My Learned Friend

Basil Dearden & Will Hay | 1943 | ★★★★½
Prefiguring fellow Ealing black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (also co-written by John Dighton), Hay’s final film sees the great British comedian take the part of a disgraced former barrister, who finds himself sixth and last on a list of murder targets drawn up by a recently released ex-convict, who is looking to gain vengeance upon those he perceives to have conspired against him during his original trial. Mervyn Johns hams it up a charm as the homicidal avenger, with Claude Hulbert, playing Hay’s bumbling, impossibly posh sidekick, also proving good value. The film’s comic set pieces, featuring scenes set in a courtroom (in which Hay’s barrister-turned-grifter beats a fraud case); in a back alley dive (featuring memorable turns from Derna Hazell’s sexy gangster’s moll, Eddie Phillips’s gargantuan hard man, and Charles Victor’s razor blade-loving mobster); in a Bootle theatre (featuring Maudie Edwards as a memorably frustrated Aladdin); in an insane asylum (with brilliant turns by Ernest Thesiger and Lloyd Pearson); and on the clock face of the Palace of Westminster Tower (recalling Harold Lloyd's 1923 masterpiece Safety Last) prove consistently excellent. The writing is top notch, with brilliant word play and tight plotting, with Dearden and Hay’s pacy direction also proving pleasing. A fitting climax to an all too short career, My Learned Friend proves simply wonderful.