January 2, 2017

The Forgotten Man: The Films of Maxwell Reed

During a chat show appearance in 2007, the actress Joan Collins was shown a clip of one of her early screen performances. The film in question was THE SQUARE RING (1953), an excellent boxing drama from Ealing Studios. The clip provoked a good deal of mirth from both Joan and her interviewer as she recalled the making of the film quite clearly. However, neither of them mentioned the very tall, good looking young actor appearing opposite her. He had been a ‘matinee idol’ of the late forties and was also Joan Collins’ first husband… his name was Maxwell Reed.

Reed was born in Larne, Ireland in 1919. He spent several years working as a merchant seaman before making a few stage appearances in his native land. Believing he had what it takes to make a career as an actor, Reed travelled to London hoping to gain a foothold in the business. He obtained work in minor stage productions but found the grind of theatrical life not to his liking. He felt that he stood a far greater chance of success working in films. To this end, he began canvassing agents in the hope of getting work at one of the UK’s many busy post-war studios. He was in luck, he was auditioned by Rank and became part of their ‘Company of Youth’; he was 27 at the time.

Reed learned quickly and soon appeared (uncredited) in two films, THE YEARS BETWEEN and GAIETY GEORGE. He had little to do in either film but must have caught someone’s eye, because in his next film, Reed was third on the bill. The film was David MacDonald’s THE BROTHERS (1947).

Set in the Western Isles of Scotland, THE BROTHERS tells the story of the two MacRae brothers. Reed played the role of the younger MacRae brother Fergus, whilst the older brother, John, was played by a splendidly malevolent Duncan MacRae. Their lives are disrupted by flighty servant girl Mary (top billed Patricia Roc). Her arrival puts into a motion a chain of events leading to a feud between the two brothers and, ultimately, betrayal and murder. THE BROTHERS is a good, old fashioned melodrama, enhanced by the wonderful Scottish scenery and a sexy performance from Roc. Reed gives a surprisingly confident performance and works well with Roc. His powerful physical presence is also evident as he strides among the hills and enjoys an epic fist fight with a rival for Roc’s affections.

His performance was well received and Reed quickly followed this with an appearance as Jimmy Martin, the not so secret lover of Greta Gynt in Arthur Crabtree’s DEAR MURDERER (1947). In this adaptation of a stage hit, Gynt is the promiscuous wife of businessman Eric Portman who, fed up with her infidelity, conceives a plan to murder one of her lovers, played by Dennis Price. Needless to say things do not go according to plan, but Portman does manage to put Reed’s Jimmy Martin in the dock instead of himself. Gynt is deliciously icy in her role and Portman is excellent as usual. Confined to a role that requires him to do little, apart from tower over the rest of the cast with his 6’4” frame, Reed looks good and handles his scenes competently.

Reed’s next role was much better, although the film itself is a standard post war crime melodrama. NIGHT BEAT (1947) directed by Harold Huth has Reed playing the role of night club boss Felix Fenton opposite Ronald Howard, Anne Crawford and Christine Nordern, who expertly plays the femme fatale of the piece. The film is full of melodramatic clichés, including love triangles and betrayal, but Reed manages to rise above it with a solid portrayal of a basically decent man, who just happens to be a crook.

Reed’s next two films, both made in 1948, are among his best and could be ranked as two of the best UK films of the post war period. The first of these is Lance Comfort’s excellent DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS, featuring Siobhan McKenna as the UK’s first onscreen female serial killer, Emily Beaudine. Emily is considered ‘strange’ by the small community in which she lives and is ostracized by the locals. When a travelling circus arrives in the village, Emily soon catches the eye of boxer Dan, played by Maxwell Reed. Their brief liaison ends violently with Dan coming off worse. Emily is promptly sent to live on a farm many miles away where Dan catches up with her; he becomes her first victim. Emily then proceeds to reduce the size of the male population on several occasions before the exciting finale. DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS is a fine film featuring a brilliant performance by McKenna. Reed is also on good form as Dan, smugly arrogant to begin with but reduced to becoming almost half a man by Emily’s actions. His rage when he catches up with her is frighteningly intense, but his vulnerability is also well portrayed as Emily turns the tables on him (again). Featuring a cast that includes Honor Blackman, Barry Morse and Liam Redmond, DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS deserves wider recognition.

Reed’s second film of 1948 is Compton Bennett’s DAYBREAK, a dark and gloomy drama which is laden with heavy rain and passion. Told in flashback, Ann Todd and Eric Portman star as Frankie and Eddie, a married couple who own a fleet of barges, although Eddie has another job as well – he is an executioner. Their lives are disrupted by the appearance of Scandinavian seaman Olaf, played by Reed. While Eddie is away tending to his other business, Olaf moves in on Frankie and a liaison begins. It’s not long before Eddie finds out and he violently confronts Olaf. When Eddie goes missing and is presumed dead, Olaf is convicted of his murder, but will Eddie be able to go through with the task of hanging his own ‘murderer’. Portman is marvellous in this grim, but rewarding tale, while Ann Todd looks luminously beautiful in many moonlight scenes. Reed’s Olaf is a real charmer and he carries off the role with aplomb, even coming up with a passable Scandinavian accent.

DAYBREAK may appear a bit disjointed at times, but this is the result of some studio interference before its release. That apart, DAYBREAK is another fine piece of melodrama which, like DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS, deserves to be seen by a larger audience.

In Bernard Knowles’ THE LOST PEOPLE (1949) Reed is reunited with Dennis Price, only this time they get to share some scenes together. The film tells the story of a disparate group of European refugees who are cramped together in a post war German theatre, waiting to be sent back to their homelands. Price plays the officer in charge with sterling support from William Hartnell. Among the refugees are Mai Zetterling and Richard Attenborough. Stealing the show again is Siobhan McKenna as Marie, a feisty resistance leader. Maxwell Reed features in the small role of Peter, a Russian craftsman; he is given little to do but does it well and features in a massive brawl at the end of the film.

At this point in his career Reed was beginning to gain a reputation as something of a ‘matinee idol’ and was very popular with young girls. He was also becoming known as a ‘hellraiser’ and was dubbed ‘The Wild Man of British Cinema’ by the newspapers, although details of what he actually got up to is sketchy to say the least. He also met and began seeing regularly the young Joan Collins, a relationship which eventually led to their marriage in 1952. Reed was also suffering from a chronic back condition, which was not helped his height. He was taking prescribed medication for the severe pain he suffered and his physical discomfort can sometimes be noticed when he is walking in his films.

With his career on the rise Rank cast him as the scheming manservant Joseph Rondolet in the Margaret Lockwood vehicle MADNESS OF THE HEART (1949). Also in the cast were Kathleen Byron and Paul Dupuis. Although again given little to do except lurk and scheme in dark corridors, Reed proved to be a convincing villain and seemed to be the only one of the cast who realised that they were appearing in utter tosh. He looks to be thoroughly enjoying himself and it’s a pity he was so under used.

Maxwell Reed’s next film was a rare leading role as a ‘hero’. Reed was hired by producers Monty Berman and Robert S Baker (future producers of THE SAINT TV series with Roger Moore) to play the role of Chris Pelly in BLACKOUT (1950). Pelly is a blind man awaiting sight restoring surgery, who literally stumbles into a scenario of murder and smuggling. Once his sight is restored Pelly, aided by the lovely Dinah Sheridan as Patricia Dale, attempts to put a stop to the racket that he has uncovered. Smartly written by John Gilling and smoothly directed by Baker, BLACKOUT is almost like a dry run for THE SAINT, with Reed portraying Pelly as a wise cracking charmer with a nose for trouble. It is an extremely likeable performance and Reed looks fabulous, it’s just a shame he didn’t get more roles of this type.

Reed followed this with four films in 1951. The first of these was Lewis Gilbert’s excellent THERE IS ANOTHER SUN in which Reed was top billed with Laurence Harvey. Reed played ex-speedway star Eddie ‘Racer’ Peskett who is reduced to riding ‘The Wall of Death’ at a fairground after causing the death of another speedway rider during a race. Peskett is another of Reed’s arrogant charmers, but this time he adds a hefty dose of cruelty to the performance. Peskett is desperate to return the top class speedway circuit (which was hugely popular in the 50s) and doesn’t care how he does it. He persuades young Harvey, as an ambitious young biker also riding the ‘Wall’, to help him. Peskett’s plan doesn’t go well and results in murder. Reed captures the desperation of Peskett very effectively and works well with both Harvey and the lovely Susan Shaw, who plays Harvey’s love interest. THERE IS ANOTHER SUN is an excellent example of early 50s UK crime films and receives assured direction from Gilbert who draws fine performances from all the cast.

THE CLOUDED YELLOW was next on the agenda for Reed. In this solid Ralph Thomas thriller Reed plays the small but crucial role of Hick, a rather shifty handyman, and he is very good in the role. Flirting outrageously with the young Jean Simmons as Sophie, Reed gives us another glimpse of the skill with smart dialogue that he displayed in BLACKOUT, and it’s a pity he disappears from the scene so soon. Most of the film involves the blossoming relationship between Sophie and a retired secret agent, played by Trevor Howard, and how they cope when being forced to go on the run. The film is fast paced and exciting and benefits from having a splendid villain and some fine location photography.

The third Reed film of 1951 is the author’s favourite, THE DARK MAN directed by Jeffrey Dell. Although this thriller is firmly in the B-movie category, and features one of the most ludicrous pieces of plotting ever, it is a fairly exciting crime film which utilizes its south coast locations to good effect and features a fine performance from Reed as the eponymous villain. Reed’s first appearance in the film is the sort of thing most actors dream about. It begins with long shot of a car which approaches the Hastings seafront. A man in a dark suit is waiting. The camera moves in closer and he quickly turns… it is ‘The Dark Man’. After a particularly nasty double murder, the mysterious stranger is on the trail of the only witness, Molly Lester, played by Natasha Parry. The police are called in and proceed to display spectacular inefficiency when trying to protect Ms Lester. Her love interest is Inspector Viner (Edward Underdown), the cop sent by Scotland Yard to investigate the murders. Throughout all this, Reed is quietly impressive as the desperate killer. He lurks in dark corners and deserted beaches and, in a suspenseful sequence, attempts to murder Molly in her own bedroom. After this failure, all logic goes out of the window leading to an exciting chase and shoot out on a pre-nuclear Dungeness beach. Although generally no different from many other British B-thrillers of the period, THE DARK MAN is worth watching primarily for the fine performance of Maxwell Reed. It is a performance which, in the opinion of the author, deserved to enhance the career of the actor more than it did.

This lack of career advancement may actually have his own fault. He was keen to move to Hollywood where he hoped he could emulate the recent success of Stewart Granger. He got his chance in Universal’s swashbuckling romance THE FLAME OF ARABY (1951) which starred Jeff Chandler and was directed by Charles Lamont. Reed admired Granger to such an extent that he modelled his performance on him. As yet another villain, Reed played the role of Prince Medina. FLAME OF ARABY is not a good film, it’s a mish-mash of tired ideas played out in pantomime style. Reed looks impressive but he can do little with such poor material. Maureen O’Hara also appeared as a strikingly red-haired Bedouin maiden. The film was a flop, and Joan Collins subsequently revealed that she had advised Reed to model himself on James Mason instead of Granger, but he didn’t take her advice. Judging by the way the careers of Mason and Granger developed, it appears to have been sound advice.

Undaunted, Reed repeated his Granger act in the 1953 low budget pirate film CAPTAIN PHANTOM. Again looking impressive, Reed plays another moustache twirling villain. It is difficult to assess his performance as what appears to be the only available print of this film is in Italian. CAPTAIN PHANTOM was a modest success in Europe but did little for Reed’s career.

Returning to Britain, Reed embarked on a further three films in 1953. In Wolf Rilla’s MARILYN (aka ROADHOUSE GIRL), a British answer to THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and OSSESSIONE, Reed plays mechanic Tom Price. On the lookout for work he takes a job at a small garage/café owned by George Saunders (Leslie Dwyer). Tom is soon drawn to Saunders’ young wife Marilyn, strikingly played by Sandra Dorne, and a love affair ensues. This inevitably leads to murder and betrayal. Reed and Dorne display great chemistry with their romantic scenes fairly sizzling off the screen. The whole sorry business is played against a backdrop of appropriate sleaziness. MARALYN is a fine film, Rilla’s direction is tight and his use of the camera impressive. Reed, although playing second fiddle to Dorne throughout the film, is particularly effective when displaying the mental disintegration of Tom, following Maralyn’s rejection of him for seedy spiv Nick Everton (Ferdy Mayne).

Hollywood came calling again when RKO were casting for a villain to play opposite their rising star Rock Hudson in SEA DEVILS, directed by Raoul Walsh. Dusting off his Stewart Granger persona once again, Reed played Rantaine, a rival smuggler up against Hudson’s Captain Gilliatt. SEA DEVILS, an entertaining late entry in the swashbuckler cycle and benefits from some superb colour photography which displays the Irish coast at its best. Rock puffs out his chest and Max snarls back at him while Bryan Forbes (as Hudson’s sidekick Willie) quietly walks away with the picture.

Reed fared much better in his final film of 1953. In Basil Dearden and Michael Relph’s excellent version of Ralph W Peterson’s boxing play THE SQUARE RING, Reed plays the cynical Rick Martell, a boxer known for ‘throwing’ fights. Among such heavyweight talents as Jack Warner, Robert Beatty, Sid James and Kay Kendall, Reed more than holds his own. His Rick Martell is a fighter who has lost all his self respect and hides it behind a mask of pure bravado. His only hope of redemption is his girlfriend Frankie, played by Reed’s then wife Joan Collins. Reed is excellent in this film and, along with BLACKOUT and THE DARK MAN, gives his most confident and assured performance.

Next up was BEFORE I WAKE (1954), a rather lukewarm mystery thriller notable only for a fine performance by Jean Kent as Florence Haddon. Directed by Albert S Rogell, the film is one of those ‘is she mad or isn’t she’ potboilers that are still popular today. Mona Freeman plays April Haddon who returns home after her father’s sudden death and meets her step mother (Kent) for the first time. A series of clues and suspicions lead Ann to be believed that Florence murdered her husband. Her only ally when trying to piece everything together is local doctor Michael Elder (Maxwell Reed). Reed is wasted in another role where he has little to do, but he does it well and the helps carry the film through to a satisfying conclusion.

Reed’s final film of 1954 was also his final British film. He leaves Brit films behind with a rousing performance as escaped mental patient Frank Smith in THE BRAIN MACHINE. Well directed by Ken Hughes the film is an exciting crime thriller which features good performances from Elizabeth Allen, Patrick Barr and especially Edwin Richfield. Reed’s portrayal of Smith, trying to cope with his hostage (Allen), tracking down the crooks who betrayed him and with the pains in his head is exceptional. He superbly captures the anguish and frustration of a man totally at the end of his tether. There is an exciting climax in which Smith finally encounters the villainous ‘Mr Big’ during which Reed pulls out all the stops.

It is a fine performance with which to end his career in British films, but Reed believed he was moving on to greater things when Hollywood came calling yet again. It was during this period that the Reed/Collins marriage began to crumble. They divorced in 1956 amid stories that Reed tried to sell her to an Arab sheik for £10,000.

Also in 1956, Warner Bros dispatched director Robert Wise to Europe to make HELEN OF TROY in Italy. Assembling a fine cast of European actors including Stanley Baker, Harry Andrews, Cedric Hardwicke, Torin Thatcher and Brigitte Bardot, Wise began shooting an epic version of the famous story. In the small but showy role of Ajax, Reed had never looked better. He looked fit and strong and engaged in a wrestling match with Baker’s Paris. Unfortunately the Stewart Granger factor reared its head again and Reed undid all the positives with a rather laboured delivery of his lines. However, the film itself was a success and Reed used this as a platform to try and crack Hollywood.

His first US project was a TV series based on books by Jack London. CAPTAIN DAVID GRIEF was a 39 episode adventure series filmed on location in Mexico between 1957 and 1960. Unfortunately it was never fully networked and hopes for a longer run never materialized, despite the series being well received. Reed did well with the material but received no more series offers after the show was cancelled. Apart from two brief film appearances Reed spent most of the next five years ‘guesting’ in numerous TV series including PERRY MASON and BONANZA.

The first of these two films featured Reed in a brief appearance in the dire PIRATES OF TORTUGA (1961). The second film was Richard Quine’s THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY (1962) which starred Jack Lemmon and Fred Astaire with Kim Novak in the title role. Again his appearance is brief but he makes the most of it and displays considerable menace as he taunts and threatens Novak during the films climax. Unfortunately the tone of this ‘comedy thriller’ is very uneven and, like most of his US films, did not further his career.

Reed was to make one final film appearance in PICTURE MOMMY DEAD (1966). Directed by horror veteran Bert I Gordon, Reed’s role was not dissimilar to the one he played in MADNESS OF THE HEART as the scheming Anthony who, along with the wicked Zsa Zsa Gabor, attempts to discover the whereabouts of a missing diamond necklace. Shot in garish colour, the film is a typical 60s horror melodrama. Gordon’s direction is fairly static and it is left to the actors to bring life to the piece. Zsa Zsa is wonderfully campy and is well supported by Reed (half hidden by a mask) as her facially scarred accomplice/lover. Reed appears to be enjoying himself in a role that would have done justice to Vincent Price and he brings a nice sense of humour to the part.

Maxwell Reed’s last screen appearance was in a 1968 episode of the BBCs SHERLOCK HOLMES series with Peter Cushing. He played Hilton Cubitt in the story ‘The Dancing Men’. There is little information about what Reed did over the next few years until his early death from cancer in 1974. Some time after his death Joan Collins published an autobiography in which she accused Reed of being abusive towards her. Reed’s family strongly objected to these accusations and managed to get Collins to withdraw some of them from later editions of the book.

It is unfortunate that his marriage to Collins, and her accusations, is mostly what Maxwell Reed is remembered for today. Reed may not have been a ‘great’ actor, but he had a commanding screen presence which is sorely lacking in many of today’s ‘stars’. Some of his films, DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS, DAYBREAK, THE SQUARE RING, THERE IS ANOTHER SUN and THE CLOUDED YELLOW, are fine films which deserve to be seen. DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS recently received a DVD release so maybe a few more of Reed’s better films will begin to surface so that this under rated and mostly forgotten actor can be seen by a contemporary audience.

©Dave Pyke 2008.

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About Dave Pyke

David Pyke has written 1 post in this blog.

'David lives in Norfolk with his family. He currently works as a nurse, but before that he was an actor and a chef .... often at the same time!