Solo for Sparrow (1962)

US Title: The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater: Solo for Sparrow

screenshot from Solo for Sparrow

Directed by: Gordon Flemyng
Screenwriter(s): Roger Marshall
Starring: Anthony Newlands, Glyn Houston, Nadja Regin, Michael Coles, Allan Cuthbertson, Jack May, Ken Wayne, Michael Caine, William Gaunt
Genre: Crime / Gangster / Thriller
Country: UK
Running time: 56m
Rating: 5 out of 10

Edgar Wallace, although barely known now, was possibly the most prolific author of the early twentieth century. Having turned to writing thrillers to supplement his income as a foreign correspondent, he used his previous experiences in Africa to inform his Sanders of the River series and also found time to write over 100 crime novels, 50 short story collections, 25 plays, 13 non-fiction novels and 5 screenplays in the period 1905-1932. He was in Hollywood, working on the original draft of King Kong (1933), having devised the iconic Empire State scene, when he died suddenly of previously undiagnosed diabetes. It is reckoned that he sold over 200 million books.

His books started being adapted in the silent movie era, and there have been over 100 adaptations on film alone. Wallace’s books also sold by the million in Germany, and his work inspired an entire movie genre, the Krimi, produced mostly by Rialto Film.

In 1960, UK producers Nat Cohen and Michael Levy picked up the rights to his entire back catalogue and produced 47 supporting films (B-movies) between 1960 and 1965, released by Anglo-Amalgamated Pictures under the title Edgar Wallace Mysteries. Anglo-Amalgamated itself existed mostly on making quota films, which saw generous UK government subsidies given to filmmakers to ensure that a third of all first-run and quarter of all supporting films show in UK cinemas in the 1950s and 1960s were British-made. The series’ theme tune, Man of Mystery, was a top 5 hit for The Shadows in 1960, and the films were sold on to the US, where they were cut to allow for commercials and ran for six TV seasons in a one-hour format as The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater.

Solo for Sparrow was the twenty-third film in the UK series, based on Wallace’s The Gunner, and was released in the UK in September 1962. It was later released in the US in 1966 to capitalise on Michael Caine’s fame, but he’s not in it much. He does, however, get to show off his (passable) Irish accent, which previously had an outing in How to Murder a Rich Uncle.

It opens with a couple of young men watching a woman leave a jeweller’s shop. They follow the woman, Miss Martin, to the train station and kidnap her once she gets off the train. They drive her out of town, where the car and its inhabitant are handed over to Paddy Mooney (Caine). She, it turns out, keeps the only spare set of keys to the jeweller’s and the gang use these to let themselves in. When the jeweller (Newlands) opens up the next day, he reports two crimes: a robbery and the disappearance of his most dependable worker. When Miss Martin turns up dead, the victim of a suspected suffocation, local police Inspector Sparrow (Houston) links the two incidents, and suspects they’re also linked to a previous home invasion. Sparrow’s boss, Superintendent Symington (Cuthbertson), decides that it’s too much for the local team to cope with, so passes it off to Scotland Yard’s Inspector Hudson (May). That’s when Sparrow decides to take ten days off work and go solo to investigate the crime himself.

For a short supporting movie, there’s a lot of plot crammed into the sub-60 minute running time: there’s cross and double-cross among the crooks; the details of the robbery are well-worked out; the mastermind of the robbery is kept from the audience until quite far into the film; and the criminals are neither thugs nor idiots. The implied violence of the first half of the film (you don’t see the death) is somewhat undercut by the final act. The ending feels almost shockingly abrupt, but that’s more a reflection on how drawn out moviemaking has become, and how much audiences expect all loose ends to be tied up. The script does what it needs to do and nothing more.

Houston is an effective lead, not showy but believable as a man frustrated by his superiors who just wants the right thing done. He finds time for a romance with the local barmaid (Susan Maryott), and we get to see the close working relationship with his sergeant (British TV stalwart, William Gaunt). Murray Melvin, who would later play best friend Nat in Alfie, even pops up as one of Sparrow’s confidential informants.

Overall, it’s a decent entry in the UK Wallace series, which was much more straightforward and less baroque than the German Krimis.

The Edgar Wallace Mysteries can be seen in the UK on Talking Pictures TV.

The Gunner by Edgar Wallace

Book cover for 'The Gunner'

The book from which Solo for Sparrow is very loosely adapted, The Gunner, is con-man thriller set in the 1920s. The only similarity between the book and the film is that the Detective Inspector in both is called Sparrow – even then, in the book, he is Detective Inspector Bird, and only nicknamed The Sparrow.

It concerns a prosperous young man, Luke Maddison, who meets a jewel thief called Gunner Hayes and knowingly helps Hayes evade the police. This relationship helps Maddison later on when he gets caught up in a series of financial cons which have led to the suicide of his friend Rex Leferre, whose sister, Margaret, is also Luke’s fiancée.

Also known as The Children of the Poor, it is as much a meditation on the desperate circumstances of the poor in London as it is a crime thriller, but it fair cracks along and is full of glorious 1920s observations such as this, on the fact that the newspaper reporter covering the story is a woman:

[Margaret] expected something mannish rather, or at best a girl who had developed her intellectual side at the expense of her appearance, and she was not prepared for the pretty girl in the neatly-tailored costume who walked into the drawing-room

Many of Edgar Wallace’s books can be found in HTML/txt format at Project Gutenburg Australia.

If you prefer paperbacks, Wallace is published by House of Strauss although at time of writing (Dec 2019), that doesn’t include The Gunner.

Other gangster thrillers