Color, 1957, 96 mins. 9 secs.
Directed by John Guillermin
Starring John Mills, Charles Coburn, Barbara Bates, Derek Farr, Alec McCowen, Fay Compton, Geoffrey Keen, Margaretta Scott, Magda Miller
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD), Sony (DVD-R) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.75:1) (16:9)

A Town on Trialpotent blend of murder mystery and soap Town on Trialopera, Town on Trial offers an unusual '50s example of British cinema trying to appeal to an American audience far beyond the usual local color found in most offerings of the time. Just sordid enough to grab viewers' interest and featuring a strong cast of character actors, it's a modest but effective calling card for director John Guillermin, who would hone his skills on display here to his later 1961 masterpiece Rapture and a wild stint in Hollywood that included The Blue Max, King Kong, Death on the Nile, The Towering Inferno, and Shaft in Africa. A famously turbulent personality, he certainly wasn't afraid of stretching into any genre he could find.

In the seemingly idyllic town of Oakley Park, murder has upset the status quo and a culprit has confessed to the crime. The arresting officer, Superintendent Halloran (Mills), recalls in flashback how the whole sordid business started with the strangulation murder of Molly (Miller), a peroxide blonde whose flirty nature and loose morals made her a target for the more conservative citizens. Through crafty interrogation Town on Trialof local physician Dr. Fenner (Coburn), Halloran ascertains that Molly was pregnant -- and the identity of the father may or may not point to the killer. Soon the investigation starts to uncover an escalating number of town secrets involving infidelity, jealousy, and betrayal, while Halloran Town on Trialalso begins a tentative relationship with the doctor's niece, Elizabeth (Bates). When the murderer strikes again with a pair of nylon stockings as the weapon of choice, it's clear that something very nasty is still festering beneath the town's country club surface.

Though not exactly sleazy by today's standards, Town on Trial arrived during the edgiest year to that time for British cinema along with the thematically similar Hell Drivers, the Hammer breakthrough The Curse of Frankenstein. Significantly, that was also the year Hollywood brought a somewhat sanitized version of the scandalous novel Peyton Place to the screen, and comparisons between that button-pushing melodrama and this film are inevitable since they both deal with small towns where everyone seems to be covering up some kind of indiscretion or family secret. What sets this one apart is the surprise of seeing established actor Mills anchoring the film with an atypically brusque and forceful performance, which balances nicely with Guillermin's anxious, frequently roving camera movement and the barrage of plot twists. High art it may not Town on Trialbe, but that's exactly why the film has aged so well and remains a tantalizing taste of where things were headed for the next two decades with its POV killer Town on Trialshots (briefly making it a proto-slasher, or maybe proto-giallo) and pulpy crime thrills.

Not the easiest film to see for years outside of TV airings and gray market video copies, Town on Trial made its DVD debut -- technically DVD-R -- from Sony via its manufactured-on-demand line as a no-frills release in 2012. The region-free 2018 Indicator Blu-ray in the UK is easily the grittiest, grainiest presentation the label has offered to date, which presumably reflects the intentions of the source with its dark, heavy, noir-inspired appearance. The LPCM English mono audio (with optional English SDH subtitles) isn't the most dynamic mix in the world but sounds clear and crisp here, especially when it comes to the brash score by occasional Hammer Films composer Tristram Carey. The film can also be played with an audio option for 1972's "The John Player Lecture" with Mills, which is up to the standards of similar chats on the label's prior releases as the esteemed actor goes into his career at great length (not long after winning an Oscar for Ryan's Daughter) for almost the entire running time of the film with thoughts on everything from makeup to being underestimated and pigeonholed as a performer. A new video with film historian and journalist Barry Forshaw (19m19s) focuses on the film's issues in its native country with its perceived Americanized Town on Trialconcessions and the social commentary inherent in Mills's Town on Trialcharacter, while Guillermin's "Adventure in the Hopfields" (58m52s) from 1954 -- oddly presented here with a "Revised Version 1972" below the title -- features a woman looking back at a memorable day she and some friends took a train trip to Kent to pick hops after she breaks her mother's porcelain dog. Once thought lost, it's another in the fascinating line of Children's Film Foundation titles that have been trickling out in essential multi-title sets from the BFI for the past few years. This one appears to be the first one to make the jump to Blu-ray, and it looks so gorgeous here we can only hope more CFF titles will get HD releases in the future, too. The new "Shooting Hops" (6m38s) features focus puller Alec Burridge recalling his collaboration with Guillerman on the CFF title and shooting in a charming little farm area captured on film now for posterity. The theatrical trailer is also included along with a gallery of stills and promotional material, while the package itself (limited to 3,000 copies) comes with the usual substantial insert booklet, this time featuring a solid, Guillermin-centric essay by Neil Sinyard, text from the original campaign book, an appreciation of Barbara Bates by Bethan Roberts, and a sample of critical responses from the film's initial release.

Reviewed on March 30, 2018.