Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 76: The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

Ealing’s occasional drift into the supernatural has featured in this blog before, with fantastic scenarios and superstitions informing films as diverse as They Came to a City (1944), The Halfway House (1944) and The Ship That Died of Shame (1955). This film, late in Ealing’s output (one of the last fifteen produced by the company), embraces its supernatural conceit and makes it both the pivot around which the narrative revolves, and the central theme the characters debate.

The presence of superstition is emphasised early on, before the film’s title even appears. After Michael Balcon’s credit, a title claims ‘There were 8 passengers, 5 crew...’ before the number ‘13’ is emblazoned on the screen, under the title The Night My Number Came Up – confirming exactly what number is being referred to.

‘If we changed our plans every time somebody had a
dream, we’d be in chaos.’

The narrative concept is simple: at the home of civil servant Owen ‘Robbie’ Robertson in Hong Kong, Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern) relates a dream he had about a plane crash that featured eight passengers, including his friend Air Marshall John Hardie (Michael Redgrave), an official, a beautiful woman, a coarse, flashy man, and a man who has to be restrained. While they all reject the concept of the dream as a premonition (dismissed as a medieval concept), Robbie becomes more anxious and jumpy as elements of the dream fall into place: Hardie’s Tokyo-bound ‘Liberator’ plane is changed to a ‘Dakota’, trade official Lord Wainwright (Ralph Truman) joins the passenger list, as does Robbie, Hardie’s assistant McKenzie (Denholm Elliot), stenographer Mary Campbell (Sheila Sim), Wainwright’s secretary, and, after a stop in Okinawa, the loud, brash Walter Bennett (George Rose) and his secretary George (Geoffrey Tyrrell). With the radio out, the plane off course, and flying into stormy weather, the passengers and crew begin to wonder if the dream really will come true...

[yet, despite the colourful and fantastic topic – or possibly because of it – the film is also set in a very grey world. The studio sets are largely drab and unadorned, the basic decoration of remote airbases and airplane interiors dominate, with the only real splash of exoticism the early scenes in and around the Robertson home]

The undercurrent throughout the film is the balance of reason and superstition, using the Hong Kong setting to link to Chinese beliefs that dreams are ‘a glimpse into the future sent for their guidance.’ Unlike other Ealing supernatural films, it is the specificity of the non-English setting that allows such debates to occur, set against the long history of Chinese customs that Robbie has encountered. The other characters present different viewpoints: Hardie is more straightforward, relying on what he can see; Wainwright thinks it is all local nonsense; while McKenzie and Campbell gradually come round to Robbie’s position. Yet the film undercuts the more rationalist positions by noting the superstitions of pilots, the uncertainty of having a girl on board, various characters’ belief in God, and by bookending its narrative with Lindsay’s dream coming true. Wainwright’s words that there are different kinds of learning – ‘from books... [and] from experience’ – also seem to cast doubt on science and reason versus the long history of Chinese belief in the supernatural.

Like many of the Ealing films viewed for this blog, the importance of the special effects department cannot be emphasised enough: the film requires extensive shots of the central airplane landing and taking off, flying in the air, its wings icing up, or it almost crashing into a Japanese fishing vilage. While some of these are achieved on location (there are several impressive images of Hong Kong and surrounding areas), the bulk of those shots become the responsibility of the effects team, and the results are impressive, particularly when intercut with reaction shots and live action sequences (the plane narrowly avoiding the village is a strong example here, and the film’s premonition-based narrative allows it to be shown three times).

Given the simple narrative set-up, most of the enjoyment in the film comes not from the drip-feed revelation of dream elements, but from the characters that inhabit the small plane. Redgrave plays Hardie as solid and reliable, if a little stuffy; Knox expertly plays Robbie’s increasingly unhinged behaviour; Elliot looks suitably haunted (McKenzie had a wartime breakdown); while Rose plays up Bennett’s brash and annoying side. Sim, as Mary Campbell, has little to do but react to her male co-stars: she and Elliot get some nice moments in the bar at Okinawa and on the plane, but any sense of a burgeoning relationship is lost in the impending worries about crashing. Given these enjoyable character moments, the most fun is likely the final pay-off from Lindsay. Having helped direct search-and-rescue teams to the correct location, Lindsay reveals to the local commander that his dreams often come true and, in fact, he just had one about the commander. As Lindsay leaves, he mysteriously notes ‘If you do disappear, I’ll tell the authorities where to go looking for you.’ Rather than offer a rational explanation, or curtail the supernatural element at the close, the film relishes the possibilities of casting Lindsay as a Trickster figure, and Hordern plays this with a knowing look and an impish tone.

[The Night My Number Came Up is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]

Next time, the first 'official' Ealing Comedy? We look at Hue & Cry (1947)...

1 comment:

  1. Your description of this film's plot makes it sound similar to "Dead of Night" (1946), a famous ghost-story anthology film. It also has a character who relates his prescient dream to a group of other characters who were all in the dream; as the film goes on, events happen that fit into the main character's dream. Much of the film is taken up with the other characters relating their own supernatural stories; but the film's ending is suitably ambiguous and a little unsettling.