Saturday, May 25, 2013


This is the first talkie version of the story of the killer barber, a character first brought to life in a Victorian pulp novel called A String of Pearls. Thanks to the Stephen Sondheim musical and the recent Tim Burton film adaptation, his story is familiar, but this telling has a few differing details. The narrative is set up as the intertwining of three plotlines: 1) Sweeney Todd (Tod Slaughter) is a barber who specializes in shaving sailors and murdering the ones who have money or jewels on them. He puts them in a special barber chair, pulls a lever, and they are dumped down into his basement; the fall generally kills them, but if not, Todd goes downstairs with his razor and, in his words, polishes them off. Mrs. Lovatt (Stella Rho, pictured at left with Slaughter), who owns a bakery next door, chops the bodies up and makes meat pies of them, and also splits the ill-gotten booty with Todd; 2) The handsome Mark (Bruce Seton, pictured below) is in love with the lovely Joanna (Eve Lister), but her father, a shipowner, doesn’t approve because Mark is just a poor sailor. Todd sets his leering eyes for Joanna, and attempts to blackmail the father into essentially selling Joanna to him; 3) Mark's comic relief sidekick Stanley flirts with Joanna's sidekick Nan. 

It is made clear in the beginning, as the film cuts back and forth between the three stories, that money is the root of all the problems here. Mark doesn't have enough money to marry Joanna, Todd wants more and more money, Joanna's father is about to go bankrupt, Mrs. Lovatt is worried that Todd is holding out on her, and even Stanley complains that Nan is asking for too much when she wants him to bring back a long list of specialty items from his next trip abroad. Fans of the Sondheim work will be surprised to find a subplot involving an African native uprising, the upshot of which is that Mark soon returns to England with plenty of money, only to wind in Sweeney Todd's basement. Mrs. Lovatt, both jealous of Todd's attentions to Joanna and upset that he might be keeping some of the victim's valuables from her, helps Mark escape, leading to a moderately thrilling climax with all the characters gathered at the barber shop. 

This is a low-budget affair, but Tod Slaughter, famous British blood-and-thunder actor, does a nice job as Todd, putting some real relish into his "polish them off" threats, and the rest of the cast is solid, with Seton and Lister especially good. 13-year-old John Singer is fine as Tobias, the abused apprentice who plays an important role in the climax. The ending is more predictable and traditional than that of the musical, which has a more downbeat conclusion. The man-into-meat-pies plotline is never explicitly stated. Since the print on the Alpha DVD (which is in terrible shape) is roughly five minutes shorter than the length of record, and there is a rather jagged edit during a scene in which Lovatt is preparing to dispose of a body, I assume that such an explanatory scene has simply been cut out somewhere along the line, so you have to have knowledge of the play to get the black-humored scene near the end when a man is speculating about the disappearance of so many sailors from the neighborhood, while eating one of Mrs. Lovatt's pies. [DVD]

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