Monday, 19 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 29: They Came to a City (1944)

Twenty-nine films in, and this is the first film I’ve watched with an audience. A small audience, admittedly: Mark Duguid (from the British Film Institute), and Justin Webb and Caroline (both from Radio 4’s Today Programme). As one of the more obscure Ealing films, it is only available (as far as I could ascertain) via the print held at the National Film and Television Archive. While Mark, Justin and I’s discussion on the film played on Radio 4 this morning (Monday 19th December), the following is a more detailed and expansive look at the film.

They Came to a City is a film that works better as a polemic than a piece of psychologically rich drama; a pitch for a post-Second World War utopian society that could learn from the mistakes of the past and prepare for a (possibly socialist) future. Yet, watching it nearly 70 years after it was produced, there are potent links with the society we live in now (one that has, arguably, abandoned or reduced many socialist-leaning creations of the 1940s), particularly the film’s inherent suspicion of banking and financial institutions. It is also, most curiously for Ealing (in fact, for any mainstream film of the time), a piece of meta-theatre, a commentary on both filmmaking and storytelling that invokes the figure of an author, and the ways in which stories are constructed and told. And it is a fantasy, part of a moment in Ealing history where realism was not the style du jour (and, as such, an interesting companion piece to Dead of Night (1945) and The Halfway House (1944)
But that’s getting ahead of myself. The plot is simple: nine strangers (including a married couple, although they are almost strangers to each other) are mysteriously taken from their everyday lives (a nice effect where they walk ‘into’ darkness and disappear as a gong sounds) and arrive in a misty, twisted forest. Making their way through it to a strange structure (part-castle, part-gateway), they debate their location and the strange city they can see below. After being admitted to the city, they regroup and discuss what they saw, with some disgusted at this new society, others breathless with excitement at the possibility of this new start. Some opt to stay, others to leave, others to return and spread the word of what humanity is capable of if they work together.
In many ways, however, the (thin) plot is the least of the film’s interests. It is a piece of narrative manoeuvring that gets the right character pieces into place for a series of debates and arguments. (it feels appropriate that one of the main locations, a square in front of the massive doorway into the city has a chequered floor like a chess board: the characters resemble pieces that are moved around as part of a bigger game) The characters range from working to upper class, although the film’s interests lie most with rough-and-ready Joe Dinmore (John Clements, who we are introduced to in a gym brawl) and the bittersweet barmaid/waitress Alice (Googie Withers). They form a relationship by the end of the film, pulled together by shared political beliefs, the knowledge that life could – and should – be better, and a desire to move beyond their inherent pessimism (Joe describes himself early on as a revolutionary who doesn’t believe in the revolution).
The characters are broadly but nicely drawn, although certain types lapse into broad cliché: Alice and Joe have rough edges, prone to sniping and disagreement even while falling in love; Mr and Mrs Stritton (Raymond Huntley and Renee Gadd) are a study in unhappy married life, but Mr Stritton reveals a hitherto unseen socialist streak and Mrs Stritton (although she hates the city and would gladly burn it down) admits some of her failings by the end; while Ma / Mrs Barley (Ada Reeve) is an old tired woman who comes alive when she sees the beauty of the city. The broadest stereotypes are the upper class and aristocracy: Sir George Gedney (A. E. Matthews) is an oafish cliché who’d rather be shooting something than be around people; Lady Loxfield (Mabel Terry-Lewis) is an interfering harridan who controls her daughter Philippa (Francis Rowe) to such an extent that she drives her away, into the arms of the city; finally, businessman Mr Cudworth (Norman Shelley) is a fussy, whining sort, who embodies all that is wrong with out-for-number-one capitalism, and whose only interest in the city is if he can exploit it for personal gain.
So, if the narrative isn’t the strongest, and the characters are often types rather than fully-realised, then why would I want to argue that the film still works, and resonates today?
Partly, that is because the film is endlessly fascinating: it is hard to imagine any successful studio in modern times ‘green-lighting’ a film (even one that is an adaptation of a successful play) that is so anti-capitalist and pro-socialism. Obviously the late Second World War-context comes into play – that was a moment where it was felt the world could change, could become a better, fairer place for all – and indeed that period led to many positive changes in British society that are still partially visible today. But it is still unusual to see a film that is so politicised, from a studio that is always claimed to be cosy and safe: things this film most definitely is not.

But the film also looks interesting: some of the aesthetic choices don’t work (a series of quickly-cut close-ups of each actor when something dramatic or mysterious occurs becomes increasingly amusing with each new version), but many of them remain impressive. There is grand set design by Michael Relph, particularly on what looks like a low budget: the use of matte paintings and models to give a sense of scale in some of the effects shots (Ealing’s effects team are unsung heroes in many of the films I’ve viewed to date), but also the scale of the sets that are constructed. These sets go a long way to selling the fantasy of the film: particularly the strange central location that looks like a combination of castle, Mayan pyramid, and shifting modernist labyrinth. Those sets are, quite literally, like nothing else I’ve seen in British cinema in this period: completely different to the futures imagined in earlier fantastic films like High Treason (1929) or Things to Come (1936), and unsettling in its splintering of different architectural styles. As mentioned above, these aspects of set design also colour aspects of the narrative: not just the chess board motif, but the way the sets create vertical space rather than (the more normal) horizontal – characters are constantly moving up and down in this new world, climbing vast staircases, passing through toweringly tall doorways, looking down vertiginous walls. It could be argued that as well as adding fantasy and mystery, such vertical movement also challenges the engrained upper-middle-lower class debates going on in the dialogue.
[there is a great quote on Screen Online from a BECTU interview with Sidney Cole, co-writer on the film with director Basil Dearden, who notes that playwright J.B. Priestly saw the film with only the music track and declared it so much better without the dialogue – which is, frankly, declamatory and overwrought throughout)
All of which doesn’t seem to sit well with critics of Ealing’s work: Charles Barr sees it as a ‘dismal experience... arid, abstract, statuesquely posed and declaimed... it cannot make the leap into showing, or summoning up, the dream city... [the studio] needs to base itself on what is known and familiar.’ (Barr 1980, 52-3)
While, at the end of the day, it may simply not be to your tastes (if you can even get to see it) there is no doubt the film is a potent source of debate and surprise: not least that Ealing made it in the first place. But Barr’s assessment ignores how the film uses the lack of the central city – an absence that is commented on in the film, in a moment that feels both modern and Brechtian. The film is not only bookended by a sequence in our ‘reality’, where a picnicking soldier and his Wren girlfriend debate the future with a passing J.B. Priestly (a fantasy on par with much in the actual fantasy world), but the film returns to this trio in the middle, just as the characters enter the utopian city. In a moment of authorial glee, Priestly and the two picnickers debate whether the film should show the city, or if it is better not to see it. This film-within-a-film moment feels very knowing, a wink to the audience who are expecting to be shown this utopian space, but also a return to the idea of character, and how the story is actually about their reactions to the city, not what the city looks like. To underline this sense of authorial comment and amusement, the final words of the film belong to Priestly who, wandering down a country lane towards the horizon, says to the couple (and the cinema audience) ‘Thanks for listening.’
This may be a polemic, it may lack depth and subtlety, but it remains one of Ealing’s most fascinating films and is a strong example of the kind of thing I hoped to find on this challenge – something different, and something that has forced me to rethink my opinion of this supposedly restrained and realistic British studio.
Next time, the 30th film in the Challenge likes to be beside the seaside, in Return to Yesterday (1940)...

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