Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 43: My Learned Friend (1943)

The last film of Will Hay’s career (although not the last time we’ll see Hay on this challenge, with The Goose Steps Out (1942) and The Big Blockade (1942) still to come), this is a fantastic little black comedy-thriller that speeds through its plot with a series of slapstick routines, strong performances, a great final sequence on the clock face of Big Ben, and a film-stealing turn from Ealing stalwart Mervyn Johns, who pushes the balance of homicidal and hysterical seen in his The Next of Kin (1942) character to darkly comic extremes.

The film re-teams Hay and Claude Hulbert (last seen together in 1941s The Ghost of St. Michael’s), here playing seedy but canny conman (and ex-lawyer) William Finch (Hay) and hopelessly inept lawyer Babbington (Hulbert). Babbington’s eager and naive persona is established by an early scene where he plays with toy cars on the floor of chambers, and he soon fails to successfully prosecute Finch for his latest money-grabbing scheme. The two team up, however, when ex-con psychopath Arthur Grimshaw (Mervyn Johns) bumps into them in a pub and reveals he is going to kill the six people responsible for incarcerating him. These ‘six little dramas of retribution’ will end with Finch, but the first five names are unknown. The film becomes a race against time, as Finch and Babbington try to track down the other names (judges, witnesses, medical experts from the trial), and stop Grimshaw’s murderous scheme.

The narrative is not overly original, but one beautiful addition pushes it beyond the ordinary: Grimshaw keeps popping up to mock and help Finch and Babbington, leaving riddles and clues for them to decipher, and point them in the right direction. In the wrong hands, that role could have fallen flat, but Johns is exceptional, pitching his performance perfectly, adding in demented Peter Lorre-esque twitches, all breathy, slow-spoken at certain points, occasionally eager and giggling, and then matter-of-face and logical at others. Having seen him play evil (The Next of Kin), pent up (Pink String and Sealing Wax, 1945) and ‘average man’ (San Demetrio, London, 1943), it is fun to see him let rip with a character that is a force of black comic energy, stopping inches short of winking at the camera every time he appears (and there are a couple of half-glances at camera, particularly when he takes off a fake moustache after the second murder, that drifts closest to that edge). Grimshaw describes himself as an artist at one point, and it is to Johns’ credit that this character is not the one-note madman he could have been. While Hay and Hulbert have the bulk of the obviously comic business, it is Johns’ manic and murderous glint that is at the film’s heart.

Outside of the central performances, the film is as straightforward as other Ealing comedies, whether they starred Formby, Trinder or Hay. Structured around set pieces, most in one or two simple stage sets (offices, corridors, bars: there are only about three location shots in the whole film), we see Finch and Babbington fail to stop Grimshaw from murdering ‘Safety’ Wilson (Charles Victor), protect the wrong girl (Maudie Edwards), inadvertently help kill Dr. Scudamore (G.H. Mulcaster), and then try to prevent the bombing of the House of Lords. There are some moments where the broader comedy threatens to derail the whole project: an extended sequence in a theatre where ‘Aladdin’ is being performed (and where Finch and Babbington – in borrowed costumes – wreak havoc on the theatrical performance), or one among psychiatric patients (including big game hunter Colonel Chudleigh (Lloyd Pearson) and practical joker Mr Ferris (Ernest Thesiger), but the film maintains a brisk pace throughout, so that such moments are quickly discarded.

The final sequence, which takes place on two elaborate sets (the inner workings of Big Ben, with over sized cogs and wheels; and the external clock-face itself), is a bravura piece of slapstick, chase scene, performance, and tensely edited drama that deserves to be better known within British cinema. The influence of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923) is obvious, but there are also echoes of Hitchcock in the placing of a final dramatic sequence on such a well-known national landmark. True, this is done for comic effect, but the use of the clock-face as a surface to scramble over, hang from, and protect, is particularly strong here.

George Perry has noted the more callous and cynical tone of this film, and both he and Charles Barr have suggested a tempting link between this film and Ealing’s more famous multiple-murder spree, 1949s Kind Hearts and Coronets (both co-written by John Dighton). Yet while both tend to see this as a lesser run-through of similar material, that tends to ignore the strengths of this film, strengths that deserve to be more central to discussions of the darker comic side of Ealing Studios.

Next time, a Valentine's Day treat (?) as we explore The Captive Heart (1946)...

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