Sunday 28 June 2020

Public interest? Passport to Shame (1958)

It’s all here! Nothing hidden… neither the sin… nor the shame!  Actually torn from the pages if the nation’s leading newspapers!

So screamed the American poster for this film and yet there’s more to it than box-ticking sexploitation. There’s an introduction from Robert Fabian, aka ‘Fabian of the Yard’, at the start, which makes it clear that it’s for public information not titillation; this is a film to show the horrors of sex work and the tragedies that fuel it and result from it. Frankly, I believed him – although this is the same public interest argument used by the News of the World – yet I’m sure that the filmmakers were sincere, especially given the quality of the cast, Brenda De Banzie, Herbert Lom and Eddie Constantine were not cheap or short of work. But there is also very little besides the high-octane sexuality of Diana Dors that you could class as salacious and, the thing is, Diana can also act, she’s a knockout and stands out among a quality cast.

The film’s story is also not to be belittled that easily – you can call it trite but the fact remains that people then and now have become trapped into prostitution and it is not the glamorous career of the sexually free but slave work operated by ruthless “business men”. The film hits as hard as it reasonably could in 1958 and is still entertaining, which is a good thing as it’s just been released on crystal clear Blu-ray.

Odile Versois and Diana Dors waiting for the men...
I like the cleverness of the opening as those newspaper headlines are blown into the gutter in a busy London street where the camera moves quickly from person to person as littel scenarios are palyed out. A man sees a sgtunning blonde and follows up her body only to realise she's a streetwalker then he walks over to anothe man who is staring at a new taxi cab he is desperate to buy... a great way to introduce people who will become key characters as the titles roll.

Directed by Alvin Rakoff – his first film after working mostly on TV – the film is centred on the “business” operation of low-life crook with big ideas, Nick Biaggi (Herbert Lom, who always delivers, whatever the script). Biaggi’s little empire is based on extortion and pushing people into having to pay him back in kind for debts he creates. In Paris where a young waitress, Marie Louise 'Malou' Beaucaire (Odile Versois) is entraped by Nick's his right-hand woman, Aggie (the excellent Brenda De Banzie).

Malou (Odile Versois) looks on in horror as Aggie (Brenda De Banzie) "saves" her
She has the café owner take money from the till and accuse Malouf of stealing it as Aggie slips the same amount into her apron. She’s facing prosecution and so readily accepts Aggie’s seemingly generous assistance and the chance to come and stay with her in London.

Meanwhile, Johnny McVey (Eddie Constantine), a former Canadian soldier working as a cabby in London takes a loan from Nick’s company in order to buy himself a black cab, he’s stretched to the limit but he’s determined to make a success of the trade. On his first day with the new motor, just as he’s being congratulated by the tight-nit group of fellow black cab drivers, Nick arranges for his lads to drive a truck into the new cab, crushing the front and Johnny’s plans.

A friend in need? Lom and Constantine.
Nick is on hand though to play the nice guy and to offer to cover the cost of repair knowing that Johnny now owes him more than money, and that’s a big favour. That favour will be to marry Malou so she can get her citizenship. She’s been moved into Aggie’s apartment which, according to Reel Streets is Courtfield Gardens between Earl's Court and Gloucester Road in southwest London. Aggie’s rooms adjoin the neighbouring house, which is a brothel full of working women, one of whom is played by Jackie Collins, Joan’s sister.

Also to be found is Vicki (Diana Dors), Nick’s top earner and a woman resolute in the face of her situation and Nick’s violent treatment of her sister. Dors is striking in all the right ways and conveys the defiance of someone who knows what it’s like to be objectified and also manipulated. Her character’s sister has been the lever Nick has used to keep her working and she has been disfigured, forcing Vicki to carry on working for the man she so despises, to cover medical bills. For all the almost light-heartedness of the “girls” in the cat house, Dors’ intensity does more than anything else to ground this in a – dramatized – reality.

Diana Dors
Elsewhere you sense a fairy tale in the making as Malou and Jeff meet and go through the motions of marriage to settle their debt – or at least the first instalment of Nick’s unforgiving contract. Also present at the registry office is one Michael Caine who has just got married to one Anne Reid – uncredited bit parts for two actors who have never stopped working since.

Returning to our Johnny and Malou, the marriage may be fake but not perhaps their nascent relationship. But there’s a torture path to follow before anything can come from this as Malou finally realises what is intended for her and Nick pressures her to start paying him in kind on the streets of West London and to set herself up in Room 43 – the alternate title in the UK for this film. He has high hopes and sees her breaking him into the next level of high-class escorting but she wants none of it and refuses even though it increasingly means that she is not only surplus to requirements, she’s an problem in need of a drastic solution.

A marriage of convenience?
Robert Brown does well as Mike, Johnny’s friend who initially looks down on his relationship with what he sees as a common prostitute but, as the audience is intended to, he gradually comes round, especially as he befriends Vicki and realises there’s some heart underneath the figure hugging, peroxide display.

But there is to be no easy way out for these characters and the film escalates in tension as escapes fail, threats ae made and the ultimate penalty is going to have to be paid for some…

Dusty verdict: I gave this film the benefit of the doubt and it repaid me with some excellent dramatics from a decent cast. The locations are also worth it, parts of London where the only change in 60-odd years has been the frequency of external decoration and the tax-bracket of the inhabitants.

There’s also a heart-warming cameo from Joan Sims as Miriam, Phone operator in the taxi office and one Nicolas Roeg was the camera operator; he later went on to direct Don’t Look Now and many other modern classics. Passport to Shame is not on that level but, now, as a social document of the way this subject was viewed in my parents’ era, it is worth your time.

You can buy the Blu-ray at Amazon and all good on and offline retailers.

Fabian of the Yard
Mike bumps into Vicki during the film's credits and only comes to know her proper worth later
Johnny and Malou's dreams are revealed during the credits...
Nick is the one to use their hopes against them.
Still, he at least drives and Aston Martin
Lovely couple: Michael Caine and Anne Reid

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