Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

April 24, 2020

Stay-At-Home Film #6, NORMAN CONQUEST aka Park Plaza 605 (UK, 1953), starring Tom Conway and Eva Bartok

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norman conquest

NORMAN CONQUEST (UK release title Park Plaza 605)

starring TOM CONWAY, EVA BARTOK, Joy Shelton, Sidney James, and Anton Diffring

directed by Bernard Knowles (cinematographer for Alfred Hitchcock on SECRET AGENT and THE 39 STEPS!)

based on one of the “Norman Conquest” detective novels by Berkeley Gray

norman conquest 3

The 60-to-70 minute crime-mystery programmer film is an interesting and unique artistic form—-like a Petrarchan sonnet, or a 12-bar blues song, or a Durango Kid western, or an Andy Warhol 40″ x 40″ commissioned portrait, it’s got strict parameters within which it must work, and like a baseball runner, it has to hit all the bases for the run to be scored. However, within those guidelines, an infinite number of possibilities can be explored in small and almost unnoticeable ways, and also the creators can seem to touch all the bases, with artistic sleight-of-hand making the audience think they have while going in other directions. In the UK, these crime-mystery programmers were called “quota quickies” (Google that term, and you can see how the phenomenon happened and why) or “second features,” intended as filler to support the A-picture. Ironically, in many cases these lean and efficient programmers have dated much better than the “main” features they accompanied because they set out to do something well-defined and achieved what they set out to do. The grace notes and small details they often provide are just icing on the cake.

This particular one runs a bit longer than usual (75 minutes) and stars TOM CONWAY, best-known for his wonderful FALCON mysteries, taking over for his brother George Sanders. Conway is one of the great masters of being casual and suave on-screen. It’s REALLY hard to pull that off. As I mentioned in my piece on the Memphis Jug Band, simply recording a party does not make a record that comes across as a party on 78 rpm record. It is a very particular contrivance to SUGGEST a party. Similarly, you could have someone casual on screen (think Jan-Michael Vincent in his later “guest star” period) who just looks bored. You have to project casual and project jaded charm. Tom Conway is great at that, and he’s great doing that in this film, which is very much a vehicle for him.

It’s based upon a character, Norman Conquest, featured in many British novels, but that character is a bit younger than Conway was here, and frankly, whoever wrote the film brought over most of Conway’s tropes and mannerisms from the Falcon movies….and why not, since it was less than ten years after that series ended and Conway was still in fine form, although a bit older. However, that kind of casual charm does not require a 30 year old, and it does mellow and ripen with age.

As with the TWIST ALL NIGHT film covered here recently, NORMAN CONQUEST is a film I reviewed online 15-20 years ago, which I discovered when I Googled it. Here is that review:

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ENTERTAINING UK-MADE TOM CONWAY MYSTERY

This review is of the US release of the film, under the title NORMAN CONQUEST. One of the many interesting UK pick-ups released by the fading Lippert Pictures in the early 50’s to pad its schedule, this mystery should satisfy any fan of B-movie mysteries. Star Tom Conway made a big impression as the Falcon on film and Sherlock Holmes on radio (taking over from Basil Rathbone), and his charm and wit and style pretty much make any film he is in worth watching. The Conquest character–evidently well-known in the UK as there is no attempt to “introduce” his character in the film–has elements of Boston Blackie and the Thin Man and The Shadow (the interplay with his jealous fiancee is very Shadow-like) and Ellery Queen. He is a financially stable dabbler in detection and has a nemesis within the police force who always seeks to get him out of the way. This film should get some kind of record as the mystery begins in an outrageous manner within the first ten seconds of the film! I couldn’t believe it, but you have to take films like this one with a LOT of willing suspension of disbelief, and if you go along for the ride, it’s quite a bit of fun. There’s still one thing I’m not sure about, though. In the scene where Conway spanks Eva Bartok, what is that little clown-like figure in the corner of the room? It’s only seen once and never explained. I rewound the tape to watch the scene a few times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. What’s going on here? In conclusion, a solid little mystery here, and one of Tom Conway’s last starring roles.

online review by Bill Shute from May 2003

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There’s not a wasted shot or moment or line of dialogue in the film, and Knowles was able to use some of the ingenuity he picked up as Hitchcock’s DP, which comes in handy with this being a relatively low-budget film. For instance, the neon light flash coming through the window (you never see the actual light outside) at random intervals in the room at Park Plaza 605 is an effect that cost next to nothing, but adds a bit of tension and mystery as it hits upon both the characters and the furniture and the walls of the room. Watching the film again, I noticed many small touches like that.

norman conquest 5

Those who enjoy the Falcon films with Tom Conway and those who enjoy the 50’s British crime/mystery second-feature should find NORMAN CONQUEST a worthwhile investment of 75 minutes. Some online commentators have found the film’s plot ridiculous (ridiculous sometimes means more entertaining, since this is definitely NOT a police procedural) and others have complained about Conway’s age, but both of those qualities are endearing to me. The cup is half-full, not half-empty.

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The British DVD of the film (undoubtedly a better print than my copy!)

conquest

One of the Norman Conquest novels by Berkeley Gray

 

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