Gary Cooper, who won three Oscars, was close to death when he made the thriller The Naked Edge, and at the time of its release reviewers lamented that his lustrous career should end on so inferior a note. It was no A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage, 1932), no Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936), no Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941), no High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), no Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler, 1956).
Indeed, the plot is sketchy, even flimsy; but, although it is set in the present, the film’s atmosphere is dense and Dickensian. Shot in England, Michael Anderson’s The Naked Edge is worth a second look.
Coop plays George Radcliffe, whose damning testimony sends fellow employee Donald Heath to life imprisonment for the murder of their employer and the theft of £60,000. A year later, Radcliffe starts his own highly lucrative business with partner Morris Brooke, telling wife Martha (Deborah Kerr, unusually sensitive and restrained) that his share of the start-up money came from his success in the stock market. “I made a killing,” he says. Five years later, he receives in the mail a letter—Martha has opened and read it—accusing him of the murder and theft. The letter, in a discovered mail-bag from the time of the trial, arouses Martha’s suspicion that her husband may be the thief and killer. She tracks down the author of the letter and confronts Heath’s wife (Diane Cilento, trenchant), whose tenement flat casts reasonable doubt on her husband’s guilt: “If he stole that money, do you think he’d let me live like this?” Needless to say, Martha and George live lavishly in a spacious house.
Unsettling what had seemed to Martha perfectly settled, the film hints that, somehow, however elusively, George’s success came at Donald Heath’s expense. It also lights upon modern anxiety and fear. Neither time nor space can protect us. The delayed piece of mail shows that the past can at any time unexpectedly bite us; and the attack on Martha in her own bathroom shows that her enormous abode is insufficient to protect her.
Anderson’s direction is more competent than Joseph Stefano’s script, from Max Ehrlich’s novel, would seem to allow; but the principal strength of the film derives from Cooper’s beautifully judged and assured performance—and in a role unlike any he had played earlier. That he was so sick makes it all the more amazing.
The British cast is impressive: besides Kerr and Cilento, there are Eric Portman, Wilfred Lawson, Peter Cushing, Ronald Howard, Michael Wilding and Hermione Gingold—and, yet, one doesn’t pick them out, as it were; one accepts each as the character he or she plays. I might add that I had never heard of Ray McAnally, whose protestation of innocence as Donald Heath is heartrending.
Moderately suspenseful and elegantly photographed in black and white by Erwin Hillier, The Naked Edge is somewhat better than we all once thought it was.
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