While Dr. No and the Bond franchise as a whole put Sean Connery on the map, one of his earlier efforts is 1961’s The Frightened City coming just a year before his first turn as super spy 007. It is fascinating to gain a glimpse at one of cinema’s icons just prior to his breakout role. The Frightened City should be seen as far more than just an early glimpse at Connery with it offering an interesting look at the seedy underbelly of early 60s London, Soho in particular.
The Frightened City focuses on efforts to curtail the growth of organised crime in London, focusing both on the mob side of things and police efforts to stop the spread of crime as such this offers an interesting dynamic and a diverse cast of characters at the core of the story. Alfred Marks plays Harry Foulcher, a club owner whose supposedly legitimate business acts as a front for a protection racket. Foulcher works in collaboration with accountant Waldo Zhernikov played by Pink Panther and The LadyKillers star Herbert Lom who is the brains behind the expansion of the city’s gangs unbeknownst to the authorities.
Connery comes into play when the crime syndicates need a tough guy to help them collect larger sums that come in and his part Paddy Damion is an old acquaintance of Harry’s. Connery is perhaps not as fine-tuned as he would come to be and certainly was still mastering his craft but his natural screen presence shines through and in many ways this acts as a direct audition for the role of Bond with his first scene showing martial arts training reminiscent of scenes in You Only Live Twice. Following a back and forth for the first 25 minutes, Damion forms much of the basis for the film’s 2nd and 3rd acts and Connery holds his own against more experienced co-stars Lom and Marks.
One of the biggest strengths of the film is how effortlessly it manages to capture London in the early 60s particularly Soho and the more gritty urban nature of its gangs which was often overlooked at the time and acts in contrast to the more glamorous feel of some of the later 60s flicks and the overall feel of the Swinging Sixties. The London depicted here feels dangerous and harsh and the title The Frightened City is an apt one for sure.
The period setting is reflected further by the score, spearheaded by its theme penned by The Shadows which perhaps has stayed in the audience consciousness longer than the film itself and peaked at #1 at the time of release.
In many ways this film evokes the French New Wave of the early 60s perhaps reminiscent of Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player in particular in this instance of course London acts as a star of the film much as Paris was a major factor in the success of those films. This film also boasts many traits of the Noir genre and while certainly not the most ground-breaking its influences don’t detract from its clear strengths and it is interesting to contrast a British film of the era to its European counterparts that are far better known today.
While certainly not the finest film its cast would make particularly with Sean Connery and Herbert Lom attached The Frightened City is a dark, gritty take on early 60s London boasting some fine performances from its star studded cast, largely before reaching the peak of their fame. Connery is of course the main draw here but there is much enjoyment to be found and while not one of the great crime films of the 1960s this is certainly a film worth seeking out for fans of the genre as a whole and 60s London.
The Frightened City is out now on digital platforms and on DVD and Bly-Ray.