forbidding her to play music or make friends with others. There's a bit too much of her father in her, Fenton tells Somers confidentially. We are soon left in little doubt as to which bit in particular they are concerned about.
In spite of this, Somers takes rather a shine to Sophie and a bond develops that appears to have a most positive effect on her well-being, despite Jess's surreptitious attempts to re-enforce the girl's emotional confusion. But when cockily unpleasant young poacher Hick is found stabbed with an ornamental knife belonging to Sophie, it's she who is suspected of his murder. Somers isn't convinced, particularly as he is now is in love with her, so persuades her to run off with him in the hope of buying enough time for them to flush out the real killer. Calling on the tricks he has learned in his previous profession and the contacts he made, Somers keeps them consistently one step ahead of the law, but hot on his tail is fellow agent Willy Shepley (the divine Kenneth More), on loan to the police to track down Somers and prevent any public embarrassment to the Service.
There's an argument to be made for The Clouded Yellow as a slice of Hitchcock light, a gender-swap wrong man thriller whose protagonist couple are in cross-country flight and whose story builds to a big location climactic confrontation in which the heroine is threatened with death at a dizzying height. That it lacks the compelling grip of its Hitchcock equivalent (Young and Innocent, Saboteur, North By Northwest, etc.) is hardly surprising, given that director Ralph Thomas is better known for Doctor in the House and its sequels than his earlier workmanlike thrillers*.
But if the handling lacks Hitchcock's flair and unwavering grip, the story still unfolds with the sort of brisk economy that was almost a standard component of British thrillers of this period, but would merit specific comment if employed today. Whole chucks of the plot are dealt with in a single edit (a car stolen by Somers in one shot is under police inspection after being abandoned on the moors in the next), while back-story details are often alluded to rather than spelt out (that Hick was likely having an affair with Jess can be deduced from a brief disagreement between them rather than any actions observed or reported by others). What the film does share with Hitchcock is it's offbeat supporting characters, from the taxidermist-cum-forger and his bubbly daughter to the Chinese people-smuggler and the small army of children who spring miraculously from nowhere to obstruct the police when he is chased.
With an impeccably decent hero and a heroine victim, audience sympathy with the fleeing couple is assured from an early stage. We're clearly told who not to trust – Hick laughs at Sophie and steals her comb and Jess has more than a touch of Mrs. Danvers about her – but all is not quite what it seems with the family Fenton, which leads to a last act twist that throws up a few questions that the film leaves you to supply answers to. Occupying the middle ground is the largely unflappable Shepley, who's been charged with capturing Somers but wouldn't mind too much if his quarry – a man with whom he was clearly once good friends – escaped. He's the only member of the pursuit team with a true awareness of the former agent's abilities – when the police react with disbelief at Somers' Hannibal Lector-type escape, Shepley is completely unsurprised and interrupts his consumption of a sausage roll only to remark that he told them this would happen.
The Clouded Yellow is a gentle but enjoyable thriller in a familiar but efficient mould. It never quite has the dramatic bite that it could have, but a solid cast, waste-free direction and a nicely understated approach on all fronts – the climactic scene plays without a music score and the film rarely states out loud what it is able to suggest – still make it a must for fans of old school British thrillers of this period.
There's only one possible blip – the version here is apparently (not having seen the film previously I cannot vouch for this beyond what I have been told) missing an opening scene in which Somers arrives back in London from the mission that has effectively ended his career, a scene that I'm assured was present in its last British TV screening. (See Adam Wilson's review of The Clouded Yellow – Extended Cut for more on this)
Now here's a thing. Like Eureka's recently released DVD of The Horse's Mouth, this transfer has been licensed from Janus Films, whose logo you'll regularly see on Criterion DVD releases, but as far as I'm aware The Clouded Yellow has yet to see a Criterion release. In common with the The Horse's Mouth DVD, this is an authentic PAL transfer from what was presumably an HD master, hence the welcome lack of any hint of NTSC to PAL conversion issues. The image quality is generally excellent, a clean print with very good contrast and a pleasing level of detail – occasionally the sharpness appears to soften a tad, but then the crispness of a clothing pattern or a facial texture will re-confirm the quality. Black levels are generally solid, only greying out a little in the night-time sequence of Somers and Sophie's departure from the Fenton house.
The mono 2.0 soundtrack has an unsurprisingly limited dynamic range, some background fluff and crackle and the odd very audible pop, but is otherwise as good as you'd hope for the vintage.
Not a sausage (roll).
Not quite Hitchcock but still an enjoyable little thriller whose British-ness is actually one of its key virtues, particularly in the restrained economy of the performances and handling. With no Criterion disc to out-extra feature this movie-only release, this is the only DVD version available at present. That (apparently) missing opening scene will be an issue for some, myself included if it really is the case, but the quality of the transfer compensates a lot.
* Both the link and the difference between the directors is nicely illustrated by Ralph Thomas' 1959 remake of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps featuring Kenneth More as Richard Hannay. An enjoyable film in its own right, it never quite captures the magic that made the original a bona fide classic.