Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Smokescreen (1964)

Directed by Jim O’Connolly; produced by John I. Phillips

An unusual car-wreck brings Roper (Peter Vaughan), an insurance assessor, to Brighton, to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the event. There has been no body found, and a ₤100,000 pay-out is at stake. Mr Roper’s methods are slow and methodical, but he isn’t sure that what he is investigating is even a crime.

Smokescreen is an example of a film that should have had everything against it. The story is a pretty routine mystery, the budget is so small Ed Wood could have been the producer, and the cast mostly comprises unknowns. Yet, within its limitations, Smokescreen works.

Much of the credit goes to the lead actor, Peter Vaughan. A supporting performer who should be very familiar to anyone who has watched British-made films or television over the past fifty years, Vaughan’s sharp, villainous face usually put him in sinister roles, though he sometimes played sympathetic characters; his talent made sure that he was as believable at one end of the spectrum as at the other. It’s telling that he is well-remembered in Britain as the frightening prison boss from the situation comedy Porridge - even though he was in a mere three episodes of its four year run. In Smokescreen, though, he is on the right side of the law - mostly - a fairly drab and anonymous insurance investigator, dogged and sharp and, while not instantly likeable, he nonetheless grows considerably on the viewer.

The script is better than the story, especially in fashioning the character of Roper. He is so tight-fisted that even his thrifty boss urges him to spend a little more, and charge it to his expense account. Roper’s constant questioning of costs and his parsimony, as well as his very minor ‘fiddling’ of his expenses (a few pennies here, a shilling there) have a purpose, however, and it adds greatly to his character.

The direction seems pedestrian, yet makes very good use of locale, taking advantage of the scenery, both urban and rural, of the south coast of England. As mentioned above, the budget was clearly small; Smokescreen has the feel of an extended television episode. But the director and producer successfully worked with what they had.

Smokescreen is a creditable effort on the part of all involved, and demonstrates why British filmed entertainment could be of decent quality regardless of obstacles.


  1. I love a good insurance fraud storyline. I watch a lot of old British TV shows and movies, so I know I've seen Vaughan any number of times. It's interesting how all the best character actors come from Britain. (The Brits even have excellent child actors, which I really can't say about any other country.)

    1. I heard the same comments - about character actors and child actors - spoken by, I think, Russell Baker, years ago when he was hosting “Masterpiece Theatre”. It’s astonishing how many good actors come out of Britain (or, fortunately, stay in Britain).

      It’s a source of regret to me that, though I don’t watch television anymore, so many British tv series that sound interesting are little more than a name or description to me, and to history, now that many are lost. There was a series from, I think, the 1960s; unfortunately, I don’t recall the title, but it was about two gentlemen who were government bureaucrats (possibly) and solved problems; they were opposites in many ways and worked well together. At the end of the series, they were chatting in a park, and the camera zoomed in on their briefcases, each of which had the owner’s initials embossed on it. One briefcase had the initials E.G.O. and the other I.D. Of course I can’t recall any more about it. Sigh.