Terence Fisher's Hammer debut is a melodrama that masquerades as film noir. The existential moral landscape of the American crime genre is replaced by forthright British mores, as even the Femme Fatale is re-written as the Homicidal Homme. The film's poster shows a seductively stacked Diana Dors in a pink bra and proclaims Blonde Blackmail! Alas, the poster is much more titillating than the film itself.
Terence Fisher sets up the story like a typical British stage drama as he introduces characters and conflicts with curt efficiency all contained within the confines of one set: the bookstore. His camera setups and lighting are too proper and conventional to reflect the bleak and gritty reality of the noir-ish underworld. Even the characters fit within typical conventions of the average sitcom where good and evil are easily discernable. Ruby is played with a seductive naiveté by Diana Dors (not in a pink bra sadly) but is ultimately revealed to be a victim too and not the temptress leading the cynical protagonist towards certain doom. Actually there is very little that is cynical or emotionally chiaroscuro in MAN BAIT where even the title lacks verisimilitude.
The moral crux of the narrative is in Ruby's apparent blackmail of her boss John Harmon after they steal an embarrassed kiss together one night while working late. But Ruby is no seductress and is clearly being led astray by her new acquaintance Jeff Hart, who bullies her into writing a letter to John's wife which results in her death. Hell, it’s not even suggested that Ruby and Jeff have a sexual relationship just a mere fondness for one another. When John gives Ruby the money out of grief and desperation, she is accidently murdered by Jeff who then hopes to frame John. But John Hartman's secretary Stella was also his nurse during the War. She cares for him a great deal and conspires to clear his name and reputation. This is where the film fails mostly as a film noir because the characters' intentions are too clearly defined as either good or bad: John is the manager of the bookstore and War veteran; Stella his faithful servant; the wife crippled and lovingly dependent upon John; Jeff just released from prison and shady; Ruby the beautiful young lass easily manipulated and regretful. Director Terence Fisher also fails to utilize the deep shadows and skewed compositions which help to define the genre, or the lurid slang and jazzy music that can transform original sin into enchanting vice.
Though the first two acts (thus, most of the film) are dreadfully boring; the final act displays some of the budding talent and promise that Fisher would bring to some of the later Hammer classics. He films one scene in a bombed-out cathedral as the sweeping stone arches and columns support nothing but the leaden sky, and the empty windows which once supported stained glass saints now perceives only dead gods. Since this was shot only a few years after World War II the scars of Hitler’s airstrikes and V-2 rockets have yet to heal entirely. In another scene Fisher utilizes a jump-scare to great affect with shadowy lighting and perfect timing as a face suddenly appears from behind a bookcase for a shocking reveal! The effect is more horror than noir and it’s no wonder Fisher went on to direct the most popular horror films for Hammer. The fiery climax is also well conceived as the actors must physically navigate through the conflagration for a dramatic rescue.
MAN BAIT is mostly a bore as it ends with a somber and unambiguous finale as each man gets his just rewards.
Final Grade: (C)