Boring British Movies
Growing up as a callow nascent film buff, lost in the candy store of VHS tapes and TV Guide, I gathered that British films were mostly dull old things. With a few exceptions, they were talky sub-Hollywood productions, at best well-acted but lacking oomph and pizzazz and élan and je ne sais quoi. I partly got this impression from English critics, and some of the tatty VHS and TV prints I saw reinforced this idea.
As the years passed, I had to note more and more exceptions until the old canard became festooned with mental asterisks and parentheses. Today, with so many classic British films that haven’t circulated in the US finally hitting Region 1 in sparkling restorations on Blu-ray, I’m officially concluding that the spotty dismissal of British cinema is what deserves to be dismissed.
I believe three factors have been at work in promoting this fiction about boring English films. The first is that critics and reviewers everywhere seem to be blind to the qualities of their own country’s film production. This partly explains why English critics seemed dismissive of their own cultural legacy. It’s the natural result of having to sit through every uninspired local movie and getting so weary that you take it all for granted.
Thus, Americans had to be told by postwar French auteurists that Hollywood’s popular cinema was full of artistic masterpieces. Meanwhile, those same French critics were awfully hard on their own national cinema, referred to derisively as “the cinema of quality”, and only now are historians re-evaluating much of that material.
Similarly, the upstarts of New German Cinema, in an understandable attempt to differentiate themselves from a compromised past, swept out “Opa’s kino” or “grandpa’s cinema”, and it’s been taking a while to examine that legacy. I think we’ve been slow to study Franco-era Spanish cinema for similar reasons, and pre-war Italian films. In Russia and China, there are times when it has been policy to avoid praising specific eras.
I fancy certain critics in Hong Kong or India have had to to be informed of the value of much of their blatantly commercial cinema by foreigners. Even today’s American reviewers are more comfortable dismissing mainstream Hollywood in praise of foreign films. Perhaps upstart critics in Brazil or Bengal shall one day inform Americans of the masterpieces of superhero cinema. This brings up the second factor: the passage of time tends to make things more interesting, not less, contrary to what people have long assumed about “dated” cinema.
In addition, a third factor is more specific to English culture, where it’s considered bad taste to toot your own horn. British cinema has been created by vulgar self-promoters like J. Arthur Rank (literally banging a gong) and brassy boots like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger or Hammer’s Michael Carreras or the Kordas (imported Hungarians) or Anatole de Grunwald (imported Russian) or the imported Yanks of Amicus (it helps to be a bloody foreigner), and they faced whiffs of critical sniffery about the sort of thing that just isn’t done.
But then, there’s the work. The British Film Institute and others have been beavering away, restoring their country’s legacy, because it’s all they can do, poor dears, and the results are continually dropping our jaws and making us rewrite our impressions of drab British cinema. These thoughts are triggered by yet another handful of British postwar classics of the late 1940s and ’50s arriving on Blu-ray to put paid to the old libels. Let’s take the films in the order of public unleashing.
Brighton Rock (1948) Director: John Boulting
Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock (1948) (IMDB)
This dark Catholic gangster thriller opens with a statement that might have been crafted by the Brighton Chamber of Commerce. We’re told that Brighton is a wonderful vacation spot an hour from London, but that between the wars it had “back alleys” of crime that caught police attention. “This is a story of that other Brighton — now happily no more” avers the prologue, as though such things are gone with the war, and a headline quickly establishes that the story takes place in June 1935.
Maybe so, but the extensive location shooting also makes the movie a documentary of postwar Brighton as a tatty pleasure-land for the lower and middle classes. This detailed and populous film, shot in expressive high-contrast black and white, provides a rich snapshot that seamlessly mixes location and studio work. It’s normal that studio sets provide all sorts of angles and shadows, but even the outdoor locations are presented with distortion and clamor.
Scripted by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan from Greene’s 1938 novel, which he called one of his “entertainments”, the film is loaded with Catholic dialogue and symbolism, sometimes carefully underlined. For example, both the villainous Pinkie and his naïve girlfriend identify as Catholics and believers, with Pinkie declaring “Atheists don’t know what they’re talking about” and “Of course there’s a hell.”This recalls Mephistopheles’ famous statement in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” Just to make sure every viewer makes the same connection, another character quotes this later in the film. And when Pinkie commits a significant malapropism by referring to a “suicide pax”, his background as an altar boy requires him to spell out that “pax” is Latin for “peace”. Such underlining could be heavy-handed but it’s mostly delightful for recovering English majors.
Wait, we’re forgetting the story. At 17, Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) is a cold, affectless gangster who has assumed control of his little four-man racket since the death of a previous leader he loved. After being introduced in a moody, shadowy title portrait excerpted from later in the film, Pinkie makes his first appearance in the story as a pair of hands playing cat’s cradle. The hands are jutting up into frame, tangled in their string, foreshadowing the hands of Harry Lime poking up through the sewer grate in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), another thriller by Greene. These be-stringed hands might make us think he’s going to strangle someone, but he never does.
He does, however, push a journalist to his death from a thrill ride (called Dante’s Inferno!) in the movie’s most vivid and terrifying set piece. With glowing ghouls and ghosts flashing subjectively in the viewer’s face, this nerve-wracking and extravagantly edited sequence almost anticipates 3-D. For a moment, Brighton Rock turns into a horror film. Apparently, some English critics of the time found it objectionably horrible because of two razor-slashing scenes — that crossed a the line into depraved violence.
Aside from the details of Pinkie’s troubled relations with his three followers (we might call them disciples, although they don’t prove that disciplined, and there will be a Judas), the film details his relations between two diametrically opposed women who seem to fill him with horror.
Rose (Carol Marsh), probably named as a typical “English rose”, is an idealistically naïve 17-year-old who loves him as unconditionally as God, saying “I don’t care what you’ve done.” That he hates and rejects such love is part of his dwelling in hell. Greene was on record as strongly objecting to the final scene’s ironic reversal of the similar scene in his novel, in which Rose seems about to discover the truth of Pinkie’s love.
The film’s remarkable, relentless avenging angel is Ida Arnold, a traveling music-hall singer who dresses up as Pierrette on stage, all black and white. As played by Hermione Baddeley, who could play this kind of role in her sleep, she’s free and easy and loud and outspoken (Pinkie calls her “the brass”), blowzy, a bit of a tart, the kind of Cockney skirt made fun of in other films. In this film, she’s the world’s ethical center, the embodiment of civil conscience, and the smartest person on screen. Introduced as a comic figure, she becomes our inspiration as she uses her loaf with the penetration of Sherlock Holmes and never shows fear.
She insists that justice is “what everybody wants” and identifies herself with the titular Brighton rock candy, the same all the way through. When she spots Rose with Pinkie and announces “I’ve got to save that girl,” her companion says, “Forget it. She doesn’t want to be saved.” Ida replies, “What does that matter?” There’s her theological framework in a nutshell, and it’s born from a semi-pagan belief in communicating psychically with spirits of the dead. As a Catholic, Rose only believes in salvation for those who repent and ask forgiveness, which is why she looks with horror on suicide as a mortal sin, as opposed to merely looking upon it as death.
This beautifully made noir is among the many films produced by versatile filmmaking twins John and Roy Boulting, with John taking the director’s chair in this case. Kudos to cinematographer Harry Waxman and his camera operator Gilbert Taylor (also to be a major cinematographer), editor Peter Graham Scott (a future director and TV producer), and art director John Howell. Together, they fashioned as important and stylish an English postwar noir as Carol Reed’s two Greene projects, The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). And that brings us neatly to our next film, the one Reed made right after those items.
Outcast of the Islands (1951) Director: Carol Reed
Trevor Howard and Ralph Richardson in Outcast of the Islands (1951) (IMDB)
After establishing a world reputation with three remarkable British noirs in a row, Carol Reed chose to get off that ferris wheel and go in a direction that, in retrospect, seems almost bound to disappoint. And yet, just like those noirs, Outcast of the Islands is about the disappointment of learning that someone falls painfully, tragically short of your hopes for them.
Instead of ending in some decisive act of violence, upon which resolutions thrive in film and other media, the movie ends in bitter ambiguity and the inability to act, the inability to foresee a future. In that sense, it feels almost anti-cinematic, and yet of course it’s not. It simply chooses to avoid melodrama.
That’s because it’s not merely a personal story but an allegorical one about the discontents of colonialism. Scripted by William Fairchild from Joseph Conrad’s 1896 novel, the film seeks to channel the outsider perspective of Conrad, who began as a poor seafaring Polish boy, on the clash between seemingly ineluctable forces: the natives of a given place and the outside traders and colonizers who take credit for bringing “prosperity”, especially their own.
The film opens in Singapore as a picturesque harbor conveyed partly by process shots of studio actors and documentary backgrounds shot on location in Ceylon. Peter Willems (Trevor Howard) had been picked up as a 12-year-old orphan by Captain Lingard (Ralph Richardson), who secured him a job as manager for a trader (Frederick Valk). The trader accuses Willems of theft, to the delight of a toadie (Wilfrid Hyde White). Glimpsed briefly is Willem’s bitter wife (Betty Ann Davies), left behind gladly in his humiliation. In these early scenes and the rest of the picture, the actors are directed to step on each other’s lines as part of the realistic jumble of the sound mix.
The disappointed Lingard arrives to whisk away Willems, who is probably guilty, and deposits him on a remote Indonesian island where Lingard does an exclusive trade managed by his associate and son-in-law, Almayer (Robert Morley). The latter dotes on his daughter (Annabel Morley, the actor’s daughter), and tolerates his wife (Wendy Hiller), who looks to be continually at the end of a fraying rope while pretending otherwise.
There’s literally nothing for Willems to do but dessicate until he falls under the spell of a visiting tribal chief’s daughter, Aissa (played by the single-named Kerima). First he dogs her heels while she imperiously ignores him. When she finally takes the initiative and approaches, he resists her boldness. Mrs. Almayer warns Willems that she’s said to be braver than her brothers. “She used to fight at her father’s side. They say that she’s very brave and quite merciless.”
Kerima in Outcast of the Islands (1951) (IMDB)
The camera continually looks up at Aissa from lower angles to emphasize her strength, a quality accentuated by her angry piercing eyes and by the fact that she’s not heard to speak. This decision seems to have been motivated by Kerima’s lack of actor’s training and her pronounced French accent. (The TCM website’s entry on this film states that she was born in Paris to an Algerian father and French mother.) Necessity became a virtue as she projects as vivid a presence as any silent film star.
Aissa is part of the politics of native schemer Babalatchi (George Coulouris in convincing makeup), who speaks perfect English in a low, unexcited tone that implies endless depths of patience in his determination to form an alliance with a rival Arab trader (Peter Illing) and take advantage of Willems’ piloting knowledge. Aissa is to be part of the package. Tellingly, her father is blind.
Allegorically, the adoptive Willems represents the frittering decadence of a “second generation” left behind by colonial pioneers like Lingard who carved a territory for themselves, while Aissa embodies a native culture that has its own reasons for forging a liaison in the frustrated hopes of benefiting from it. Both are doomed, separately and together, for the screenplay sees only mutual exploitation, enervation, and stasis. It sees optimism in neither foreign control nor independence. Both Lingard and Aissa are disappointed by Willems, who’s nobody’s solution. When he tells Lingard not provoke him, Lingard can only ask, “What is there in you to provoke?”
In other words, the film is the opposite of a paean to Empire and not even an elegy for it. It’s more beady-eyed and sour than that, if the eyes of modern values can look past the cross-ethnic casting. This anti-celebratory and even anti-moral stance may be part of why the film didn’t seem satisfying to some and has been relegated to Reed’s minor films. There’s a spiritual connection between Conrad’s vision of the tragedies of self-deluded and avaricious foreigners and Greene’s political novels set in various corners of the decaying empire, so that’s another reason why Outcast of the Islands isn’t as much a change in direction as it might have looked.
A major element in the film’s visuals are the dozens of natives of various types who fill every available space, from naked children to ancient elders. Although it’s usually Europeans who do the talking, what the viewer remembers is those sharply etched faces who, presented in constant and usually impassive cutaways, become a de facto chorus observing and implicitly judging the antics of those who presume to benefit them. These closeups resemble the cutaways to richly lived faces, the kind not usually graced with closeup in commercial western movies, used in later films by Pier Paolo Pasolini. It takes only a shift in perspective to realize that these inserts aren’t distractions from the drama; they are the site of the drama.
Research indicates that some roles described as half-caste in the book, like Mrs. Almayer, were refashioned as English to avoid censorship issues. Even so, IMDB reports that seven minutes were removed for the US release. Naked children? The passionate kisses between Willems and Aissa? This digital restoration provides the full thing, evidently on home video in Region 1 for the first time.
Alexander Korda’s London Films produced, with his brother Vincent Korda as art director. John Wilcox and Edward Scaife (who shot An Inspector Calls, see below) photographed, and future master Freddie Francis was their assistant as well as an uncredited Gerry Fisher. Percy Day was in charge of the matte photographic effects, used especially in Singapore scenes and the tricky navigation sequences. That’s a lot of photographic firepower, and the rich, often high-contrast and expressionist photography looks like a million bucks. Assistant director Guy Hamilton (who directed An Inspector Calls) would marry Kerima.
The Sound Barrier (1952) Director: David Lean
Ann Todd and Nigel Patrick in The Sound Barrier (1952) (Photo by George Courtney Ward – © 1952 – London Film Productions / British Lion Film Corporation / IMDB)
Outcast of the Islands and producer-director David Lean’s The Sound Barrier were nominated against each other for the BAFTA in 1952, and Lean’s film won. Ralph Richardson stars in both. Like all Lean’s black and white films, and indeed all his films before he launched his epic international era with Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), it applies virtuoso technique to emotion with a facility overshadowed by that later period. And, like Brighton Rock, it’s another film scripted by Terence Rattigan.
The film opens with deceptive quiet and pastoral glory as the camera pans from the clouds down to the fabled white cliffs of Dover, then over to the wreckage of a plane with a Nazi swastika painted on its side. Anti-aircraft guns are stationed here to shoot down such planes, and we hear a lonely harmonica as the soldiers lounge on the ground. Malcolm Arnold’s music cuts in suddenly as a British plane is introduced, as though the plane brings that music, which cuts in and out as the pilot (John Justin) goes into a dive. The plane begins shaking and rattling, and then the pilot pulls out of the dive with a grinning collapse that looks orgasmic.
There’s no getting away from that, as this is a movie not only full of big gleaming phallic objects from fuselages to a huge telescope but one that insists all this business is something men obsess over to the puzzlement of their down-to-earth wives, who think in terms of family and security. It’s a tribute to Rattigan’s sensitivity that he makes this sexual conflict a real theme in which the women’s point of view is taken seriously. The lure of the unknown, the ecstasy of flight and the promise of “breaking through barriers” into unexplored territory is presented as a kind of mistress in competition against which family life has little chance.
By the way, a bonus interview with Lean finds him stating plainly that this opening segment is about contrasting beauty with violence. He credits the idea to Charles Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), a film that came out after The Sound Barrier. Maybe he saw a preview, or maybe his memory is mixing things up.
The movie’s true emotional arc belongs not to a pilot-husband or to the driven aeronautical businessman-father but to Susan (Ann Todd, then Lean’s wife), whose life has been defined as daughter, then wife, then mother. She looks on in bemusement, then mystification, then anger as the men around her are driven to risks and responsibilities in which she sees no point.
The first half hour takes place during the war without really being a war film. Susan’s in uniform in this male-created crisis, and this first act shows the weakness of her brother Chris (Denholm Elliott), who’s afraid to tell their father, the illustrious ex-pilot and airplane manufacturer John Ridgefield (Richardson), that flying’s not his cup of tea.
Here Rattigan introduces the idea that the famous English low-key reticence, so celebrated when doing one’s duty, can itself be a fatal character flaw. Only when Susan sees men expressing emotion in moments of great duress does she begin to understand that human feeling can exist in these enterprises. Susan carries the burden of the viewer’s identification through the maze of sometimes literally explosive events.
Incidentally and without fuss, which is the way everyone does everything in the picture, she marries ace pilot Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick), who’s almost literally seduced by the most exciting sound he’s ever heard: a top-secret new jet propulsion engine. The project’s head boffin, appropriately named Will Sparks (Joseph Tomelty), refers to Ridgefield as a “vile seducer” because of his ability to sweep others into his determination to break the sound barrier, also known as flying past mach one.
Technical progress and exploration, and ultimately the goal of outer space, are defined literally as patriarchal interests embodied by Susan’s wealthy father on his way to knighthood. In a detail easy to overlook, Susan and her late mother are associated with “modernist music”, which is also a form of progress, though one that passes the art-blind Ridgefield. The notion that wives and mothers are something of a drag on progress, with their insistence on children and clothes and their husbands’ salaries, comes out of a world in which the women can’t participate in the one and are circumscribed by the other, but nobody in the film puts this together.
Rattigan’s script is unfettered by historical accuracy, since all these characters are invented, as is the poetic and “Edgar Allan Poe-ish” idea of pulling out of a dive because the controls “become reversed”. The dialogue refers to the real historical incident that inspired Lean, the 1946 death of pilot Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. Viewers looking for a more accurate account on film must turn to the first part of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983).
Released in the US as Breaking the Sound Barrier, Lean’s film adopts a certain style of English WWII films, the low-key, stiff-upper-lip, semi-documentary mode as seen in Lean’s In Which We Serve (1942), Reed’s The Way Ahead (1944), Humprey Jennings’ Fires Were Started (1943), and later Michael Anderson’s The Dam Busters (1955) and Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk (1958). As with The Dam Busters, we’re a good hour of preparation into the picture before we finally embark on the titular mission.
Like Outcast of the Islands, this film is produced by Alexander Korda’s London Films, with Vincent Korda on art direction. Jack Hildyard is primary photographer, with Denys Coop as his operator. One of the aerial photographers is John Wilcox of Outcast of the Islands. As mentioned, the sound design is important, and in fact the sound recording won an Oscar.
The Captain’s Paradise (1953) Director: Anthony Kimmins, and Barnacle Bill (1957) Director: Charles Frend
Alec Guinness and Yvonne De Carlo in The Captain’s Paradise (1953) (© Courtesy of Rialto Pictures / IMDB)
This double-feature of nautical Alec Guinness comedies pairs The Captain’s Paradise, a project of Korda’s London Films, with Guinness’ last comedy for Ealing Films, Barnacle Bill (aka, All at Sea). That joins this disc to the parade of Ealing restorations currently hitting Blu-ray. The Captain’s Paradise is based on the old joke about a wife in every port, and Barnacle Bill is based on the other old joke about the captain who hates the sea.
The Captain’s Paradise opens with the bedraggled Captain Henry St. James (Guinness) being escorted before a firing squad and refusing a blindfold. The setting is a Moorish castle on the coast of North Africa, and people are thronging the gates, held back by soldiers.
As the rifles fire, the film cuts to the captain’s ship, The Golden Fleece, at anchor from its regular business of shuttling back and forth from British-run Gibraltar to Spanish-run Kalique on the African coast. Chief Officer Carlos Ricco (Charles Goldner) bemoans the fate of his late captain to the captain’s bewildered brother (Miles Malleson). Ricco declares that the captain was a genius, and proceeds to tell the story in flashback.
In its own good time, this 90-minute film unveils the captain’s set-up. In Gibraltar, he lives with his wife of three years, Maud (Celia Johnson), a perfect housewife and cook in a proper English mold. In Kalique, he lives with his wife of two years, Nita (Yvonne De Carlo), a Spanish bombshell he takes out dancing every night — cue dynamic nightclub scenes. Between wives, he associates only with men for intellectual stimulation.
Thus, St. James feels he’s found the secret to life by dividing his wives not only by port and nationality but function: one domestic and one untamed, one sexless and one over-sexed–in short, one English and one foreign. The captain not only has different wives, he’s a different person with each of them. Nita knows him as Jimmy while Maud calls him Henry. Although this isn’t one of the films where Guinness plays multiple roles, it almost masquerades as one.
From the beginning, cracks show in the ideal arrangement when the captain insists each woman conform to national types. Although he tries to ignore it, both wives chafe in their assigned boxes. Maud yearns for more fun, to go out to parties instead of turning in promptly at ten. Nita doesn’t understand why her husband doesn’t want her to learn cooking, not even to boil an egg. She’s overjoyed when he accidentally gives her an apron meant for Maud, while Maud is deliriously happy to receive Nita’s bikini.
The captain’s efficient unflappable elan and sang-froid gets shaken by a few near disasters, and the lesson he won’t quite learn until it’s too late is that by limiting his wives’ capacity, he’s also hemming himself in. This is probably why the film’s comedy wears well, despite what first sounds like a sexist premise. Johnson and De Carlo are much better than necessary, for part of the point is that their characters are ultimately more dynamic than the captain, whom Maud pronounces a colossal bore.
The film says nothing about bigamy, and that was apparently a source of contention with US censors. Amid much publicity, which may have helped the film, several minutes were trimmed for the US release. Yet, according to Wikipedia’s sources in Variety, this movie did better business in America than Guinness’ previous comedies. This print is complete, down to the ending of very British black humor.
Versatile producer-director Anthony Kimmins, also a successful writer of plays and films, feels like an overlooked figure in English cinema. His output includes a postwar noir, Mine Own Executioner (1947), and a mystery scripted by Alec Coppel from his own novel, Mr. Denning Drives North (1951). These would be welcome on Blu-ray, as would a beleaguered Technicolor epic, Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948), never properly released in the States. Coppel received an Oscar nod for the story of The Captain’s Paradise, which he co-scripted with Nicholas Phipps, who appears in the film.
Irene Browne and Alec Guinnessin Barnacle Bill (1957) (IMDB)
Barnacle Bill, released in the US as All at Sea, is another tale told in flashback. We gather from the opening scene that Captain Willliam Horatio Ambrose (Guinness) has famously distinguished himself in some naval disaster. He sits down with a reporter to tell his story, and first we’re treated to a series of slapstick historical skits in which Guinness plays various naval ancestors of more reputation than accomplishment, from a caveman through a captain in WWI.
His own incurable seasickness gets him nicknamed “Midshipman Queasy”, but his illustrious ancestry means the Navy finds him a docket on dry land, and he spends the war testing seasick remedies. The action proper gets underway when he sinks his savings into purchasing a very English property, a sort of funhouse and entertainment concession at the end of a pier. It’s a pathetically scaled-down version of the amusement piers seen in Brighton Rock, and the lackadaisical workers dress in sailor costumes.
As new owner, the Captain whips everybody into shipshape while setting up his hammock in the tilted Crazy Cottage. His doggedness and ingenuity win over a lot of people, including local jive-talking skiffle-playing youths who give us another chance to watch Guinness dance. After conflicts with the town counsel and a rivalry with swimming-hut concessionaire Arabella Barrington (Irene Browne), the latter joins Ambrose against the greed-mongering of shady Mayor Crowley (Maurice Denham).
The solution is pure Ealing comedy, as re-purposed by writer T.E.B. Clarke from his own Passport to Pimlico (1949). Using bureaucratic loopholes, Ambrose claims the pier as the Arabella, a “ship” registered to some banana republic called Liberama. After the story has methodically arrived at this impudent absurdity, the disaster occurs for which Ambrose was receiving his medal at the start of the picture.
A one-liner that might refer to The Captain’s Paradise occurs when a rude music-hall comic asks Ambrose, “How did you leave the wives? Still in ignorance, I hope.”
Barnacle Bill is considered a minor Ealing comedy in comparison with the dizzy heights of the most famous examples. That’s a fair judgment. Still, the movie boasts what characterizes so many of them, such as the photography of Douglas Slocombe and the direction of Charles Frend, who directed Guinness in the underrated Ealing comedy A Run for Your Money (1949).
Most of all, here’s the run-down, class-conscious, English sense of community and subversion against the Powers That Be, modern progress, bureaucracy, crony capitalism and other diseases that T.E.B. Clarke believes can be defeated by will and whimsy. Perhaps we’re not pushing it too much to call his scripts a link between the Surrealists and the Situationists.
And here’s a well-populated who’s who of English character actors, including Percy Herbert, Victor Maddern, Richard Wattis, Lionel Jeffries, George Rose, Donald Pleasence, Allan Cuthbertson, Harold Goodwin, Eric Pohlmann, Joan Hickson, Miles Malleson, Warren Mitchell, Sam Kydd and Elsie Wagstaff. Jackie Collins (Joan’s sister) plays a pretty young woman.
An Inspector Calls (1954) Director: Guy Hamilton
Brian Worth, Eileen Moore and Alastair Sim in An Inspector Calls (1954) (IMDB)
Are all happy families alike, as Tolstoy asserted? This trenchant little number opens on a happy upper-middle class English family enjoying a dinner in 1912, with the credits shown over the well-laden table in what announces itself as a classic drawing-room drama. The father leads the group in congratulating themselves on living in a time destined to be marked by progress, and he roundly dismisses any talk of war with a slap on the table. Of course, history buffs will be aware that the Titanic was about five minutes away from sinking, and this event instantly acquired a socio-historical symbolism out of proportion to a mere shipping tragedy.
The party consists of archetypal self-satisfied factory owner Arthur Birling (Arthur Young), his proper and uncomfortably accoutred wife Sybil (Olga Lindo), their radiant daughter Sheila (Eileen Moore) and “squiffy” or inebriated son Eric (Bryan Forbes), and Sheila’s betrothed, Gerald Croft (Brian Worth), who’s above them on the class scale and chooses this evening to present Sheila with an engagement ring. Eric’s almost surly drunkenness is the only flaw in the scene’s perfect surface, the crack in the china, the Buddhist imperfection in the zen of contentment.
The grinning and calmly “impertinent” Inspector Poole (Alastair Sim), renamed from Goole in J.B. Priestley’s play, suddenly stands in the open French window leading to the garden. When Sheila and Gerald are later in that garden, there’s an almost subliminal moment when their attention is caught by a shadow before a jump-cut, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Poole explains that he’s investigating the death of a young woman named Eva, who seems to have drunk poison in the evening.
Then begins a peculiar and unnerving ritual as he shows each of them a photo of Eva and prods their flashbacks to their personal encounters with her. The first is Arthur’s story of how he fired her from the factory for being a “troublemaker” among the women agitating for higher wages. He gets angry when his son points out that they try to fetch the highest price for their product, so isn’t it reasonable of workers to want the highest wages they can get? The story makes an immediate linkage of class prejudice and capitalism that will be followed relentlessly in the variety of situations that unfold in flashback.
It’s impossible to discuss the plot without spoiling a property so dependent on surprise, and at least half of any effective surprise is not knowing there’s a surprise. This is a movie best walked into cold, as Poole walks in from the garden. Even so, Sheila’s uneasy forebodings about the nature of what’s happening allow viewers the room to guess much of it so that revelations can arrive with satisfaction and confirmation while still leaving room for ambiguity.
One of the masterstrokes, to which we can only refer indirectly, is the possibility that the wild coincidence of everyone’s having independently known Eva may not be so — and also that this doesn’t matter and even underlines the point. Anyway, the nature of the property has opened the door to the wildly improbable. We’re sorry if this sounds vague, but there’s nothing for it.
The script by future director Desmond Davis smooths a three-act play into a tidy 80 minutes with many canny flashbacks, as directed with equal smoothness by Guy Hamilton, future James Bond director. One crucial change is that Eva is never seen in Priestley’s play, whereas she becomes a central character in the film. She’s a difficult part to play convincingly, and Jane Wenham does an excellent job of fleshing out a figure who comes close to saintliness in her suffering and pride but fortunately avoids it.
The closest English theatrical property to which Priestley’s 1945 play might be compared is Jerome K. Jerome’s The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1908, filmed in 1935), in which a mysterious visitor alters the lives of everyone in a boarding house. An Inspector Calls may be the flipside of that idea.
The Night My Number Came Up (1955) Director: Leslie Norman
Sheila Sim, Denholm Elliott and Alexander Knox in The Night My Number Came Up (1955) (IMDB)
Here’s a classic Ealing film, not a comedy, that’s almost unknown outside England. The film opens in Hong Kong, where it was partly shot, and finds Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern) barging into an office where an official (Nicholas Stuart) coordinates the search for a missing airplane. Without revealing the source of his information, Lindsay implores him to search a certain area on the northern coast of Japan, very far from anyone’s calculations.
Lindsay refuses to say more because he won’t be believed. The order is given based on his reputation, and then the film shifts back in time a couple of days to when Lindsay met Air Marshal Hardie (Michael Redgrave) and Lt. McKenzie (Denholm Elliott, the jittery pilot in The Sound Barrier) and dined with them at the home of a Mr. Robinson (Alexander Knox). Lindsay is persuaded to recount a strange, vivid dream he’d had the night before, in which Hardie and several others passengers died in a plane crash after being lost off course in northern Japan.
Although most of the dream’s details differ from Hardie’s itinerary, facts begin uncannily conforming with the dream. This quiet falling into place creates a frisson of unease in the characters and the viewer. Since the viewer already knows something untoward has happened, we watch in helpless suspense as the film teases us by dangling more possibilities before us. Will the right number of people, 13, be gathered for the flight? Will at least one predicted detail go awry? Can someone choose another path?
The characters come to feel trapped by fate or historical forces that determine the shape of their lives, forces that they usually ignore successfully. These forces are hinted at by the fact that the passengers’ plans are affected by a frustrated desire to fly over the historical sites of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Clouds and storms prevent this diversion, so both nature and history are examples of unstoppable forces that circumscribe the characters’ choices.
This film conforms to Alfred Hitchcock’s famous definition of suspense whereby the audience knows a bomb is going to go off and we can only sweat it out. At the same time, R.C. Sherriff’s screenplay emphasizes human interaction and the pressure of fear and speculation, as believing in something terrible might possibly bring it about. Hardie explains, for example, that pilots shouldn’t be informed of omens because it may affect their psychology at a crucial moment. Without giving anything away, that turns out to be true in a very intriguing way.
The lone woman on board (Sheila Sim, married to Attenborough of Brighton Rock) states that when bad things happen, we blame fate, and when good things happen, we take credit. She says her experience as a prisoner of war made her skeptical, and McKenzie had a similar evolution as a fighter pilot who experienced a “complete breakdown” during the Battle of Britain.
The dialogue poses the problem as one of ancient atavistic superstition, represented by Chinese culture, opposed to modern rationalism ascribed to themselves by the English who run Hong Kong. We know, however, that whenever dialogue leans so heavily on dismissing superstition in favor of modern logic, and a Chinese way of thinking in favor of English, and dreams in favor of something called reality, the story is working overtime to demonstrate the opposite.
Therefore, the film has an almost subliminal element of exposing the fears and quandaries buried under the confident exterior of empire and its military structure, hardware, and culture. Almost nothing of the era’s overt politics is stated — nothing of the Cold War or Korea or the waning British Empire, only glancing references to WWII — yet the implications are unavoidable. They’re built into the choice of characters, their personal collisions, and the symbolism. For example, the curtains of storm clouds and the threat of ice freezing on the wings have Cold War undercurrents.
As skeptical, scoffing characters have their veneer of logic challenged and begin to fear the adding up of details, they debate the meaning of cause and effect, whether dreams can be glimpses of the future, and whether everything is ordained or free will exists. Hardie asserts that we must behave as if we have free will. “It’s our duty to God,” he declares by way of dismissing superstition, and we can be sure Sherriff intended every irony.
The script offers a minor mystery in plain sight, and I’ll bet it’s mostly overlooked. The characters obsess over the plane having eight passengers, so we obsess over it too. It’s highly possible that when trying to recall them later, you’ll only recall seven. The odd man in is a curious-looking mustached fellow with almost no lines who hovers, looking on, occasionally changing seats, even sleeping through a storm. He’s Kent (Charles Perry), the secretary of Lord Wainwright (Ralph Truman), and his most decisive action is to hand his boss a Penguin mystery novel.
Wainwright critiques the novel by discussing a corpse left disguised as a scarecrow for six weeks. “You’d think after that time they’d have started to notice something,” he says. He questions the human capacity to overlook unpleasant facts staring them in the face, the most unpleasant fact being death, yet that’s what the film is demonstrating. It’s possible for viewers never fully to register Kent, but if you notice him, he becomes an ambiguous presence of possibly symbolic weight, and thus he contributes unobtrusively to the atmosphere.
Ursula Jeans, Nigel Stock, Alfie Bass, Bill Kerr, George Rose, Victor Maddern and Percy Herbert are among those actors contributing to another Ealing film about “community”, in this case a very confined and nervous one whose assumptions and complacencies are shown to be as fragile as a seemingly solid airplane in the sky. The characters mix classes and professions and accents, ranging from ordinary soldiers to officers, government bigwigs, a brash nouveau capitalist, and a career woman grateful for the assignment.
When one man tries to discourage the woman from coming along, she assumes he’s being sexist because she doesn’t know of the dream. When the same man refuses the soldiers, they take it for class prejudice. This, of course, has been the man most contemptuous of Chinese superstition. How knowledge of the dream affects people is part of the fascination, including how they attempt to deny it. Almost all of them wish they’d never heard of the dream, and yet the film’s moral may be that you must be aware of the abyss, and this is healthier than ignoring it.
Sherriff and director Leslie Norman based the film more or less directly on an incident reported by Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard in a 1951 article recounting something he said he experienced in 1946. Norman brought the idea to producer Michael Balcon’s attention. The resulting film is suspenseful, uncanny, and philosophical with subtle political undertones, a rare combination. This film from the end of Ealing’s run compares fascinatingly with Alberto Cavalcanti’s wartime propaganda Went the Day Well? (1942), another Ealing fantasy about coziness endangered by the catastrophe it has enabled.
All these Kino Lorber Blu-rays offer superb digital scans licensed from StudioCanal, and all except the Guinness two-fer have historical-critical commentaries. Peter Tonguette gives background on The Sound Barrier and Outcast of the Islands; he defends the latter film but seems uninterested in defending Reed’s later movies. Tim Lucas provides scene-specific research on Brighton Rock. Samm Deighan discusses The Night My Number Came Up as a cross of postwar blues and the so-called “film blanc” school of optimistic fantasies. David Del Valle’s remarks on An Inspector Calls discuss the history of Priestley’s play and Sim’s career.