Never Let Go

12/06/2009

U.K. / 1960 / English

Directed by John Guillermin

With Richard Todd, Peter Sellers, Elizabeth Sellars

Still from 'Never Let Go'After finishing his work for the day, a cosmetics salesman emerges from a dull building onto a busy London street, amid the crush of salaried workers, to find that his car, parked adjacent, has been stolen. So begins John Cummings’ quest, for while the police work methodically to retrieve his vehicle, he impatiently embarks on a parallel crusade, following the theft trail to an apparent racket that is larger than he could hope to contend with. The criminal at the heart of the operation, a man named Meadows, ostensibly runs a garage but also has a roaring side business paying local hoodlums to steal cars, which his shop mechanics render unrecognizable with new plates and a new coat of paint, and then reselling them.

Cummings frequently checks in on the police detective’s progress, all the while conducting his own, not quite legal investigation, and as his desperation mounts, it becomes quite apparent that keeping his job as a salesman has become too difficult; he is unable to match the work volume and tenacity of the younger salespeople, and his newly-acquired card, which had been a boon to his professional life, has become a dead loss. He starts arriving late to appointments and, flustered, lashes out despondently. His relationship with his family suffers as his wife, Anne, urges him not to interfere with the ongoing police investigation. Meanwhile Meadows’ juvenile moll, Jackie, wishes to break out of her relationship with the gangster. Secretly involved with Tommy, the young man who perpetrated the theft of the car, she proves to be a complicating factor in Cummings’ investigation by seeking refuge with him, thereby focusing Meadows’ remanding ire onto the salesman.

Despite being terminally unappealing, there is an element of Never Let Go that feels distinctly against the grain. The fundamental dictate that, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” which permeates British society (quite antithetical to the American “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”) is duly challenged here, but with a serious cost in tow. The protagonist goes beyond the presiding apparatuses of the law, seemingly to overextend his abilities as a mere citizen, even making personal sacrifices for the sake of his prized individual dignity. Congruous with Adorno’s precept of society being a framework dependent on blocked critical faculties, the processes of which are mystified by ideology, this type of protagonist seems abnormal in a British story. A certain saturation of American texts – in which the defiant attitude expressed by Cummings, coupled with a basic lack of faith in any legal system, is common policy – no doubt influenced the film’s essential conceit.

Still from 'Never Let Go'The way that Cummings moves rapidly from facing down Tommy’s gang of motorcycling youths to confronting Meadows and his hired muscle, Cliff, in the garage, seems overly heroic, slightly awkward in context. As his personal and professional world become increasingly strained, Anne warns him that, if he attempts to go off and cause a fracas with the violent gangster, she and the children will not be there when he returns. If he returns. The car becomes a symbol to him, ceasing to matter as an object and no longer the savior of his ability to make ends meet. His crumbling job prospects only intensify his search.

Ultimately the film addresses modernity in the form of obstacles put forth by a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Upward mobility appears here on several levels and in a variety of forms. For Cummings it is the fully material presence of the car, as he, an honest middle-class worker, can no longer rely on his wits and skills to stay afloat in the world. While some may read it as an effort to regain masculinity, the economic underpinnings of the problem remain in view the entire time.

Peter Sellers sneers his way through his role as the middle-aged Lionel Meadows, whose plummy South Yorkshire speech hardly conceals the brash violence that helped him gain success. The portrayal would seem meanly satirical if it weren’t so wholly, so convincingly executed. Preening and primly obscene, he is as fastidious about maintaining the illusion of economic legitimacy as he is about keeping tidy his slick apartment. And Jackie, the young girl who clings to him, also physically withdraws from the brute, feeling torn between the wealth promised by their power-based relationship and her love for Tommy, who is more or less a destitute urchin. For both her and Cummings, the prospect of mobility is an extremely constricted one, the quest for it aspirated to the point at which other considerations, such as love and integrity, are nearly drummed out. Regardless of these facts, the film’s message is a dimly individualistic one, for while the economic structures are plain to see, the personal pitfalls indefatigable, the characters bash on regardless, placing their faith not in a social system (the mafia is as much a system as the police force, if not more so) but in their own ability, critical feelers extended.

Still from 'Never Let Go'

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