Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 93: The Ware Case (1938)

When discussing Young Man’s Fancy (1939), it was noted that these early Ealing films act as a bridge between the Basil Dean / Associated Talking Picture films produced at Ealing and the Balcon-produced films that the production company called ‘Ealing Studios’ would become known for. Yet even using that framework to approach these films, The Ware Case is an odd and generically unstable contribution to the Ealing back catalogue.

Told through a flashback structure that begins with a murder court case, the bulk of the film follows immature man-about-town Lord Hubert Ware (Clive Brook) as he leaves a litany of angry creditors across London and the continent. Ignorant of the feelings of his wife Meg (Jane Baxter), Hubert is presented as an amusing cad who spins lies and half-truths to get out of a variety of problems, including imminent bankruptcy and a string of mistresses. Hubert’s friend and barrister Michael Adve (Barry K. Barnes) is secretly in love with Meg, while Meg’s rich brother Eustace (Peter Bull) resents Hubert’s attitude to life and money. Meg puts Hubert’s country mansion up for sale, in order to stave off bankruptcy, but while all the major characters are staying there, Eustace’s body is found floating in the lake. The Ware’s money problems are solved, but the testimony of Ware’s ex- gamekeeper (John Laurie) suggests foul play, leading to a high profile murder trial.

It is hard to know how to take the film’s central character: the initial whirlwind of creditors, conspicuous consumption, casinos and women suggests a likeable cad, and the film goes to great lengths to position Hubert at the centre of the film (not least the fact he is in the dock in the opening court scenes). When Michael describes Hubert (and his class) as ‘out of date, museum pieces’ and we see the growing relationship between him and Meg, it is the start of a series of narrative events that wrong-foot audience expectation’s of a light-hearted aristocratic comedy of errors. The death of Eustace offers the next narrative lurch, with the introduction of a revenge-based court case providing another. Yet even here, the film is not finished. With Hubert cleared, he returns to his London flat, hears servants talking about Meg and Michael’s unrequited love, confronts his wife about it, seemingly realises his entire life has been a waste, announces to a crowd that he did murder Eustace, then throws himself off the balcony to his death below.

In its discussion of class dynamics, then, the film clearly ties in (however accidentally) to later notions of the middle class Ealing Studios and its desire to depict the working and middle classes on screen. Yet while Hubert’s class position might be out-of-touch, he remains one of the film’s few dynamic and interesting characters, fuelled by a strong performance by Brook who spits out his dialogue as though in a fast-paced screwball comedy, not this Frankenstein of generic odds and ends. There is solid support from Baxter and Barnes, but they fail to conjure up any of the hidden passion their characters are supposed to share, while Edward Rigby and John Laurie do their best to enliven the working class clichés showered on their drunken bookmaker and vengeful gamekeeper characters.

Although hampered by that strange narrative melange (and a curious flashback structure that begins with the foreman reciting the facts of the case, but never returns to the jury room when the flashback is complete), the film looks good, and is another solid production from director Robert Stevenson, scriptwriter Roland Pertwee and cinematographer Ronald Neame. Stevenson and Neame conjure up some impressive shots here, with good use of deep focus in the courtroom scenes, and some high angle shots that work to heighten the drama (notably down the side of the mansion block before Hubert falls to his death). The set design is also strong, setting up a modern art deco feel for the London apartment, more traditional (and spacious) country house interiors, and a cramped courtroom; this work is aided by extensive location filming, particularly around the Ware estate, that gives some verisimilitude to the film’s aristocratic setting.

Difficult to categorise, and with an uneven balance of comedy and tragedy around its central (and most interesting character), The Ware Case is never dull.

[UPDATED April 2014: The Ware Case is available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 5, from Network]

Next time, Ealing's final British film, the crime thriller Nowhere to Go (1958)...

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