Saturday, July 10, 2021

Cross-Roads (1955)

Directed by:
John Fitchen

This 20-minute 16mm independent short isn't quite public domain but instead falls under the “orphan work” umbrella. That is, the original production company that made it (Bartlett Films) no longer exists and the most recent copyright holder(s) cannot be located or contacted. In other words, seeing how this was made over 65 years ago and it's highly unlikely anyone bothered renewing the copyright for something so obscure / forgotten for all those years, the film no longer has an official owner. That's where the European Union Intellectual Property Office steps in. It's their job to ensure that threatened titles are kept in a database and digitized / preserved for future generations. However, now as officially registered intellectual property, the titles can be limited to when and where they're shown.

The primary point of interest here isn't the writer (who barely did any other film work), director (ditto, plus he is rumored to have killed himself not long after making this) or any of the other production people, but the casting of two future genre icons in the lead roles. That ultimately makes this, middling as it is, of historic importance. The first and most notable is a man who needs no introduction: Christopher Lee. Lee made one of his earliest genre film appearances right here (the very first was supposedly in the now-missing 1954 Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation The Mirror and the Markheim) several years before he became one of the most prolific / famous horror stars of the next several decades. The second is Ferdy Mayne, who didn't reach the same heights of fame as Lee but is an icon nonetheless, best known for playing the vampire count in Roman Polanski's Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). He solidified his credentials also working for Hammer Films, Freddie Francis and in numerous other German and U. S. genre films.

A man recklessly speeds down a country road late at night headed toward a hospital that's several hours away. His dying sister is in the passenger seat and has just attempted to kill herself after being rejected by a man she's fallen in love with and become pregnant by. As the sister slumps over dead, the brother panics. The car goes off the road, hits a tree and then goes up in flames. Sixth months later along the same stretch of back road, Betty (Mercy Haystead) is taking her brand new car, a 21st birthday gift from her father, for a joyride. She spots a well-dressed man (Lee) walking alongside the road and reluctantly offers him a lift. He introduces himself as Harry and claims he's going to London to attend "to business." Peculiarly, he also knows what kind of cigarettes she smokes and that she's hosting a party here soon; two things she never told him about.

Elsewhere, slimy impresario Bernard J. Maskell (Mayne) is in the middle of making his secretary Mary (Beryl Nesbitt) feel really uncomfortable. Though she already has a boyfriend and is not the least bit interested in him, he insists she go on a date with him, inappropriately touches her and more or less suggests she needs to have sex with him in order to keep her job ("The secret of success, my dear, is being nice to the right people.") Mary rushes out the door; hopefully on her way to finding a better job. Harry has Betty drop him off at Bernard's office, where it's revealed that he has other things in mind than investing in one of Bernard's productions.

This very predictable story of ghostly revenge has some nice noir lighting at times and decent acting but comes off like a lesser episode of a show like One Step Beyond or The Twilight Zone. It likely would have been slightly improved with better structuring of the story; namely moving the opening car crash scene to a later point in the film and turning it into a flashback so that we don't know exactly what's going on and exactly what's going to happen after just a couple of minutes. It's still worth a viewing for fans just to get to see Lee playing an early sinister / supernatural role and is an interesting footnote in the actor's long career.

The first home video release of this short subject was from Sinister Cinema, who paired it with an interview with Creature Features host Bob Wilkins. BFI then started distributing the title and included it as an extra on the 2016 Blu-ray release of Beat Girl (1960), also starring Lee. They have since put it on Youtube.

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