Post-War London, and the officers of the law in Britain are becoming complacent, not cottoning on to the new breed of criminal emerging from urban areas. These youths have come from broken homes and poverty and are living for the moment rather than acting responsibly, meaning they are far more likely to turn to crime, and take terrible chances in doing so. Certainly there are many who will never graduate from petty theft and fraud, but there are increasing numbers who throw caution to the wind and commit more serious breaches of the law, up to and including murder, and there are concerns the police are not able to deal with these latest ne'erdowells. For coppers on the beat such as George Dixon (Jack Warner), it's getting to be a different world…
If ever there was a film reaching for the creation of The Sweeney in British popular culture, it was The Blue Lamp, yet what it actually spawned was a far longer-running television series, Dixon of Dock Green, strongly suggesting the general public were seeking reassurance that the traditional neighbourhood bobby was still very much in control on the nation's streets, at least until the mid-seventies when the more muscular (and let's face it, violent) force of keeping order and bringing the bad guys to justice became more in tune with that public opinion. It's not as if there was no rape or murder back in 1950 when this was released, it's more that these seemed like aberrations rather than the norm, which is how they are portrayed in the media now.
The message in the script from T.E.B. Clarke was clear: the British police were digging their heels in and refusing to move with the times, and the policemen and women of the future were going to have to deal with far more serious crimes as a matter of course. Clarke would be best known at Ealing Studios for penning those classic comedies, but he had been a policeman himself and was just as adept at concocting the socially conscious material the studio was keen to explore, indeed he was one of the few who could mix the two aspects with great skill. The results were a major success at the box office which hit home to audiences that as they left the Second World War behind, there were more domestic matters to be taken into account.
And by matters they meant dangers, so while the status quo was re-established by the point the words "THE END" appeared over the station's titular blue lamp, what we had seen indicated all too strongly that there had been things depicted here that could not be taken back, and dialogue too: this was the first film to use swearing to put across its message, along with adding to the realism. In the early stages, the Dixon we saw was part of a cosy set up, both at home and at work, with his doting wife (Gladys Henson) keeping him supplied with cups of tea, and a new recruit (Jimmy Hanley) he takes under his wing as a father figure (in a moment foreshadowing the approaching tragedy, we learn the Dixons lost their son, presumably in the war). At the station, there is mild, chummy banter and sidetracks into a male voice choir of rozzers.
Dixon even makes up his own songs, comedy ones naturally, which aren't particularly funny but nevertheless portray him as part of a society that seems to be on the way out if young men like Tom Riley have their way. He was played in a starmaking role by Dirk Bogarde; you cannot imagine him laughing at Dixon's jokes, you cannot imagine him appreciating anything decent at all, and while there have been countless screen outlaws like him since, diluting his impact for twenty-first century viewers, at the time he was genuinely shocking. Prefiguring the demonization of the young in the media when they looked to be growing out of control, Riley is not simply insolent, he is not afraid to back up his bad attitude with violence, first with his fists and next with his gun. Try combatting that, you out of touch police force, was the challenge The Blue Lamp threw down, and it may have shown that our guardians were capable, there remained a huge drawback that made the film infamous in its success. One of the most prescient films of the fifties, its documentary style eventually overtakes the stagy sequences, announcing big changes ahead for Britain, the world even.
[Studio Canal's Blu-ray has a restored print, and as extras an audio commentary (featuring original writer Jan Read), a locations featurette, a Radio 3 essay, and two stills galleries.]