Even a short list of the comic portraits created onscreen by Peter Sellers is impressive: Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films, President Merkin Muffley and the mad Doctor Strangelove in the film Doctor Strangelove, Chauncey Gardner in Being There. No one who thinks of Peter Sellers the actor doesn't think of comedy. And yet one time and one time only, Sellers took on an entirely dramatic role, and the part he chose for this experiment was in a British gangster film. The film is Never Let Go, from 1960, co-starring Richard Todd, and in it Sellers plays a violent, sadistic villain. He plays the role straight, and he personifies a monster so well, one can only wish he had gone the nasty route a couple more times during his career.
Sellers is Lionel Meadows. He runs a London car garage that also serves as the center of a car theft operation. One evening, Meadows sends an underling out to steal a 1959 Anglia, and the thief takes a car that belongs to John Cummings (Richard Todd), a cosmetic salesman with a wife and two young daughters. Cummings reports the theft to the police, but as the police tell him, stolen vehicles not found within forty-eight hours stand little chance of being found. The car theft rings repaint the bodies, change the license plates, and do other alterations so the cars can be resold. Cummings has just bought the Anglia, but because he's been struggling in his job, barely making ends meet, he couldn't afford to insure it. Yet he absolutely needs it if he is to have any chance of improving his job performance. Getting around by bus and on foot to meet prospective clients has led to him being late for too many appointments. One more screw-up and he could be demoted to the stock room, even fired. He has to have that car back no matter who took it.
Though the police tell him to let them do their jobs, Cummings embarks on his own investigation into the theft. Certain that a frail old newspaper seller (Mervyn Johns) witnessed the crime, he forces his way into the man's apartment and obtains information that gives him the thief's name and hangout, a place called The Victory Cafe. Cummings enters this place and confronts the thief, though outnumbered by the thief's youthful crew. He also learns that Meadows's garage, where he suspects the thief brought his Anglia, is down the street from the cafe. London seems to shrink to a compressed space of a few square blocks, and from this point on, the film steadily builds in intensity.
Meadows, at first unaware of Cummings' existence, begins to take steps to find out more about the man inquiring about the Anglia. Initially amused by what he hears of Cummings, he grows concerned as actions Cummings takes put pressure on him. The smug Meadows turns vicious—to his young girlfriend (Carol White), his underlings, everyone. Cummings, too, becomes increasingly isolated, as things go from bad to worse at his job. His wife (Elizabeth Sellars) loves him, but she has no time for a man preoccupied with retrieving a car she thought he had insured. After Cummings breaks into yet another room, Meadows's large sidekick, called Cliff, beats him up. When Cummings goes home, his wife tends to his wounds, but she tells him to give up his quest for the car. His current problems remind her of past failures he's had, and she runs down the list of these failures for him.
Please stop, she urges him, for his own good and the good of his family, his two little girls. But as a man who has let too many past projects go unfinished, too many dreams die unattained, Cummings will not be dissuaded. Nothing will stop him from trying to get back his car, and when the police prove to be less than helpful (they're more concerned about biding their time and busting Meadows's entire ring than moving prematurely to save one car), Cummings finds he is on his own. The die is cast. Cummings wants Meadows, regardless of the danger. Meadows wants Cummings, because the man's harassment and the increased police attention have disrupted his operation. The final showdown could not be set up any better in a western.
The first thing to know about Never Let Go is that Peter Sellers was cast to play Cummings and Richard Todd signed to play Meadows. Todd was a workhouse actor adept at playing stoical heroic types (he was also Ian Fleming's first choice to play James Bond in Dr. No, before producer Albert Saltzman vetoed him as too short), so it's difficult to imagine him playing the villain. But of course, no filmgoer would have envisioned Sellers as the heavy either. Up to this point, in films such as The Ladykillers (1955) and Tom Thumb (1958), Sellers had played bad guys, but these were comic villains of no consequence. In Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) he plays Clare Quilty, the villain in the eyes of besotted Humbert Humbert, but even though Quilty has a creepy, snakish quality, he's too elusive and ambiguous to be called “bad.” Something about the Never Let Go script, and perhaps the thought that he wanted a break from his comic creations, prompted Sellers to prevail upon Todd to switch roles with him, and whatever he said to Todd worked.
Sellers cuts a menacing figure as Meadows. He has thick hair, a compact mustache, a stiff shark-like smile. His voice is nasal, his jaw always jutting out. His rigid politeness and controlled low voice carry with them the threat of explosion; his whole manner is one of coiled, repressed fury. When he does go off, his violence is abrupt and startling, whether grinding a man's beloved pet turtle underfoot or crushing an underling's finger with the lid of a record player. He is also, clearly, a sexual sadist (he's as cold as ice with his girlfriend), and he has no bones about entering the Cummings's apartment at night and threatening the couple in front of their children. Peter Sellers was famous for losing himself in his roles (he said of himself he had “no personality” outside of the parts he played), and it's pretty astounding to see him as such a son of a bitch. Roger Lewis' biography of Sellers quotes his then wife, Ann Howe, as saying that he took Meadows home with him and became violent with her. Even Sellers admitted that while making the film he was, at home, “edgy.”
Still, whatever happened behind the scenes, Never Let Go works as a drama because Sellers is well-matched. The story charts the path of two obsessed characters, and Richard Todd holds up his end superbly. He doesn't display the violence of Meadows, but he no less than Meadows is a man incapable of letting go. Both men are intransigent sods determined to triumph over the other. Meadows keeps the car in his garage even though police scrutiny is increasing, almost daring Cummings to come and get it. Cummings won't back off from his quest despite the dangers posed to himself and his family.
Never Let Go is a gangster film of the sharply focused, small-scale kind, and its emphasis is on character, the changes that both men go through. The somewhat mousy Cummings becomes a righteous, more powerful man. He may be throwing caution to the wind, but finally he can respect himself because he's taking a stand. Meadows, by contrast, comes apart at the seams as his criminal enterprise suffers, the control he once exhibited slipping away. A neat freak early in the film, fastidious in his attire, he sits in his lair late in the film unshaven, drunk, and surrounded by mess. The chaos held inside him earlier has risen to the surface and he waits alone, abandoned by all, eager for Cummings to smash into his garage and try to claim his car. Strong John Barry music enhances the tension, and in the moments before the culminating showdown, while Cummings drinks at a bar for courage, the camera cuts back and forth between the two men in their different locations as if they are in the same room glaring directly at each other.
In conjunction with poor reviews, Never Let Go flopped at the box office. Critics attacked its violence, and moviegoers didn't want to see Peter Sellers as the villain. He never tried such a serious role again. But the movie holds up well today, its 91-minute running time energetically paced. Director John Guillerman sticks to the essentials of the tight Alun Falconer script, and the black and white cinematography by Christopher Challis is rich in shadows and contrasts. Much of the film takes place at night. This is a gangster film that doubles as a noir film, both in style and in the moral relativism of its characters, not to mention the degree of psychopathology on display. Meadows of course has his mental issues, but it would be a stretch to call Cummings healthy. At the end, in the final fight, both are savage. And the coda, well, it has a tinge of appropriate hollowness. Was this a victory, and was the apparent victory worth it?
In the ranks of British gangster films, Never Let Go remains underappreciated. I'm not sure why this is. It's unusual in that it's a crime film where nothing huge is at stake; there is no caper, no potential prize of money or jewels; it's just a man's vehicle that's the focal point. There are no femmes fatale, no molls on the fringes, just one ordinary working guy squaring off against a local thug. But the modesty of the story's scale is one thing that makes the film so compelling, and there is, of course, the uniqueness of the Peter Sellers performance. Whether you are a crime film fan or just a fan of Sellers, Never Let Go is a film worth watching.
Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. A film nut as well as a writer, he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His Martinique-set crime novel, Spiders and Flies, is available now from Harvard Square editions at Amazon, B&N, and wherever books are sold.