Forgotten London films: No Trees in the Street (1959)

Director J Lee Thompson had made Ice Cold in Alex the previous year. He would go on to make both Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear in the next couple of years before his career went into decline. He would end up helming a couple of films in the first Planet of the Apes series and Death Wish IV, before retiring after directing a star vehicle for Chuck Norris.

But his initial reputation was based on making social comment films like this one. Future social historians will use it as a reference point for that brief time when high-rise flats symbolised hope and freedom from the slums: its story is set in a narrative frame in which a troublemaker – played by a very young David Hemming – is schooled in ‘what life used to like round here’ before people were delivered by the tower blocks.

If you sense a little propaganda here for state planning, the screenplay was written by former secretary general of the Young Communist League, Ted Willis, who ultimately became a Labour peer. Between those two poles in his political life, Willis was best known for writing Dixon of Dock Green and creating The Adventures of Black Beauty for ITV.

Between them, Thompson and Willis took a melodramatic story and breathed considerable life into it. They are helped by a first-rate cast. Herbert Lom is the local racketeer who controls life in the slums; Sylvia Sims is Hetty, the young woman he is in love with, but who won’t sell herself to him simply to escape the misery of family life. Melvyn Hayes, in his first screen role, is her younger brother, Tommy, whose desperate attempts to better himself through petty crime threaten to destroy everyone around him.

I’m not sure you can say Herbert Lom plays a less hard role here than that of Kristo in Night and the City; he was good at playing gangsters and it’s not difficult to see why he was often typecast. But here he is a hard man who at least understands the cost of that hardness. Sims meanwhile gives genuine humanity and depth to her character: the situation might feel contrived but the emotions do not. Hayes meanwhile brings to his performance all the tension and anxiety of a young actor trying to make a name for himself – which is to say he is perfectly cast.

Stanley Holloway and Liam Redmond are both feckless in their own different ways. It’s not hard to see how hopeless life is for Hetty and Tommy.

No Trees in the Street is available from Amazon and other DVD retailers.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Night and the City, Pool of London, The Boy and the BridgeLondon Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road, Run for your Money, The Happy Family, St Martin’s Lane, and Underground.

My brief introduction to the series is here.

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