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Spin a Dark Web

Spin a Dark Web(1957)

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Largely forgotten today, the 1937 novel Wide Boys Never Work by Robert Westerby introduced to the British public a phrase bandied about in criminal circles but seldom heard in polite conversation. Referring to the wide-eyed, nattily-attired ne'r-do-wells who haunted the country's race tracks and betting parlors, and who brokered black market merchandise during spells of wartime rationing, "wide boys" came to be called "spivs" (the neologism is believed to be a reverse formation of the anagram V.I.P.s) after the Second World War. A veritable spiv cycle of crime films proliferated after 1945, among them John Boulting's Brighton Rock (1947), Harold Huth's Night Beat (1947, cowritten by Westerby), and Basil Dearden's The Blue Lamp (1950). Around the time the cycle was dying out, Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) depicted a wily American black marketer (Orson Welles) at play in postwar Vienna and the film may have had an influence on the "Brit Noir" films that followed, in which Hollywood actors were imported to widen the appeal of Night and the City (1950, with Richard Widmark), Wings of Danger (US: Dead on Course, 1952, with Zachary Scott), Mask of Dust (US: Race for Life, 1954 with Richard Conte) and The Glass Cage (US: The Glass Tomb, 1955, with John Ireland).

US distributor Columbia Pictures renamed Vernon Sewall's Soho Incident (1956) Spin a Dark Web for American audiences, though it was known through production as 44 Soho Square -- purported "nerve center of global gangdom." Despite being an in-demand screenwriter for hire, source novelist Robert Westerby did not adapt his own material (he was in Hollywood, laboring on the script for War and Peace for Paramount and producers Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis), which was instead put into the hands of Ian Stuart Black, author of six episodes of the BBC's Patrol Car series. Former RKO starlet Faith Domergue (leading lady of Universal's This Island Earth and Cult of the Cobra the previous year) stars as Bella Francesi, the wanton sister of an Italian mobster (Martin Benson, famously crushed in an automobile compactor in Terence Young's Thunderball [1964]) and gaming racketeer. When Bella compels her brother to bring ex-GI Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) into the gang it is at the imperative of her insatiable libido... but being complicit in murder is more than the luckless Bankley has signed on for.

Pinioned between Night and the City and John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday (1979), Spin a Dark Web speaks to the hunger of marginalized people (foreigner Jim isn't even American, he's Canadian) for a measure of legitimacy. Martin Benson's beetle-browed Rico Francesi is a precursor of Bob Hoskins' forward-thinking but luckless Howard Shand, a wannabe legitimate businessman who coaches his thugs to keep "everything nice and quiet and polite." Producer "Big Mike" Frankovitch had bankrolled Joe Macbeth (1955) a year earlier and Spin a Dark Web goes similarly pear-shaped due to the machinations of a female who refuses to know her place. The stakes are refreshingly small here, with the film's caper setpiece (the manipulation of telephone lines to rig a horse race) carried off without a hitch and the gang brought down due to the bumbling of a minor player (Bernard Fox, in his film debut) who must be taken out of the game. Location shooting gives the film a documentary flourish while a wall poster seen inside Rico's Soho headquarters heralds a boxing exhibition featuring both Ronnie Kray (whose criminal exploits with brother Reginald were chronicled in Peter Medak's The Krays [1990]) and his older sibling Charlie, pointing the way to the true future of London crime.

In its American ad campaign, Columbia played up the film's sex appeal, depicting Domergue in posters as a Gilda style temptress in a backless satin gown but the actress stays bundled up (complete with scarf) throughout Spin a Dark Web against what were clearly unseasonably frigid temperatures, both on location in London within the walls of Nettleford Studio in Surrey. A decidedly low boil but engaging programmer, Spin a Dark Web will be of value most to those who enjoy seeing British character actors ply their trade, and that number includes Sam Kydd (They Made Me a Fugitive,Passport to Pimlico), Peter Burton (cinema's first "Q" in Dr. No, replaced by Desmond Llewellyn in subsequent James Bond films), and Robert Arden (who went from a plum role in Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin to the doomed American Ambassador compelled by Satanic forces to blow out his brains at the top of Omen III: The Final Conflict). Spin a Dark Web was photographed by Basil Emmott, a specialist in British "quota quickies" and a DP for the young Michael Powell. Art direction was by Ken Adam, later a celebrity in his own right for his work on Eon Productions' James Bond franchise.

Produced under the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's "Choice Collection" label of films manufactured on demand, Spin a Dark Web looks only so-so. The black and white image is grainy but contrasts are good, leaving the viewer with an overall satisfactory viewing experience of a fairly rare and obscure title. Sound is equally adequate and extras are (as is the custom for DVD-R releases) limited to a 2m 14s theatrical trailer.

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by Richard Harland Smith