St. Benny the Dip (1951)

 

+++ Three conmen manage a narrow escape from the law, but only by fleeing into a church’s basement and emerging again dressed as clergymen. But their troubles are only beginning. Because, as a character in the film puts it, they escaped the police, but now they must escape the cloth: Mistaken for clerics, they now have suddenly responsibilities hoist upon them that they find difficult to get out of. +++

 

Our main conman is Benny, played by singer Dick Haymes. His two associates, Matthew and Monk, are played by Roland Young (Topper) and Lionel Stander (of Hart to Hart fame). The most famous name in the entire production is probably that of the director, Edgar G. Ulmer, whose influence is potentially seen in some faint traces of social realism in this film.

 

St. Benny the Dip is not so much a comedy and more of a comedydrama. The protagonists all discover something inside of them that makes them care about people less fortunate than themselves. The story is at times melodramatic and soppy, but not in a bad way. The best way to describe the tone of the film is to refer to Fernandel’s Don Camillo films, where a loving, forgiving glance is thrown at people’s weaknesses, and where the comedy is oftentimes mellow.

 

While the dialogue is good, I have a problem with the unwillingness of the authors (George Auerbach and John Roeburt) to accept an independent ethical conscience of their criminal leads – they prefer to emphasis the unseen hand of god, and a deus ex machina in form of a benevolent, omniscient reverend. There are also problems with the editing and the narrative structure, and a lot of it is down to the need to somehow include the aforementioned reverend into the film throughout the story.

 

The acting is good, with Haymes playing the tough but charming lead effortlessly. He is also given the opportunity to sing, which is something I generally do not like all that much but in this case it works as it fits right into the story. Stander is good as well, already displaying the same kind-hearted gruffness that would be his trademark on Hart to Hart. But the shining light in this film is probably Roland Young, who gives his A-game playing a character who, while not given enough screen-time, is probably given the most depth by the script.

 

Of the supporting roles, special mention should go to Oskar Karlweis and Nina Foch as father and daughter. For Austrian stage actor Karlweis, whose film career had a very promising kickstart in 1930 (especially as the co-lead in the German audience-favourite Die Drei von der Tankstelle) St. Benny the Dip was the first big-screen appearance in 16 years. Having been forced to flee the Nazis in 1938, his lack of English forced a break in his career, although he appeared on stage from the mid to late ‘40s onwards on both sides of the Atlantic. Beginning with St. Benny the Dip (where he displays flawless English, by the way), he returned to the big screen as a supporting actor for a short while, before dying too young in 1956.

Neither Karlweis nor Foch are given really much to do in this film, but Karlweis gets the chance to display a semi-broken character with lots of dignity, and Foch can prove her talent by giving an incredibly good performance as a drunk.

 

The film has a passable score by Robert W. Stringer, who also wrote and composed the song sung by Haymes in this film, “I Believe”. The opening credits use beautiful black&white drawings that look like watercolour and so were originally probably done in colour. Since they seem to show locations from the film, maybe they were originally part of a storyboard?

 

 

All-in-all, St. Benny the Dip, known in the UK as Escape if You Can, is quite charming. And if you go into this film knowing that it is not a comedy but a slightly comedic melodrama, I guess you can easily get a 6-out-of-10 experience out of it.

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