Sunday, April 25, 2021



One great thing about having a Roku device is all the free movie channels one has access to from it. I've found plenty of obscure, rare films on these channels--titles that I think are far more interesting than the brand-name stuff on HBO Max or Netflix. 

I recently discovered THE HIGH COMMAND, a 1937 British film starring Lionel Atwill. Ironically, this was the only English-made movie Atwill ever appeared in (the actor was born in Croydon in 1885). 

In THE HIGH COMMAND Atwill plays a British army officer named Sir John Sangye. At the start of the film, he's posted in Ireland during the troubles of 1921. During an attack by Irish rebels, Sangye is confronted by another British officer. Sangye has had an affair with the officer's wife, and he's also the father of what is presumed to be the man's daughter. Sangye shoots the man in self-defense, and blames his death on the Irish rebels. An officer named Carson becomes suspicious after examining the man's body. 

15 years later, Carson arrives at a military post in West Africa, where he finds Sangye, now a general, to be the commanding officer. Carson also finds that Sangye's now grown daughter (who he calls his step-daughter) has no idea about her true parentage, or what happened in 1921. Carson starts to annoy her, while at the same time he develops an interest in the glamorous wife (Lucie Mannheim) of a local industrialist. Carson's young cousin and fellow officer (James Mason) also is attracted to the woman. Carson is eventually shot and killed, and his cousin becomes the main suspect...but during the trial Sangye's past starts to come up. Sangye must find out who the true murderer is, while at the same time prevent his daughter from finding out what really happened years ago. 

The script of THE HIGH COMMAND could have easily been the basis of an Agatha Christie novel. A group of English characters, each with something to hide, gathered at an exotic location, where a murder is committed, and everyone is suspect....the only thing missing here is a quirky detective to solve the case and reveal everyone's backstory. It's not hard to guess the murderer (the man actually explains how the deed was committed as an example). The suspense comes from whether Sangye can save his and his daughter's reputation. 

I'm sure Lionel Atwill enjoyed his time back in England while making THE HIGH COMMAND, and no doubt he enjoyed being in the movie itself. He gets first billing, and the role is a bit of a departure for him. His General Sangye isn't the wild-eyed Atwill one sees in the horror thrillers. Atwill is far more deliberate and subtle here. Sangye is a very officious military officer, but he's not a pompous buffoon. Sangye is basically the story's hero. 

A very young James Mason (who sports a mustache here) plays the dashing young officer who is Carson's cousin. Even at this very early stage in his career, Mason has enough presence to stand out from the rest of the cast. Lucie Mannheim (who was in Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS) brings some glamour to her role, and Steven Geray gives a Peter Lorre-like performance as her husband. Playing a bit role as a hotel clerk is the creepy Skelton Knaggs--he and Atwill would cross paths at Universal in the 1940s. 

THE HIGH COMMAND was directed by Thorold Dickinson, who gives the story a few visual flourishes. I doubt that the main cast went to Africa, but there is some stock footage from that country. 

THE HIGH COMMAND gives Lionel Atwill a chance at a starring role in a non-horror film, and it's a good movie. It will be appreciated by those who like classic courtroom/mystery dramas. 

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