Noirvember: Never Take Candy from a Stranger

As mentioned a few days back, before America was plunged into the depths of fascism and we cared about frivolous thinks like moving pictures, we recently took in a double feature at the Siskel Center of movies billed as “UK noir”.  This isn’t entirely deceptive; the excellent Odd Man Out was on the program as well.  But the first movie, These Are the Damned, wasn’t even remotely noir, and the second, Never Take Candy from a Stranger, was even less noir than that.  It was, however, a curious little beast, well worth discussing on its own merits less for how successful it was as a movie and more for what it represented at the time it was made.

Originally released in 1960, Candy (as it was retitled for the American market; the original British title was Never Take Sweets from a Stranger) was the first and only ‘message picture’ ever released by UK horror mavens Hammer Film Productions.  It’s easy to see why they never did another:  the movie was a disaster at the box office, was reviled by critics, and was so thoroughly disliked by everyone that it never even showed up on television.  So what was the big deal?  Well, as you might have guessed from the title, Never Take Candy from a Stranger was about that perennially crowd-pleasing subject, child molestation.

Yes, this feel-good movie featured the story of one Peter Carter (a stiff Patrick Allen), who has just been named the new principal of a prestigious high school in rural Canada.  He’s just getting settled in with his wife (Gwen Watford) when their daughter Jean (cheery young Janina Faye) comes home and tells them how a creepy old turd lured her and a friend into has fancy house with a bag of candy and then proceeded to make them dance naked in front of him.  Unfortunately for the family, the pederast in question happens to be the town patriarch, owner of the mill that keeps everyone employed and a real basket case.  No one, from Carter’s co-workers to the local cops, want to risk incurring the wrath of the wealthiest man in the community, so they urge him to quietly drop the matter since, after all, no one was really hurt.

None of this is particularly surprising, but what’s shocking about Candy is how frankly it deals with the particulars of a crime that was still not talked about in polite society.  Although there’s nothing lurid about it — in fact, it goes out of its way to treat the crime with the utmost of delicacy — the movie shatters taboos all over the place:  it’s one of the earliest movies I can think of that actually uses the word ‘rape’, and even more so because it does so in reference to a nine-year-old girl.  Further, it makes it quite explicit, in a scene that is depressingly relevant to today’s society, that many female victims of sexual misconduct never bring forth charges or drop them before trial.  Young Jean is subjected to almost every dirty trick in the defense attorney’s handbook:  she’s accused of lying, questioned about what she was wearing, robbed of a corroborating witness through intimidation, and impugned as an outsider looking for a payoff.  Her father decides to drop the charges, it’s strongly implied, just before the opposing lawyer has  a chance to suggest that she’s a little slut who was practically asking to be fondly.

To put it mildly, audiences weren’t quite ready for this.  Nor, it seems certain, were they prepared for the ending Never Take Candy from a Stranger, where, after being acquitted, the deranged old coot stalks the two kids and ends up murdering one of them.  It’s a real bummer of a movie, with an even more depressing ending than These Are the Damned.  The frustration just builds and builds, and without any real resolution or catharsis until the very end, it’s easy to get the sensation of how frustrating it is to level charges in a case like that.  A lot of the inertia of the picture can be chalked up to its origins (in a play called The Pony Trap, by Roger Garis; whatever else it is, Candy is extremely stagey, and mostly consists of talking scenes that don’t ever require it to go outside of whatever spot they’re taking place in.   (It wasn’t even filmed in Canada, but in a copse of trees outside the Hammer studios.)

But that’s just part of the problem.  The acting is no great shakes (Faye is the best actor in the picture, and she’s not yet ten years old); the dramatic arc is pretty predictable and mostly dull; and it’s really hard to care about any of the characters beyond Jean herself.  The villain, old Mr. Oldenberry, is played by Felix Aylmer, a well-established character actors who’d mostly played harmless old coots; he’s particularly menacing, but very rarely on screen, and without any lines.  There’s very rarely any action, and the dialogue is fairly inert.  Worst of all, like most message pictures of the time, it’s sheer melodrama, with ham-handed ideas badly executed and a stolid pace for such a short movie.  Calling it noir because it has a crime at the center of the narrative is like calling The Maltese Falcon a war movie because someone has a gun.

All that said, though, it’s a surprisingly powerful, if deeply depressing, piece of art, and it’s definitely worth seeing for the sheer curiosity factor is nothing else.  It’s also, as mentioned, a prescient piece that deals with a highly taboo subject in an adult, morally serious way, never turning into exploitation and daring to portray with frank realness the kind of awful questioning a woman (let alone a small child) must undergo if she ever tries to go public with a sexual assault case.  It’s not at all what I expected, and not altogether a success, but it’s a singular enough piece of work to deserve its own spot in cinema history.

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