Never Let Go (1960) by Guy Savage
“Every time something goes wrong, that bloody salesman crops up.”
Never Let Go, a superb British noir film, is an intense character study in which fate pits two strikingly dissimilar men, a violent criminal and a mousy salesman, against each other in a struggle for survival. The film, from director John Guillerman, falls into the category identified by Andrew Spicer in his book Film Noir as British Late Noir: The New Realism--a period that spanned the years 1957-1964. The film’s very first scenes depict the operation of a London-based car theft network from the bottom up all the way to the mastermind, Leonard Meadows (Peter Sellers). The plot explores how the theft of a 1959 Ford Anglia impacts the lives of the man the car belonged to and the man responsible for organizing its theft.
Timid cosmetics salesman John Cummings (Richard Todd) is subjected to patronizing, competitive banter from a rival coworker, and he’s also under pressure from his new supervisor to show substantial improvement in his sagging sales figures. He’s just bought a car which he hopes will “make all the difference,” but then the car is stolen. Cummings, who didn’t have the money to purchase comprehensive insurance for the car, goes to the police. Here he learns that 80% of stolen cars are found within the first 48 hours, but that some disappear into chop shop networks. Repainted and sold with registration papers and plates from partially demolished cars, the stolen cars vanish and are never recovered. The film subtly introduces the idea that Cummings is outmoded as a salesman and also naïve when it comes to his exposure to organized crime.
When Cummings suffers through a humiliating session with his new boss, he reacts by phoning the police to see if there’s any news about his car. Feeling frustrated and under increasing pressure, Cummings decides to question Alfie (Mervyn Jones), the frail elderly newspaper vendor who witnessed the theft. Alfie, clearly terrified of reprisals, eventually tells Cummings to check out the Victory Café. Here Cummings meets a local gang of motorbike yobos led by Tommy Towers (pop star Adam Faith). Towers is part of Meadows’ criminal network, and to complicate matters, Towers is poaching on Meadows’ girlfriend, curvy remand home runaway Jackie (Carol White). Cummings, although intimidated by Towers, refuses to drop his search for his car, and he also refuses to leave the matter to the police. He reasons that the police want to bag the entire car theft ring and are not that concerned about the fate of just one car.
Never Let Go works so well partly thanks to the intense characterizations of Leonard Meadows and John Cummings. Meadows is an incredibly vicious man, and for those of us used to seeing Peter Sellers in comic roles (Inspector Clouseau for example), it’s disturbing to see him play this role so smoothly. For the first part of the film, Meadows never raises his nasally voice, but his unpredictable violence lurks just beneath the surface of his tense politeness. Sellers delivers a tour-de-force performance as the frighteningly uptight, cruel Meadows--a man who surrounds himself with underlings in his thrall--little people who are unable to stand against their boss’s astonishing violence.
Initially, Meadows, who rules his lurid world with fear and intimidation, has no idea that his criminal network is threatened. In reality his employees are getting sloppy and his bored “young tart” is ready to run off with a penniless delinquent. As the film continues and Meadows realizes that his operation is under assault, he becomes unglued, and he frequently assuages his ego by indulging in violent acts towards various underlings. This indulgence appears to ensure Meadows that he’s still in complete control, but as the police crack down on Meadows, his polite veneer begins to disintegrate. Early in the film, he stresses about the damage a smoldering cigarette leaves on the veneer of his turntable, but as the story continues and Meadows cannot stop Cummings’ relentless quest for his car, Meadows’ life and his flat dissolve into utter chaos. Meadows eventually explodes with venom and hatred.
Cummings, derisively labeled as the “lipstick peddler” by Meadows also begins to lose his temper under increasing pressure and frustration, but the decisive moment for Cummings comes when his wife, the very domestic and seemingly supportive Anne (Elizabeth Sellars) tells Cummings to cease his pursuit of the stolen car. At this crucial moment, Cummings, already diminished by the theft of his car and the loss of his job, is further humiliated when his wife brings up a litany of failures from his past. The film raises an intriguing question--is Cummings fundamentally a pathetic, dumped on, spineless man or have spousal and societal expectations hammered him into this role?
Never Let Go establishes that Meadows and Cummings, two seemingly disparate men are locked in a battle for survival. Meadows, sniffing that the heat is on to find the stolen car, could have simply dumped it thus allowing Cummings to have his car back. If Cummings were a different man, he wouldn’t pursue the whereabouts of his stolen car with complete disregard for personal safety. For both men, not giving up and not letting go is a matter of ego. Crushed and emasculated, Cummings determines that this time will be different. He has to prove to both himself and his wife that he’s not the loser she thinks he is, and Meadows, who’s used to squashing men like Cummings, simply isn’t going to surrender to a man he despises.
While the violence of Meadows and the timidity of Cummings suggest the outward appearance of two entirely different men, these men also share some characteristics. Both are amazingly stubborn, both have their backs up to the wall, and both men show a certain slimy obsequiousness to customers and clients. Meadows harps on about the fact that he owns a “legitimate business,” and he’s determined to hold onto the status he thinks his middle class position guarantees. Cummings, on the other hand, sees car ownership as an entry to middle class life, and since this is a British noir, class considerations weigh into the plot even though they are subtle. At one point, for example, Meadows rather sneeringly suggests offering Cummings a job pushing a broom around, and this comment is made right after an insult about his adversary’s modest home. Again this is a declaration that Meadows as a ‘legitimate businessman’ has more clout in society--a point that Meadows reiterates repeatedly with the police.
As Meadows loses control and declines physically and mentally, Cummings appears to grow in strength and determination. He drops his mousiness and his fake glasses and instead begins to make moral choices based on what he should do rather than what others expect of him. Scenes cleverly juxtapose Meadows’ violent power trips against various humiliations endured by Cummings. Meadows’ furious attempts to safeguard his criminal enterprise result in sowing clues for Cummings, and each time Cummings is squeezed by his boss, put in his place by his clients, lectured by the police or nagged by his wife, he reacts by taking matters into his own hands and ignoring them all. Cummings eventually emerges from his loser role, tempered by his resolve that he’s not what people think he is, and he is going to get that car back--whatever it takes.
This leads, ultimately, to a grand showdown. Cummings has ascended and Meadows has descended into an isolated hell of his own making in a modest Brian-de-Palma-Scarface style. A well-staged western type showdown occurs with Cummings walking a lonely street to meet his fate, and his fate is to fight a gladiatorial-style battle with his mortal enemy. In an American noir film, Cummings and Meadows would enact a showdown which includes a few guns, but since this is British noir, and censors frowned on the so-called American influence of violence in film, the weapons of choice (whatever is at hand in this case) include: a crowbar, a piece of wood, a hydraulic car lift, a car, a car door and a spanner.
Never Let Go depicts the police as honest and incorruptible, a standard which met the censorship of the times. According to Spicer, the British Board of Film Censors “had no written code,” but “the police, the clergy, the monarchy, and the armed forces were to be shown as free from any corruption.” In an American noir, surely Meadows would be slipping weekly graft to the local greedy, sloppy cops, but here the police are incorruptible--stiff and patriarchal--but hardly on Meadows’ payroll.
Never Let Go was released in 1960--a pivotal year in British history. This was the year Penguin Books went on trial under the Obscene Publications Act for publishing an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Hitchcock’s Psycho suffered cuts to its notorious shower scene. The X rating was introduced in 1952 by the British Board of Film Classification, and Never Let Go was cut by the censors but slipped through rated as an X-rated film.
Also in 1960, Reggie Kray, one of the notorious Kray twins began an 18 month sentence. This year heralded a shift in the fortunes of the Krays as they expanded and unleashed an unprecedented crime wave--and its violent fallout--in London before their world came crashing down in 1968. Never Let Go is a valuable film for its depiction of organized crime shielded by “legitimate business,” a modus operandi of the Krays. The Krays were into clubs, protection rackets and various business scams, and Ronnie Kray’s weapons of choice were swords and knives. Never Let Go shows a London in transition--a harsh world for those like Cummings, and while Meadows seems a lightweight compared to the Krays, nonetheless, he represents the face of the future of crime. Never Let Go appeared on DVD for a North American release in 2005--45 years after the film was made.