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.


  1. I'm really enjoying this marathon, but I'd be very surprised if E F Benson had any hand in writing (still less directing) the linking narrative as this review implies: Best known for writing the Mapp and Lucia series of comic novels, and a Cambridge friend of the ghost story writer M R James (present at the first public reading of the first of James' ghost stories, no less), Benson died in 1940...

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Conservation Officer,

    No, you're right, that was a piece of badly written explanation on my part. 'Hearse Driver' is based on a story by Benson, and apparently his work also inspired aspects of the linking narrative, which was directed solely by Dearden. But Benson, obviously, had no actual hand in the production, being dead at the time...