(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, wherein I’ll be taking on each of the films in Kino’s British Noir DVD collection throughout the month of November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)
Life hasn’t been the same for Jim Ackland (John Mills) since the accident. When a child in his care became one of many victims in a horrible bus crash, he was damaged in more ways in one, his body broken and his soul overwhelmed with feelings of guilt. After an extended stay in the hospital, Jim is released in hopes of picking up his life’s pieces, and for a while, it looks like he’s on his way. Between finding a new job and a new love (Joan Greenwood), Jim’s emotional wounds seem to have finally healed…until an awful new incident opens them right back up. After a neighbor is found strangled to death, all eyes are on our man, whose sketchy psychological background has made him the prime suspect. Could Jim’s mind have forced him to kill after all, or could a murderer be setting him up to take the rap for his or her own homicidal urges?
Stories centered around mentally-anguished leads tend to be dicey in execution, but The October Man puts on a suspenseful show without seeming gimmicky or unfair. While several other films have used unreliable protagonists as license to excuse whatever wild plot twists they yanked from their hindquarters, this one organically incorporates Jim’s condition into the narrative. Much of the time leading up to the big murder is spent dwelling upon the stigma resulting from Jim’s stay in the hospital, with gossip and hearsay bearing down on the poor gent before the dirty deed is done. Such rumors are used against him after the act is committed, and with so little evidence supporting his innocence, we can’t help but feel small twinges of doubt towards a character we’ve otherwise come to trust and sympathize with so deeply. But although the answers are ultimately revealed with around twenty minutes left on the clock, The October Man continues to enthrall viewers in ways that don’t betray its paranoid atmosphere for a second. Even as signs of his complicity in the killing pile up, Mills effortlessly relates Jim’s inherent pain and sways our concern over to his camp, while the supporting cast (which includes Edward Chapman and Joyce Carey) comes off as a peculiar bunch that keeps the audience guessing as to who’s friend or foe. The flick also saw the feature-length debut of England’s Roy Ward Baker, a filmmaker who proved plenty capable of handling high emotions and spooky scenery without going over-the-top even this early in his legendary career.
People like to ascribe the term “Hitchcockian” to thrillers of all colors, but it suits The October Man rather nicely. The means by which the movie toys with our feelings and those of its harried hero can be downright devious, yet no matter what sort of ending caps off the story’s nail-biting journey, the impact it leaves will have been more than earned. Heartbreaking and masterfully moody, The October Man is one noir that does its mother genre proud.