The Clouded Yellow is a reminder that there was a time when British cinema made mainstream genre movies, in this case a “man on the run” thriller that’s consciously in the tradition of Hitchcock’s British pictures. It’s also a reminder that British writers and directors were using the classic beats of genre to produce some genuinely rich, strange movies, in this case a truly giddy, heightened story that’s closer to a film like 2013’s Stoker than the everyday thriller its plot would suggest.
Trevor Howard plays David Somers, a burned out secret agent who’s made redundant from his Service after failing his last mission. The opening scene with his boss, Chubb (Andre Morell) is a masterclass in fastidious menace, as Somers attempts to blackmail the Establishment into re-hiring him by threatening a tell-all book, before backing down when he’s reminded of the full reach of its power, and the potential danger to himself. And so, instead, he accepts a job cataloguing butterflies at the Hampshire home of Nicholas Fenton, a friendly-seeming lepidopterist who lives with his wife Jess (Sonia Dresdel) and her niece Sophie, played by Jean Simmons.
Both Nicholas and Jess warn Somers that Sophie is a little strange: she witnessed the deaths of her parents as a child and has suppressed the memory ever since. Now she mostly plays the piano, appears unexpectedly in rooms, and creates boiling sexual tension with the looming local poacher Hick, who is never seen without a dead animal of some kind. Jess and Hick, too, seem to have some sexual history, so when Somers and Sophie fall in love an explosion of some kind seems inevitable.
By swapping spying for three months in the countryside Somers has found himself in a world just as feverish and dangerous, where everyone seems to have a secret. There are constant references to traps, and being caught in them, from the butterflies pinned onto cards in the house to the brutal rabbit snares that Hick has set around the gardens. And when a murder is discovered and Sophie seems the only suspect, Somers decides to save her and the two go on the run.
The second half of the film is exciting but less satisfying: once Sophie and Somers leave the captivity of the house the film loses its intensity and focus, as well as its surprising sexual heat. It also lacks the wit and pace of its clear model, Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. But there are wonderful performances in small roles from many of the people who help them, from a sentimental taxidermist to a bitterly funny old brothel-keeper, and some spectacular location work, particularly around the Liverpool docks. And the further Sophie gets from the prison of her aunt’s house the more she remembers of her past, particularly the truth around her parents’ brutal death …
The Clouded Yellow is almost unknown now — naming a thriller after a butterfly was not, perhaps, the best idea — but it’s an odd and memorable movie, and its release on Eureka! DVD is very welcome, setting it free once again into the world.