If “The Long Arm” had been one of the films pitched to producers in Robert Altman’s superb film The Player, the pitcher would have said “It’s ‘Father Knows Best’ meets ‘Dragnet’! In London! And we’ll get that British guy to star, you know, uh, what’s-his-name!”.
That ‘British guy’ in this case, would be Jack Hawkins, who embodied for a generation of British men the ideals of decency, strength, courage and dutifulness leavened with compassion (see here for a warm tribute to him by Simon Heffer). His life was cut short by his addiction to tobacco and he took time off from acting to serve his country during the war, leaving him fewer years than he needed to become an international superstar. But he is fondly remembered in his home country, and has many fans in America as well. To all of them I say that if you like Jack Hawkins, you will like “The Long Arm”, because he is in virtually every scene and carries the movie end to end.
The plot of the film juxtaposes the very traditional 1950s family life of a Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent with his dogged pursuit of a master safecracker. The family elements are almost comically dated to modern viewers and are best appreciated as sociological rather than dramatic. The family scenes show how a number of people lived — or at least wanted to imagine that they lived — after the turmoil of the war. Money was not plentiful but Dad was wise and had a job, Mom created a loving home, and Junior was precocious yet respectful.
Meanwhile, in the best traditions of the police procedural, Scotland Yard slowly gathers evidence on the bold thief who has been breaking into safes all over the country. How does he get the inside information to prepare his heists? And how does he open such sturdy safes? As the police begin to answer these questions, it becomes clear that their prey is not only extraordinarily clever, but also capable of cold-hearted violence.
The pacing of the first third of the film is too slow for my taste, but the story picks up substantially after that, particularly in the thrilling denouement. The photography is also a major draw here, much of it shot on rain-slicked streets and all of it in glorious black and white. And again, sociologically, it’s fascinating to see what London and its people really looked like during the post-war austerity years.
Final notes: The US title was “The Third Key”. Watch carefully for a cleverly inserted conversation about British police and guns between some of the children. That was clearly there for Americans so that they didn’t sit through the climax wondering “Why don’t the cops just shoot ‘em?”.