The Yellow Balloon (1952) | Britain’s first X-rated crime thriller is an atmospheric lost treasure
After accidentally causing his friend’s death while playing in a bombed out building on a Chelsea London estate, distraught 12-year-old Frankie Palmer (Andrew Ray) is blackmailed by unscrupulous crook Len Turner (William Sylvester) into helping him with a robbery.
But when Frankie runs away after the job goes sour, the cold-hearted Len plots to do away with the lad…
The 1953 British noir, The Yellow Balloon, was one of the first X-rated films (you had to be 16 or over to see it at the cinema). 13-year-old Andrew Ray, who had made his screen debut in 1950’s The Mudlark, is very convincing as the poor lad torn by telling the truth and living in fear that he might be sent to prison; while William Sylvester’s predatory petty thief is a nasty piece of work, especially in the film’s genuinely frightening, film-noir drenched climax in which he chases Frankie around the darkened tunnels of a closed Queensway Tube Station. It was these scenes that caused the censor to slap on an ‘Adults Only’ certificate, which was only later re-classified when cinemas complained they were losing their much-needed family audience. After all the story was a stranger danger warning and a morality tale best seen by youngsters themselves.
A host well-known names provide some great support, including Kenneth More as Ray’s rarely at home sailor dad, Sidney James as a street trader who gets a prized pineapple pinched by Ray, and Bernard Lee as a kindly copper – the type that can only exist in fiction like Dixon of Dock Green. There’s also an uncredited Richard O’Sullivan as one of the kids singing in the Sunday School scene.
Director J Lee-Thompson, making his second feature, adapts his own screenplay with an assured hand (although the Hitchcockian elements are evident), while cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (who’d go on to work on Dr Strangelove, Repulsion, The Omen and Star Wars) gives the post-war London locations a gritty neo-realistic air (mainly around Sutton Estate in Chelsea – which today is at the centre of a social cleansing scandal). Lee-Thompson went onto master those Hitchcockian elements in his 1962 psychological thriller, Cape Fear.
If there’s one thing that nags watching his vintage fare is how much British society (and indeed society as a whole) has radically changed in the past 60-odd years; especially in regards to helping a distressed youngster wandering the streets alone. Today, most people would keep walking past, either because they don’t care or fear that they’d be labelled a paedophile if they attempted being a Good Samaritan. Although taking a youngster home for a warm meal and a heart-to-heart is really not the done thing today – which happens to poor Frankie in this must-see British noir.
The Yellow Balloon is released on DVD in the UK from StudioCanal, and includes as extras an introduction by film historian Charles Barr and a stills gallery
Posted on August 22, 2015, in British Film, Classic, Must See, Thriller and tagged 1950s British thriller, British Film, British noir, Film noir, Gilbert Taylor, J Lee-Thompson, Studiocanal, The Yellow Balloon, Thriller. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.