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  My Learned Friend Order, Order!Buy this film here.
Year: 1943
Director: Basil Dearden, Will Hay
Stars: Will Hay, Claude Hulbert, Mervyn Johns, Laurence Hanray, Aubrey Mallalieu, Charles Victor, Derna Hazell, Leslie Harcourt, Eddie Phillips, G.H. Mulcaster, Ernest Thesiger, Lloyd Pearson, Gibb McLaughlin, Maudie Edwards
Genre: Comedy, Thriller
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Claude Babbington (Claude Hulbert) is a barrister, but not especially well thought of considering how badly his cases usually go. Today, however, he has a chance to win as this one sounds too easy: William Fitch (Will Hay) is accused of sending out begging letters under false pretences and Babbington is to prosecute him. It sounded like an open and shut case, but Fitch is too clever for him, resulting in his dismissal, yet there are no hard feelings as Fitch meets him later in the bar and buys him a ginger ale. It turns out that he was a solicitor himself once upon a time, but he was about as effective as Babbington...

If this sounds like the lead-in to a by the numbers legal comedy, then think again, for it plays out as more of a comedy thriller. My Learned Friend was star Will Hay's final film, and one of his biggest hits for Ealing as he had been established as one of the biggest draws in British humour at the cinema for around a decade by this point. It sees him sticking close to his usual bumbling, "I know better than you" persona, but landed him in something with more grit, as his character is stalked by what would be known in later years as a serial killer.

This is down to one of Fitch's many failures in court, and a case that went badly for him over ten years ago where he was defending Arthur Grimshaw (Mervyn Johns) on a forgery charge, something which placed his client in prison for quite a while. Now he's out, and the curiously playful criminal is looking for revenge, planning to murder all those who made him suffer and, so it seems, thoroughly enjoy himself in the process. He makes it very clear that Fitch is on his list, but he's leaving him till last, for two reasons: one, he knows no one will believe the crooked lawyer if he goes to the police, and two, the film would last about fifteen minutes long if he bumped him off straight away.

In the twenty-first century, such a plot would have neatly fitted a gruesome suspense movie, the kind of thing an evil mastermind would have been behind offering much opportunity for watching through the fingers, but here it is all for laughs. That said, there is a harder edge to some of the setpieces than would normally be found in a Will Hay film, most notably where Fitch and Babbington venture into a rough pub to warn a gangster that he is next on the list. He thinks he's safe because of his reputation for cutting people up, and somewhat ridiculously Fitch enters into a game of poker with him and his buddies where he cheats, nearly losing his life in the process.

Honestly, it's like a nineteen-forties predecessor to all those Britflicks that glorified violence and laddishness after Guy Ritchie came onto the scene. There's more to it than that, of course, with Hay and Hulbert making an excellent double act as they had before, both switching from straight man to funnyman with ease, and often in the space of a single exchange. The plot sees them try to save Grimshaw's ex from death by interrupting the pantomime she is appearing in, and prevent him from persuading a patient to kill his next target, a psychiatrist, but our bumbling duo seem powerless to stop the bodies piling up. It all ends with what fittingly turned out to be one of Hay's most famous scenes where he and Hulbert attempt to foil a bomb in the Houses of Parliament, hanging off the hands of Big Ben's clock face in the process. Good, breezy thrills and laughs are provided, nothing too taxing though with an interesting touch of nastiness, but ideally suited to the talents of the stars. Music by Ernest Irving.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Basil Dearden  (1911 - 1971)

Dependable British director who began his film career working on Will Hay comedies like My Learned Friend, then moved onto a range of drama and comedy: a segment of classic horror Dead of Night, important crime film The Blue Lamp, The Smallest Show on Earth, excellent heist story The League of Gentlemen, social issues film Victim, action spectaculars Khartoum and The Assassination Bureau and quirky horror The Man Who Haunted Himself. Sadly, Dearden died in a car crash.

 
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