Monday, 31 October 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 17: Dead of Night (1945)

A special Halloween-inspired change to the advertised programme: my look at The Feminine Touch (1956) will appear later this week, but I thought it suitable (given the time of year) to spend some time on the supernatural side of Ealing’s output, best exemplified by this portmanteau treat from 1945.

Probably as true today as it was when Charles Barr noted it three decades ago, Dead of Night is ‘the Ealing film most frequently revived and remembered... after the comedies’ (Barr 1980, 55). The reason for its popularity is less certain, although regular screenings on television, its unusual generic status (for Ealing, at least), and its place as an early British horror, might all be seen as contributing factors. It was (again, after the comedies) one of the first Ealing films on DVD and (given the recent Blu-Ray release of films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and Whisky Galore!) will likely appear on Blu-Ray before I make it to the end of my 95-film blog challenge!

How best to describe Dead of Night, then? It is a portmanteau (or ‘omnibus’) film, like Train of Events (1950) and other, later, British horror entries such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and The House That Dripped Blood (1971): here, the narrative is based around a country house gathering where a group of friends meet an architect whose dreams/premonitions (and the doubting response from a psychiatrist) encourages them all to tell a story of their own brush with supernatural occurrences. The stories, as titled by Barr, include ‘A Christmas Story’ (directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, story by Angus Macphail), ‘Hearse Driver’ (directed by Basil Dearden, story by E.F. Benson), ‘The Haunted Mirror’ (directed by Robert Hamer, story by John V. Baines), ‘Golfing Story’ (directed by Charles Crichton, story by H.G. Wells) and ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ (directed by Cavalcanti, story by John V. Baines). Dearden and Benson also apparently directed and wrote the linking narrative, with T.E.B. Clarke providing additional dialogue. It is clear from that list that the film was drawing from almost all the big creative names at Ealing at the time, arguably fostering a creative one-upmanship that benefited the final film.

Discussions of the film tend to focus on two particular stories: ‘The Haunted Mirror’ (starring Googie Withers and Ralph Michael) and ‘Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ (starring Michael Redgrave and ‘Hugo’), yet this has the tendency to ignore the larger structure of the film, and the other equally-fascinating segments. Barr’s Ealing Studios, for example, focuses almost wholly on the Hamer-directed segment (and the thematic continuation he sees around Michael and Withers’ other Ealing films), ignoring the rest and dismissing the Redgrave section as ‘overrated.’

Watching this again (Dead of Night is one of the first films in this blog that I’ve seen several times before) I am struck by the strangeness of the structural narrative, and by its potent links to each of the individual stories. The performances of architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) and psychiatrist Dr Van Stratten (Frederick Valk) are particularly noticeable, as it is their battle of wits and ideologies (belief versus science, fantasy versus rationality) that lies at the heart of the film. Johns has the harder role, in that he must move from confused and shaken to resolute and determined, before ultimately descending into madness: the success of the film (taken as a whole experience rather than its individual parts) rests largely on his shoulders.

The film builds slowly but efficiently, starting from the idea that Johns has dreamt about this meeting and these new people, with Van Stratten challenging that concept at every turn. The first two stories (‘Hearse Driver’ and ‘Christmas Story’) are brief but telling examples of the kind of supernatural fare the film will offer: ‘Hearse Driver’ continues the theme of premonition with a tale of racing driver Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), who ends up in hospital after a racing accident (a fairly gruesome piece of what, presumably, was found footage). One night, he has a vision of a horse-pulled hearse (and driver) who, smiling up at him, notes ‘just room for one inside, sir.’ On release from hospital, Grainger is about to board a bus when he sees the conductor is the same man as the hearse driver, who offers the same ‘just room for one inside, sir’ line. Grainger backs away in shock – then watches as a truck slams into the side of the bus, sending it crashing through barriers onto a railway track below (a nice piece of model work from Ealing’s special effects team). The story uses subtle but strong visual touches to convey its off-kilter tone: a series of long shots of Baird in bed, slow tracking shots in on him, long shadows cast across the room; music stabs on the reveal of the hearse, and a strong close-up to end the story, as Baird lowers his head, obscuring his face with the brim of his hat.

‘A Christmas Story,’ meanwhile, features the youngest of the country house gathering, Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes), and her tale of a children’s Christmas party. Hiding during a game of sardines, she meets a frightened young boy called Francis Kent, who is scared of his sister. She puts him to bed and runs back out to meet the other children: only then is she told that Francis Kent was murdered years before by his sister, Constance. A short piece that is often seen as the slightest of the five stories (yet also the one that is most linked to a female protagonist), ‘A Christmas Story’ actually plays a vital role in confirming the larger themes present through the film: Sally has ‘seen’ something that others cannot (like Grainger in ‘Hearse Driver,’ Craig in the overarching story), her encounter is in relation to violent death (murder here, a violent accident in ‘Hearse Driver’), the encounter is signalled by becoming lost or isolated from others (here, through her passage into the labyrinthine areas of a huge country mansion: admirably conveyed through darkly-lit sets, and slightly skewed camera angles), and is linked to sexual or romantic activity (here, an older boy tells Sally horror stories in the hopes of getting a kiss from her).

All those elements are emphasised in the third story, ‘The Haunted Mirror,’ and its tale of socialite couple Joan (Googie Withers) and Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael). Joan, being part of the country house set, narrates her story and is particularly active throughout it, a detail that is often overlooked in favour of Peter’s descent into madness. The tale revolves around a gothic mirror that, when Peter looks into it, shows him in a completely different room: an ornate bedroom with huge four-poster bed, silk hangings, and roaring fire. This room is described as pulling him in, trying to ‘claim’ him, with something ‘monstrous’ on the other side. Joan discovers the mirror came from an arrogant violent man who, after being confined to bed, killed his wife in a jealous rage then cut his own throat – in front of the mirror. The film’s larger themes recur: Peter sees something no one else can, the event is murderous, he is isolated (both visually, in the mirror, and in the narrative, as Joan goes away for a weekend), and his increasing aggressive emotions are linked to sexual behaviour (the belief that Joan is cheating on him). The denouement of the story, with Peter attacking Joan – who gets a brief glimpse of them both reflected in the ‘other’ room in the mirror – solves the problem by Joan shattering the mirror, and relives Peter of blame by wiping his memory of it all. Barr sees this as a disappointing end, because it closes off any exploration of the ‘dark side’ and ‘otherness’ that the mirror offered in favour of the safety of Joan and Peter’s married life and the reassertion of them as a charming middle-class couple. (Barr 1980, 57) Yet separating the story out from the others ignores the darkness that slowly spreads through the whole film (it also ignores the unexplained fact that Joan is on her own at this country house gathering, with no sign of her husband): the individual story needs to be understood as one element of the bigger concerns around the ‘dark side’ that Dead of Night is dealing with.

However, that notion of darkness takes a curious tangent with ‘Golfing Story,’ the fourth story, and the most obviously comic of the tales. Indeed, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver) announces at its close that he was trying to lighten the mood: a possible ‘breaking the fourth wall’-style reference that suggests a deliberate awareness of how the film was structured, and how it was attempting to second-guess (and wrong-foot) its audience: earlier, one character had noted ‘It’s very disappointing not to be one of the characters in a sort of supernatural drama after all.’

Eliot’s story only features him in one scene, but tells about golfing legends and best friends George Parratt (Basil Radford) and Larry Potter (Naunton Wayne) who fall in love with the same woman (Mary Lee, played by Peggy Bryan) and decide to play a round of golf to decide who should ‘win’ her (perhaps the most curious aspect of this arrangement is that Mary seems satisfied with it all). The golf game comes down to the final hole: Barratt wins and Potter, deflated, walks off the green, straight into a lake, and drowns (a particularly atmospheric image, with the lake reflecting the trees all around it, and Wayne being consumed by that reflective surface). Potter comes back as a ghost to haunt Parratt (who cheated) – a sequence where the film demonstrates more special effects in the form of floating and animated golf balls – as the film reframes Parratt in light of the earlier characters: the only one who can ‘see’ the death-linked supernatural element, its link to sexual attraction around Mary, and Parratt’s increasingly isolation. However, when Potter forgets his ghostly training, and can’t disappear, the comedy moves into Parratt’s inability to kiss or make love to his new wife with Potter hovering nearby. The story ends abruptly –Parratt magically disappears, leaving Potter with his prize – Mary, in bed on her wedding night, calling to her husband.

It can be argued that ‘Golfing Story’ is a necessary lighter element before the final story, and the final resolution of the framing story. ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ may not always live up to its reputation – the double-framing device (Van Stratten initially narrates the story, then Sylvester Kee – Hartly Power – takes over) isn’t completely successful, but the haunted and committed performance of Michael Redgrave playing ventriloquist Maxwell Frere easily explains much of the acclaim. It blends elements of concepts around schizophrenia with possessed puppets, and never explains whether Hugo the dummy is supernatural or if it is all in Frere’s mind. The story begins in the shadows of a police interview room, and ends in the brighter setting of a psychiatric ward, while individual scenes place Frere and Hugo in the shadows: Frere, in bed, Hugo’s profile in shadow on the right of screen; Frere’s face obscured in shadow as he demands to see Hugo. There are also more showy camera tricks: losing focus as Kee backs away; the image spinning as he loses consciousness. Yet, watching this again, what actually struck me was nothing to do with the central plot, but the presence of black singer Elizabeth Welch during the nightclub scene where Frere (and Hugo) first meet Kee. It is noticeable (albeit not part of the larger supernatural plot) partly because of the inclusion of a musical sequence, and partly Welch’s presence in the second Ealing genre film studied in this blog (she appears in Fiddlers Three as a singer in Nero’s court).

Unfortunately, although fascinating in its own right (two appearances in a short time, then nothing else), Welch’s presence has little relevance to the film’s conclusion, as Craig’s premonition becomes ‘real,’ and the film pulls from all of its shorter narratives (although there is little here from ‘Golfing Story’) to stress the dreamlike and repetitive qualities of its structure. Back in the country house, and back to Walter Craig and Dr Van Stratten, as the final element of Walter’s premonition – the doctor’s glasses breaking – comes true. Earlier van Stratten had noted that he felt like a puppet, with Mr Craig ‘pulling the strings’ (a useful link to Hugo), but as the plot comes together, we realise that we have all been pulled along, the whole plot being another repetition of the dream Craig has been describing. As van Stratten’s glasses break, and he accepts Craig’s story, something breaks in Craig. The lighting in the main living room darkens, and the film cuts to a long deep focus shot of the whole room, with Craig in extreme foreground, van Stratten in the background. Through a series of reverse shots and the camera tracking back, Craig gives in to his psychosis (Johns shows us both the struggle and the grateful acceptance of madness) as he strangles van Stratten – and descends into a kaleidoscope of images from each individual story: playing hide and seek with Sally, next to Peter and looking into the mirror, herded along by a guard (who looks like the hearse driver), then thrown in a prison cell with Hugo... and as Hugo comes alive and pounces on Craig, the camera pulls back, and back, and back – that rectangular image shrinking into the centre of  screen...

Following Barr’s logic would suggest that the film contains the darkness by destroying those implements that give us access (the mirror, Hugo): yet, as Craig wakes up from this horrible dream, and drives down to the country for an appointment with Eliot Foley, the darkness is still ahead of him, still potent, and still unconstrained. Rather than defying and controlling these elements, it seems to me that the film is eager for us to keep exploring them.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Great Ealing FIlm Challenge 16: The Ghost of St Michael's (1941)

Not a film about Will Hay haunting a branch of Marks and Spencer’s (which could have been amusing) but a more standard comedy-thriller that, after The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942), makes it clearer to me why Hay had a following in the 1940s (and in decades since). This film offers a stronger sense of his particular star image and appeal, and is, I think, a better example of the humour Hay was known (and popular) for with British audiences.

Here, the set-up is that retired schoolteacher Lamb (Hay) has come out of retirement during wartime to take up a position at a boy’s school that has relocated its students to a remote Scottish castle. At the castle, Lamb has to deal with spooky servant James (a fabulous performance from John Laurie), and his pronouncements about ghostly spirits and apparitions (particularly the tragic figure of the Mad Mackinnon), a class of unruly and intelligent boys led by Percy Thorne (future Carry On stalwart Charles Hawtrey), and the murder of several of his teaching colleagues. The denouement of who the killer is, and why they did it, is immaterial (and, frankly, feels like a tagged-on wartime necessity) but – unlike Black Sheep – that doesn’t get in the way of Hay’s comic turn as a bumbling, blundering idiot.

Like Black Sheep, there are several strong comedy set-ups but the down-side to that is that the film is visually quite basic, with the emphasis on Hay’s visual/verbal performance (and that of the supporting actors) rather than any distinctive camerawork or editing. The film is, however, completely set-bound with no external shooting, but the range of sets are, frankly, astonishing in their scale and range – if Ealing built these castle sets just for this film (rather than using pre-existing sets from another film – and there is no obvious contender in the films produced in 1941/42) it suggests a priority given to Hay’s star vehicle that wasn’t evident in Black Sheep. The size of the sets is impressive, with little apparent use of matte work or back projection (apart from some early shots on board a ship which emphasise, again, the strength of Ealing’s model work). Although initially the deserted castle / remote-island setting seems immaterial to the plot, it becomes more central in the final section, with hidden passages, booby-trapped rooms and battlement-set denouement.

The ‘Scottish-ness’ of the film (for wont of a better term) is up for grabs, but it is an early example of Ealing using Scottish actors and locations in their comedies (even if this fictional creation has little resemblance to the actual Isle of Skye – particularly the court case being held in an animal-infested barn – later Ealing ‘Scottish’ films such as Whisky Galore! and The Maggie are more subtle comic portraits and much more reliant on location shooting than the artificial Scotland created here). As mentioned above, John Laurie is a stand-out performance here, with his doom-laden pronouncements of supernatural horror and dread offering a potent link to his later appearance in Dad’s Army. It is also interesting to see another Ealing film (after The Ship That Died of Shame and Dead of Night – predictably scheduled to appear in the blog around Halloween) flirting with the supernatural – even if the supernatural elements ultimately have a prosaic wartime explanation. It also links the portrayal of Celtic nations to larger thematic conventions around fate, ghosts and fantasy elements that are clear in other British films of the period (most notably I Know Where I’m Going (1944).

Despite all these other elements, the film is obviously all about Hay, as his attempts at teaching cause chaos, misunderstanding, and (after several murders), disastrous attempts at crime-solving. However, Hay’s performance works largely because of the competent straight men he bounces off: Hawtrey feels like a cross between a St Trinian’s girl and his later Carry On persona and, like John Mills in Black Sheep, is largely there to move the plot on (and, given Hays largely plays the fool, to offer relevant links and clues to the audience). Hawtrey also feels like an early example of the ‘Ealing kid’ – the self-aware, confident, cocky youngster who (in later films such as Hue & Cry and The Magnet) is capable of driving their own comedy-thriller plot). Traditionally a male role (there are few strong female children in Ealing’s films), the class of public schoolboys in Black Sheep inevitably save the day despite the best efforts of their teachers. Hawtrey, as the most plot-driven character, also has a nice line in mocking American crime offerings – his inspiration for crime-solving is a pulp fiction paperback My Aunt Lies Bleeding – while there is some sub-CSI comedy forensics when he tries to demonstrate to Hay and friends how to use science to investigate crime.

Mr Humphries (Raymond Huntley) offers an early interpretation of his later Passport to Pimlico character, officious and pompous in equal measure (although his character’s murder does unfortunately take away some of the stronger character work between him and Hay). As in Black Sheep, the script (written by Angus MacPhail and John Dighton), is at its best when it doesn’t get in the way of Hay’s comedy business, and flounders most when it tries to create coherent plot motivations or mystery – the revelation of the wartime context of foreign spies and secret submarine rendezvous feels unnecessary, but does tie the film into contemporary awareness of using film as a propaganda weapon – if this double-bill has proven anything, it is that popular Will Hay films were as likely to deal with ideas around the ‘enemy within’ and the notion of a unified Britain (where everyone was capable of pitching in to fight the war) as any government sponsored documentary or the more artistically inclined work of Powell & Pressburger.

The film has one final, curious note, one that offers a convenient gender-based link to the next film for the blog, The Feminine Touch (1956). Like Black Sheep, Ghost of St Michael's is a very male-driven film, with almost all characters teachers, schoolboys, faithful retainers and legal types. The school matron, Mrs Wigmore (Elliot Mason), therefore, is immediately incongruous, given her female status among all those men. That (and consider this your spoiler warning) she turns out to be the traitor betraying the country to the Germans (instead of the obvious red herring 'foreign accented' teacher) is curious for a number of reasons: she's barely in the film (there is an early scene of her treating Hay), we learn nothing about her (apart from the fact she is obviously evil, being a traitor), and (as noted above) the whole secret submarine signalling sub-plot seems so immaterial I doubt audiences would care who the traitor was, just so long as Hay fell over a lot en route to unmasking them.

It is a strange, jarring, narrative detail that lingers after the film is over and (as evidenced in other posts) continues to make me curious about the larger role of women in the Ealing Studios canon... something we will continue to explore in The Feminine Touch...

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 15: The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942)

While watching this Will Hay-starring comedy, I was reminded of the different release strategies that companies take when releasing British Cinema films on DVD, particularly the decisions made by Studio Canal UK / Optimum Releasing when selecting and packaging the Ealing Studios DVDs I’m currently watching. From the on-screen menus (and some quick internet research) it is clear this disc was originally part of The Will Hay Collection, but has also been subsequently re-packaged in the colours and branding of the Ealing Studios Collection. This slightly schizophrenic double-life appears to be replicated in the film itself, however, which doesn’t feel as coherent as some of the earlier and later Ealing comedies I’ve seen, but equally doesn’t feel completely like a strong ‘Will Hay’ film either.

The film does not, for example, match any of the thematic conventions of the ‘Ealing comedy’ that Charles Barr starts to sketch out: notably issues around quality versus quantity, small being beautiful, large and corporate being ugly. This knockabout comedy, with its South American spy thriller undertones, cross-dressing, slapstick and actorly mugging, is a different beast to the post-war comedies that tend to feature under that studio comedy brand. Indeed, Barr has little time for the pre-1948 comedies, those featuring Will Hay, George Formby and Tommy Trinder, despite this film (and The Goose Steps Out, 1942) being co-directed by Basil Dearden, one of Michael Balcon’s stalwart lieutenants during his time at Ealing. In that sense, these films (particularly those of Formby and Hay) are often seen as star-driven vehicles rather than true ‘Ealing’ films (despite the inherent vagueness and uncertainty over exactly what that term means).

The film is not coy about its star-laden qualities, opening with a ‘Will Hay in...’ title, featuring the star as five different ‘characters’ (in effect, one character who adopts four disguises), and building almost all the set pieces around Hays’ brand of verbal and visual humour. Despite this, however, the film feels too beholden to its mistaken identity-wartime spy plot to give Hay the opportunity to really let rip, and the accompanying ‘trade agreement’ narrative feels very staid and bland, hard to enliven even with Hay’s blustering and an anarchic car chase.

The film is about Davis (Hay), an actor-turned-bad educator, whose pursuit of a broken contract with Jessop (John Mills) leads him to the Ministry of International Commerce where a conference on South American trade is awaiting the arrival of British expert Professor Davys (Henry Hewitt). Davys is kidnapped by enemy agents, and replaced by Crabtree (Felix Aylmer), who intends to sabotage British trade agreements in concert with journalist / spy Costello (Basil Sydney). Following a mistaken identity incident around Davis / Davys, Jessop realises the ‘real’ Prof. Davys has been kidnapped and blackmails Davis into helping him track down and rescue the real professor, thus saving the conference and the country.

It is enjoyable to see a young John Mills caught up in the chaos, essentially playing a straight man to Hay’s mad professor, and bullying Hay into various disguises (Scotland Yard detective, hotel porter, train ticket collector, and female nurse) in their joint pursuit of the Nazi spies who are trying to derail the conference. Mills plays Jessop as young, cocky, and confident – he’s no simple stooge, operating as the main vehicle for pushing the plot forward – and is a nice contrast to the sometimes stuffy Hay. The other characters / supporting actors are solid, but few stand out – although Costello does have a fun recurring joke in that he half-recognises Davis/Hay in all his disguises, but assumes it is some incredibly vast family he keeps running into.

There are nice visual gags scattered through the film (a man helps Hay into his coat and hat, before repossessing the hat stand they were hanging on; the delivery boy who gets so sick of being knocked off his bike during the car chase that he throws his packages on the ground for the spies to drive over) but the slapstick can also feel forced, notably in the lengthy care home sequence where Hay’s cross-dressing as a nurse leads to entirely predictable results (prefiguring Carry on Doctor by almost two decades!), or the lengthy car chase sequence that makes up the final 10-15 minutes of the film (and which ends with a largely unrelated bomb explosion). What makes the final sequence so interesting is it is obviously where the film’s (limited?) budget went, as it is the only section filmed outside – elsewhere, the plot bounces from set to set, using back projection for scenes on a train (and, to be fair, for several of the car chase scenes as well), but here, there is actual outdoor filming at the nursing home, and in many of the car-based chase gags. This is less a criticism (particularly as this is mainly noticeable because of the location-heavy filming I’ve seen in later Ealing films) more an interesting note that might relate to the limited budget such films had to play with in the early 1940s.

The film also features a dramatisation of the rival medium of radio, notably the recording of a BBC Home Service interview where Hay prattles on about economics, unaware he’s been mistaken for the real Professor Davys. This interview is conducted by real BBC presenter Leslie Mitchell, host of BBC TV show Picture Page, but is obviously a set piece for Hay’s bluster and surreal response to questions about economics. What is most curious, apart from a possible dig at the BBC being unprepared, is that both Mitchell and the engineer faint and collapse during the interview, for no apparent reason. (presumably exhausted by Hay's never-ending stream of consciousness chatter)

As is probably obvious, I wasn’t completely convinced by this film – it isn't a strong performance from Hay, and the plot-heavy nature of the film detracts from the occasionally funny verbal back-and-forth and visual routine-based comedy that I think would shine in other situations (the plot is also a little dull, and has a curiously leaden pace). The title is also a little misleading – maybe I was expecting some kind of civil service/governmental slapstick, instead of this wartime spy thriller-comedy.

However, as it would be unfair to dismiss Hay based on this one outing, I’ve decided to go for a Hay double bill: watch out early next week for a post on his earlier Ealing hit, The Ghost of St. Michael’s (1941)...

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 14: Another Shore

This Dublin-set story of fate/kismet contains several elements that could form a strong comedy but it is almost fatally let down by casting. It would be unfair to put all the blame for this film on the shoulders of Robert Beatty but, after this and Against the Wind, I’m ready to call him as Ealing’s least convincing recurring leading man. (it will be interesting to see if that continues in Out of the Clouds, 1955, and The Gentle Gunman, 1952)

Here his performance hamstrings the film from the start by playing against the inherent whimsy of the central concept. Gulliver Shields (Beatty) is an ex-civil servant who dreams of living the easy life on South Seas island Raratonga: instead of saving money to fund this dream, Gulliver has decided that fate (the ‘wings of circumstance’) will provide, and has taken to sitting on a park bench in the hope of becoming a good Samaritan to an old wealthy person. After learning that someone had already achieved this aim using the exact same park bench, Gulliver moves his pitch to a corner of busy Grafton Street, in hopes of helping out at a traffic accident. Even describing that scenario points out the absurdity at the heart of the narrative, but Gulliver’s quirks could work given the right actor, particularly someone who could elicit sympathy for the character’s inherently unlikeable scheme or offer a more surreal take on Gulliver’s eccentricities.

Beatty is, however, adrift and appears to have had little guidance from director Charles Crichton. He plays Gulliver as short-tempered, aloof and distant, obsessed with Raratonga, but without the edge of eccentricity or charm that the part calls for (although, given the film is an adaptation, it is possible this is a perfectly solid interpretation of the character: for the film, however, the performance never achieves the lightness of touch that the comic moments seem to call for). While he conveys the rootless, lonely aspects of Gulliver, Beatty cannot reveal the character’s supposed charms. Because this is not simply a comedy, but a romantic comedy, where (it is assumed) the audience is supposed to root for the central relationship between Gulliver and Jennifer (Moira Lister).

This romantic focus is signalled in a cute title sequence that sums up many of the film’s central conceits: after the film’s title, a female hand writes ‘A Comedy,’ and a male hand crosses that out and writes ‘A Tragedy’; next, both hands write at once (already signalling that some romantic rapprochement is possible), and reveal the film is ‘A Tragi-Comedy of Dublin Life.’ Yet the tragic tone is offset here (as it is elsewhere) by an upbeat orchestral version of Irish tune ‘Molly Malone’ (more commonly known – to me, at least – as ‘Cockles and Muscles’).

To move away from Beatty towards the film’s more positive attributes, the most obvious is his better half in the romance and comedy departments: Moira Lister. I said earlier that The Ship That Died of Shame was the kind of Ealing film I had hoped to find, surprising and challenging my idea of the studio’s output. Lister has been a similar ‘find,’ in that her performances have now brightened several films on the list that, otherwise, didn’t quite work for me: Jo in A Run for Your Money (a role I described as the ‘stand-out performance... energetic [and] bright’), and Elaine Morell in The Cruel Sea (brief but memorable as Denholm Elliot’s unfaithful actress wife). I’m only sorry to note that she only appears in one other Ealing other film on the list, Pool of London (1951), but I can imagine searching out some of her other roles in the future, notably White Corridors (1951) and the Norman Wisdom comedy Trouble in Store (1953).

In Another Shore Lister is, again, the highlight of the film: her flighty but determined Jennifer is a society girl who meets Gulliver on a beach and, intrigued, proceeds to pursue him through the streets of Dublin. In the absence of any real arc for Gulliver (he is an inactive character, waiting for events to happen to him), Jennifer instigates most of the action, romance and comedy of the film. Lister enhances what could be a thin role – the posh society girl who takes a shine to an unlikely man – and makes Jennifer a fallible but engrossing character. She is independent, regularly tipsy (though happy and in control), and gleefully seductive when faced with the problem of Gulliver – forcing him to accompany her home, laying her head in his lap (a fairly brazen act in an Ealing film), accusing him of being ghoulish, initiating the first of several kisses (‘can islands kiss like that?’), and taking control of his life when fate thrusts them together in exactly the kind of car crash he’s been waiting for. Perhaps the only negative perspective on Jennifer is that she pulls Gulliver away from his dreams and back to the real world – she is always the voice that intrudes on his daydreams – but the film as a whole suggests this is necessary. Given her earlier claim that he should ‘marry a rich girl instead, it’s simpler,’ there is no suggestion that Gulliver’s life is tragic by losing out on Raratonga, given the headstrong and attractive charms of Jennifer.

[Actually, given how hard I’ve been on Beatty, I should note that the scene on New Year’s Eve between him and Lister does go a long way to selling the transition in Gulliver: it is also a visually strong scene, with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe opting for dark shadows and graphic compositions as they walk through darker alleyways and through a carnival replete with spinning carousels and rides. The mix of camerawork, editing and soundtrack (there is little dialogue, the growing relationship between Gulliver and Jennifer is sold mainly through the acting), particularly the rising pace that is created, suggests a passion being awoken in Gulliver that challenges his earlier ideas of what fate and kismet could bring him. It is a solid piece of acting from Beatty – and Lister – which further suggests light comedy is not his forte]

Visually, the film features other strong moments: at various points, Dublin’s statues (normally a montage of Molly Malone and others) loom over the narrative, seeming to comment on Gulliver’s actions like a silent chorus; alongside the expected Ealing strength in location filming there are strong fantasy images where Gulliver’s dreams of Raratonga are given life (pristine beaches, palm trees and (for some reason) Gulliver in a loincloth with a spear); and a nice creative use of soundtrack – the traffic noises of Dublin are used early on to show Gulliver’s distaste for the city and desire for island life, they become central to his plans (waiting for an accident) and, by the end, those same traffic noises confirm that he is still in Dublin, and still with Jennifer.

Overall, then, like some of the other less successful Ealing films I’ve watched, there are moments that work well but the comedy cannot grasp the inherently surreal and whimsical notions that lie at the heart of the narrative. With The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) and The Love Lottery (1954) ahead in his Ealing filmography, director Charles Crichton would obviously become more capable of combining strong performances with whimsy and character.

Next time: the start of a Will Hays double bill in The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942)...

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 13: Against the Wind (1948)

Given the strength of The Ship That Died of Shame, I had hoped this wartime spy thriller would prove as compelling and focused: instead, this is another film of fascinating moments, unconvincing narrative developments and unwieldy structure. It is, like The Magnet, a film by names that have become synonymous with Ealing Studios: scriptwriter T.E.B. Clarke and director Charles Crichton, and features several familiar performers (Jack Warner, Gordon Jackson, Robert Beatty) who would make other Ealing appearances.
Unlike The Magnet, this has a simple storyline: a British spy agency trains and organises international and national recruits to take part in sabotage in mainland Europe (Belgium, in the film’s case). The film follows several such recruits, including a Canadian Catholic priest Father Elliot (Beatty), Michele Dennis (Simone Signoret), and Scottish bomb expert Johnny Duncan (Gordon Jackson) as they undertake several missions in occupied territory.
(I should state that I’ll be discussing spoilers here)
The film has a tremendous opening: Father Elliot enters a museum, is guided to a particular room, and is confronted by giant statues of dinosaurs and extinct beasts. Accompanying this, sinister music builds – and there remains generic uncertainty. This could be heading in the direction of a horror film, maybe something more science-fiction... before the reveal of Ackerman (James Robertson Justice) and an on-the-nose speech about the role of the secret organisation – to re-train people as saboteurs.
Which should be the set-up for a solid thriller about operating behind enemy lines, traitors and failed missions, tense midnight meetings, working with the resistance... all the tropes of a spy film. Most of those elements are here, but the tension and unease, the questioning of the morality of their actions, is lacking in the film: this isn’t a James Bond-style romp through the spy game, but its more realistic approach feels episodic, rarely building to any sort of thrilling or thematic denouement.
Part of the problem may be that the characters are thinly sketched, and seem detached from the emotions they are supposed to be experiencing. When Michele is upset because she didn’t get a particular mission, she drowns her sorrows in a bar and complains to colleague Max Cronk (Jack Warner), but the audience don’t know enough about her to understand her complaint. Characters seem defined by their accent as much by their actions: the Irish one, the Scottish one, the French one, the Canadian one. Initially, given the first act of the film is essentially, ‘getting the band’ together (or, at least, meeting the band), the most interesting characters are Johnny and Julie (Giselle Preville): Julie because she is energetic and fun, less dour than most of the rest, trying to seduce Father Elliot, chatting away about being a cabaret dancer, going on honeymoon with a married man, being a typist, wanting to have an accordion-shaped secret wireless set rather than one shaped like a sewing machine... there does appear to be some depth to her character. Of course, it is in the nature of such films that her neck is snapped when she parachutes into Belgium on a mission and we're left with Beatty and Signoret.
Johnny is a different matter, however, as the film increasingly becomes about him, and his unlikely romance with Michele. When he is first introduced, the film is at its most proto-James Bond, with Johnny as a youthful Q, wandering through a laboratory (eagerly preceded by a mobile camera) and pointing out to Michele the various fruits of his labour: explosives shaped like clogs, dead rats, and manure, or expensive lingerie dropped behind enemy lines to cast suspicion on local prostitutes.  But Johnny has been selected for this secret organisation, and is soon seen in the montage training sequences that are necessary in such films. Johnny isn’t really a modern man, not liking women in ‘slacks, uniform or authority,’ and says this is no job for a woman, but seems to make an exception for Michele who mocks his advances and then, rather unconvincingly (and for no real narrative reason other than the film wants a romantic plotline), falls in love with him. By the end of the film, and undermining any sense of reality the film might have aimed for, Johnny is an action hero: having briefly moped about his actions getting someone killed, he’s machine-gunning down Gestapo and driving a getaway truck like he’s auditioning for the Dirty Dozen. (perhaps more amusing for any Great Escape fans, at one point Johnny is captured because he cannot speak the local language)
Before all the final action, however, the middle third of the film moves at a glacial pace: Father Elliot (a rather wooden and unappealing turn from Beatty) is set up in Belgium, but a mission fails, there is rumour of a traitor, and someone who’s barely been in the film up to this point is in jail and needs to be rescued. The central issue of the traitor seems solid, a good source of tension and uncertainty: yet the film tells the audience in no uncertain terms who it is (Jack Warner playing against type as the bad guy who simply sees betrayal as business, selling information to whomever will pay) and then, a couple of scenes later, when Michele finds out, she shoots him, and the film gets on with other plotlines. The revelation scene is nicely framed: Signoret in the foreground decoding a message, Warner in the back, shaving, a narrowing of her eyes and movement of her head the only real sign that anything has changed. But it feels like a missed opportunity to play up the tension, and there is no real exploration of the obvious friendship those characters have shared up to this point.
It is nice to see an Ealing film that deals with internationalism during the war – the idea that it was more than just Britain fighting and sacrificing – but, as noted above, the characters are never fleshed out. There are hints of previous love affairs and betrayals, but they are largely notes in dialogue.
Other high points: there is a nice training scene that visualises a lecture on how to act when spying in a foreign country (‘you must be a heartless swine, it’s your job... there is no sentiment in our job, so be aware of it. Duty always first’) that has more tension than much of the rest of the film, a nice idea about a character’s plastic surgery meaning his wife doesn’t recognise him (yet this becomes a throwaway piece about the organisation keeping tabs on him, rather than anything emotional), and a lovely comic moment where Emile drops explosives hidden in canisters that roll down the hill and past a squad of Gestapo, who simply laugh as he attempts to run after them.
The finale, as noted, is stronger stuff: a train job involving switching points, explosives, machine guns, a getaway truck, and plucky villagers filling the streets with cows, barrels and a church parade in order to slow down the German pursuit of the saboteurs. Here, the editing picks up pace, the location cinematography is well-framed, the performances are solid, the effects work decent, and the film finds the momentum it has been lacking for almost fifty minutes. Ultimately, it is too little too late, and the sight of Michele slipping a lit cigarette between Johnny's (now heroic) lips is perhaps a step too far into cliche, but it does demonstrate the potential of this narrative when it eventually finds its footing.
Next time: more Beatty in Another Shore (1948)

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 12: The Ship That Died of Shame (1955)

Film no. 12 was going to be Against the Wind but given George Baker’s death yesterday, I thought we’d look at one of his two Ealing appearances, in The Ship that Died of Shame, a taut and engrossing film with supernatural overtones. (Baker’s other Ealing film, 1956’s The Feminine Touch will also be featured soon). This film tells the tale of a wartime ship and her crew who find themselves on the wrong side of the law in the uncertain landscape of post-war Britain. There are echoes of The Cruel Sea here, not least in the source material (the film is based on a novel by Cruel Sea author Nicholas Monsarrat) and the focus on the central relationship between ships officers and the ship that they serve on. But to my mind this film is in a different league from that earlier Ealing naval tale, with stronger performances, a taut central narrative that is well told visually and, frankly, a fantastic title.
[a quick tangent: film titles are curious things. Of the films featured here so far, the titles have included the prosaic and straightforward (The Magnet is a film about a magnet, The Love Lottery is about a love lottery), literature references (Went the Day Well? is a quotation from John Maxwell Edmonds; Against the Wind comes from a Byron poem), and the more pun-informed (Fiddlers Three with its Nero-centric plot). While The Ship That Died of Shame could be seen as prosaic – it sums up one aspect of the narrative – it also raises questions, gives the film an added layer of intrigue and interest]
So, this Michael Relph-produced, Basil Dearden-directed film focuses mainly on two characters: Bill Randall (George Baker) and George Hoskins (Richard Attenborough). During the war, Randall captains the 10-87 ship, with Hoskins as his Number 1: using their fast little ship, they attack coastal defences along the French and Dutch coasts. From the first, it is clear that Randall is the moral compass, with Hoskins’ morality more fluid (early on, they argue over Hoskins’ habit of painting a list of ‘confirmed kills’ on the side of the ship), but Randall’s centre is lost when his wife Helen (Virginia McKenna) is killed in an enemy air-raid. The film skips around a lot in this opening section – a tense depiction of the 10-87 attacking a coastal town and destroying gasometers, the crew of the 10-87, Helen & Bill’s fledgling marriage, Helen’s death, the end of the war, Bill’s depression and post-war uncertainty around career and direction – but becomes more coherent when Hoskins waltzes back into Randall’s life at the Coastal Forces club.
The core of the film is the interplay between Baker and Attenborough: while the latter appears to have more fun with his morally ambiguous character, it is Baker that we follow through the whole film, and on whose shoulders the emotional and moral realisations have to fall. That the film works is largely because Baker’s performance allows us to believe a war hero could be waylaid by an old comrade and lured into shady dealings; equally, Baker shows how the lies and half-truths break down Randall’s joy at being back on board 10-87, flickers of anger and self-hatred that reveal to the audience Randall’s realisation of how far he has sunk from the brave naval officer that opens the film. As for Attenborough, it is easy to forget the power of his early work given his later, more prominent directorial career, but this film emphasises the mix of youth, malice and conniving intelligence that can be seen in films like Brighton Rock (1947). While Baker is the central figure here, Attenborough has a more colourful role, playing up Hoskins’ cocky, sly, spiv-like qualities (described as being too chatty and ‘la-di-da’ in the film by Bernard Lee), and in danger of stealing several key scenes. From the moment he saunters into the club, dressed up to the nines, with his silver cigarette case, expense account and expensive tastes, and his eyes set on Baker, it is clear that this is a character to be wary of. (there is also a lovely aural irony here: as Hoskins lures Randall in, a female singer leads other ex-servicemen in a rendition of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ – just one example of the film’s streak of black humour)
Of course, Randall is simply happy to see his old ship mate. Before long, they have rescued and restored the 10-87, roped engineer Birder (Bill Owen) into the crew, and are bringing certain illegal (though essential) ‘luxuries’ (nylons, wine, brandy) into the country from the Continent. The film is not coy about this activity – the crew acknowledge they are smugglers, but insist they are just doing it ‘to make people happy.’ The crew are happy, even able to mislead and confuse customs officer Bernard Lee – but, naturally, Hoskins’ plans for expansion soon change that.
As the narrative increases the tension (smuggling banknotes, then guns, then a mysterious mute man who is revealed to be a child killer), so does the film enjoy exploring the relationship between Hoskins, Randall, Birdie and, increasingly, 10-87 herself. Because it is here that the subtle supernatural element appears. At no point does the film say the ship is alive. Yet the continual electrical, steering and engine-related issues increase as the crew’s activities become more illegal and immoral. The film also suggests a link between the ‘female’ ship and the only other female character, Helen. As in The Cruel Sea, women are absent for most of the film. Here, however, they provide a wider moral compass that the male characters largely lack (or drift away from): while Helen’s death sends Randall into depression and uncertainty, it is because he forgets her words (‘You’ll never do anything silly with that ship of yours, will you? Promise’). The other woman in his life (10-87) soon demonstrates that ‘silly’ choices have consequences: Randall comes to his senses (by remembering Helen’s words) at the last minute, as the ship is about to crash onto the rocks and destroy itself, and is thus able to save both himself and Birdie. 

While that reasserts a certain moral message – illegal activities will be punished, by either the law (Bernard Lee) or some larger force – it also presents a more feminine presence in this otherwise masculine film. It also works to undercut Attenborough’s sly comment that 10-87 is ‘like the perfect woman’ when Baker confirms she won’t ask any questions about the jobs they are doing.

The film also looks great: the location work is strong, most of the back projection works (though there is a shockingly bad painted background about thirty minutes in when Randall and Birdie meet again), and the model work is strong (notably in the final scenes where the ship tosses around in the stormy seas). There are also some beautifully composed images and scenes: canted angles on several of the Attenborough/Baker arguments on board 10-87, the misty location work on a mysterious stretch coastline (where 10-87 herself slips in and out of image, lost amid the fog), and strong depth of image in two scene’s with Bernard Lee’s customs officer. The first takes place in a meeting on the hunt for escaped child-killer Raines: Lee is in close-up in the foreground, silent while the meeting continues in the background. Yet as more information is given, Lee’s expression shifts to convey his memory of a small, fast boat that meets that description. The second time is a confrontation between Lee, Attenborough and Ronald Culver (the smuggler’s employer, Major Fordyce) where the focus shifts between faces in fore- and back-ground, with Attenborough’s face often completely obscured by shadows, as Culver shoots Lee. A nicely paced and well-shot sequence, it also sets up a later scene where Birdie finds the injured Lee – with the camera angled down the stairs at Birdie, Lee’s arm suddenly (and unexpectedly – we think he’s dead) falls across the screen.
With such great performances, well-composed imagery and strong editing, this is a perfect example of the kind of film I’d hoped to find more of in Ealing’s back catalogue (and one that I hope will be matched by others still to be viewed). It is also one that raises larger questions about the film’s depiction of a post-war Britain (questions that Relph and Dearden arguably pursue further in The League of Gentlemen five years later): as Baker says in the final moments of the film, ‘and so she died. She gave up and died, in anger and in shame.’ Is it too much to see a larger analogy for Britain here? A Britain ten years after that moment of wartime pride and victory, a country that is still recovering from post-war austerity, with its concurrent increase of black marketers and spivs, a country that has perhaps lost its way...

That may be reading more into the film than was intended, but if Ealing truly believed they were ‘projecting Britain,’ what version of the country were they trying to ‘project’ by this stage in the 1950s?

Next time: back to spy film Against the Wind (1948)

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 11: The Magnet (1950)

A strange little film that, although featuring some interesting flourishes, does tend to fulfil Charles Barr’s assessment of it as ‘unworkable, featuring an ‘elaborate whimsical plot which resists economical summary.’ (Barr 190) This is a light and largely insubstantial film, which (given its intended comic nature) doesn’t sit comfortably with the early Formby/Trinder/Hays slapstick or the slier, satirical ‘classic’ Ealing comedies of the late 1940s and 1950s.
The ‘whimsical plot’ isn’t quite as complex as Barr makes out, but it does require extreme suspension of disbelief. Young Johnny Brent (William Fox – later to grow up as actor James Fox), quarantined from school because of a possible outbreak of scarlet fever, coaxes a small boy out of his magnet (swapping it for an ‘invisible’ watch) and runs away when accused of being a crook by the boy’s mother. Almost run over, and then accused of being a thief a second time, Johnny is eager to get rid of the magnet and finally gives it to Harper, a mad scientist figure (played by Meredith Edwards, making his 4th appearance in 11 films). While Johnny is away at boarding school, the inventor’s story of this act of generosity reaches epic proportions during its retelling at various charity events to raise money for the local hospital’s iron lung. When the money is raised, the magnet is mounted on the iron lung (which doesn’t sound medically useful, but anyway...) but a search for the generous boy is unsuccessful. On Johnny’s train journey home from school, he spots the small boy’s mother, misunderstands her conversation, and believes the boy died as a result of meeting Johnny. Stricken with guilt, he hears the whole town is looking for ‘the boy with the magnet,’ and runs away after being spotted by the inventor. Ending up with a gang of lads, Johnny helps rescue their leader when he falls off a pier, then ends up back in hospital where the gang leader’s life is saved by the iron lung, and the inventor reveals Johnny to the world. Later, back on the beach, he sees the small boy again, and his guilt is lifted.
(okay, so that is still quite complex for an 80 minute film)

Part of the problem, obviously, is the number of chance encounters and logic-defying decisions that all the characters have to go through to ensure the narrative progresses. Despite being at the heart of it all, Johnny never seems that bothered, or as guilt-ridden as the story requires. There are some nice visual flourishes around the initial appearance of the magnet (it looms large, dominating the foreground of a deep image with Johnny a distant observer; then frames Johnny as he races closer, intrigued), and in a dream sequence where it appears to glow in the air near Johnny’s bed, but the magnet is only really the macguffin for lots of running around and farcical miscommunication.

While trying to build up artificial tension and concern around Johnny, the film is also eager to mock the professional figure of Mr Brent (Stephen Murray), Johnny’s psychologist father. Despite his education, and social position (he and his wife are shown at a number of civic events), he appears incapable of comprehending the world around him, or his own son. When Johnny starts behaving oddly (unwilling to go outside incase he is spotted or identified), his father asks Mrs Brent (Kay Walsh) to keep notes on Johnny’s behaviour. Using those notes (and a trial of ‘Jung’s associative word test’), he ‘diagnoses’ Johnny as resisting his move towards becoming a grown-up (signalled by wearing his first pair of long trousers) by returning to earlier models of maternal affection and comfort. That the film is mocking this as psycho-babble is clear, on both narrative (the audience knows what Johnny’s problem really is) and visual levels: when Mr Brent claims ‘everything’s as clear as daylight,’ the house is plunged into darkness (a fuse is blown). Most of the conversation on Johnny’s ‘condition’ is, therefore, undertaken as the Brents fumble around in the dark trying to fix things (a fun but unsubtle visual metaphor). Just as the lights come on again and Mr Brent says ‘I’ve never been so thankful for my training as I am at this moment,’ the (supposedly fixed) lights go out again. Such visual puns tend to suggest director Charles Frend (or screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke) were more interested in the comedy potential of the father as the more dramatic elements of the son’s story.
Unlike Ealing’s earlier film Hue & Cry (1947), where the children are more aware, intelligent, and ultimately outwit the adults, this story represents the male half of the Brent household as equally stupid (albeit in different ways). Mrs Brent is a less obviously comic figure – although she plays along with her husband’s requests to keep note of Johnny’s behaviour for his ‘analysis,’ she also casts unconvinced glances at his theories and pronouncements, and is particularly scathing of him at a bathing beauties pageant. Still, like many Ealing films, the interest in the (often foolish) male characters does tend to reduce the focus on the female ones.
Aside from characterisation, there are strong visual and aural elements to the film that maintain interest even when the plot sags or becomes increasingly unbelievable. As I’ve noted in relation to several of the Ealing films seen so far, the location work is exemplary: under the film’s opening titles can be seen several stately pans across the city of Liverpool and the Mersey (images that move the camera closer and closer to the domestic home of the Brent family); the ruined streets of Liverpool itself (in the latter half of the film) show how important on-site filming can be to create atmosphere; and the work around the Mersey (on the pier and beach) show a different side to the city. There is also an amusing visual gag where Harper retells his story about a young boy giving him a magnet: each time, the appearance of the boy switches as he changes tack for different audiences, or to increase the sympathy level required – this imagined Johnny goes from angelic choirboy to proto-Dickensian urchin.
Aurally, the film is standard fare throughout, but is one of the few areas that convincingly ratchets up Johnny’s increasing worry about being identified as ‘the boy with the magnet,’ with phrases and lines of dialogue echoing around Johnny whenever he is alone. It is also nice to hear authentic regional accents, particularly the little Chinese boy in the street gang with the broad Liverpudlian dialect.
Overall, while I enjoyed the fact the film is peppered with little moments that stand out, and found the visual composition and humour enjoyable in places, ultimately it feels like a shame that they aren’t brought together in a more convincing manner.
Next time: wartime spy capers in Against the Wind (1948)