The Frightened City takes an unsparing look beneath the surface of London’s West End, revealing a morass of gangsters, protection rackets and petty criminals struggling to stay afloat. When crooked financer Waldo Zernikov (Herbert Lom) seeks to unite the West End’s criminal fraternity under his banner, how long will it be before the fragile peace is shattered? Can burglar Paddy Damion (Sean Connery) survive long enough to make the money he needs to support his crippled friend?
Shot in unfanciful style by director John Lemont, The Frightened City captures the capital before the Swinging Sixties hit. The theme is by The Shadows, abandoned by Cliff Richard and soon to be eclipsed by The Beatles; Connery, a year before Dr No, gets third billing; London is a grey metropolis awash with guns, grenades and other grim remnants of the last war. The film makes no judgements: this is how things are in these circles. Paddy Damion joins the consortium to make some money for partner Wally (Kenneth Griffith), injured in a fall during their last job. Paddy is soon phoning local businesses offering ‘insurance’, then orchestrating the kinds of problem the insurance is designed to avert- and he’s the film’s moral compass.
The forces of law and order are represented by Inspector Sayers, played by the redoubtable John Gregson (Gideon’s Way). Veteran detective Sayers opts to play the long game, waiting for Zernikov’s syndicate to implode under the egos and rivalries of the gang leaders to get to the man at the top. Occasionally he nudges things along, threatening nightclub singer Anya with deportation to make her give up Paddy, then squeezing Paddy to get to crime boss Harry Foulcher and from there to Zernikov. Leigh Vance’s script lets Sayers’ actions speak for themselves, rather than making him into a master strategist.
The Frightened City is a ‘who’s who’ of British acting talent. Herbert Lom is impassive as the empire-building Zernikov, Alfred Marks is seedy as Foulcher, but it’s Connery and Gregson’s film. It’s easy to see why Connery was cast as Bond- he slips easily between Paddy’s wisecracking and scenes of him coldly overseeing the trashing of local businesses or abandoning lover Sadie (Olive McFarland) for singer Anya (Yvonne Romain), whose appeal lies not in her voice- Romain can’t hold a note in a tin bath. John Gregson underplays nicely as Sayers, and it’s only the final fight between Foulcher and Paddy amongst Zernikov’s collection of mediaeval torture implements where things get a little OTT, but we’re used to seeing Connery duke it out in the lairs of supervillains…
Within about five years, brightly-lit, stylish thrillers set in London would be the norm. That’s no bad thing (The Buckshot Brogue Library would be a bit lost without them!): it’s what makes British crime films of the late Fifties and early Sixties such a fascinating snapshot of the city, with the crime and the grime to the fore.