Friday, 17 November 2017
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)
When we think of Ealing Studios, we mostly associate it with those soft whimsical comedies it famously produced from the late Forties about peculiarly British eccentricities and our cherished way of life. Classics like 1949’s Passport to Pimlico and Whisky Galore poked affectionate fun at the parochial outlook and preoccupations of the little Englander. There was always more to the studio’s brand though than such limited charms: that same year saw the mischievous black humour delight of Dennis Price blithely murdering his way through the D’Ascoyne family line in Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets for example, not to mention the attempted bumping-off of a little old lady by Alec Guinness and his criminal cohorts in the similarly-toned The Ladykillers (1955).
But Ealing had spent the early Forties addressing the war with gritty, drama-documentary films such as Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well and The Foreman Went to France (both in 1942). Till that point, there was no British horror film industry to speak of, nor a studio like Hollywood’s Universal to cater to any perceived demand. The closest we actually had in influence was a nexus centred around Ealing’s own producer Michael Balcon. He had himself given us Boris Karloff in The Ghoul (1933) under his previous company Gaumont-British. There had also been a small trickle of home-spun horrors like Hitchcock’s The Lodger (also from Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures founded in 1924) and the clutch of 1930s Grand Guignol melodramas including Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936), all starring Tod Slaughter, for George King’s self-titled outfit.
With Dead of Night, the studio that began with comedy vehicles for the likes of George Formby and Gracie Fields (under Ealing’s former name of ATP) and then brought back the funny in a house style later, sandwiched between the two cycles a ground-breaking horror film, one that would single-handedly position Britain as a formidable player in the genre. It also kick-started the modern anthology (or portmanteau) multi-story structure developed by Hammer and Amicus in the Sixties and Seventies.
The pleasures offered by Dead of Night are many and varied. Its five stories embody different tones from gentle - and gentlemanly - humour through period-flavoured supernatural ghost story haunting into terrifyingly intense modern psychodrama. The framing device that contains them expertly ekes out the commonality that draws a central character into the paranormal web of a disparate group before seizing him with a final shocking revelation. Directors Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer all worked on renowned Ealing feature films – and did so whilst helming their individual story duties here.
Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is an architect hired to quote for a job at the country house belonging to Elliot Foley (Roland Culver). Upon arrival, he develops a growing unease about the property and the group of guests already gathered, brought on by recurring dreams in which he foresaw all of them. This becomes the catalyst for each person to share their own experience of the supernatural. (Incidentally, Johns had already appeared in an earlier Ealing anthology film we’ve reviewed, 1944’s The Halfway House, although there the tone was a poignant, redemptive fantasy impacted upon by the raging war. Dead of Night exists to some extent in a timeless bubble, never once referencing the war). As the confused newcomer Johns is excellent, guided by Dearden’s overall control of the framing device’s tempo, shading just the right subtle air of gradual bewilderment as the other guests indulge his belief in clairvoyance.
The first tale is ‘The Hearse Driver’ directed by Dearden, and is the briefest one, based on the short story ‘The Bus Conductor’ by E.F. Benson’ in which racing driver Hugh Grainger (a smooth Anthony Baird) recovers from a race crash in hospital. Whilst convalescing one night, time appears to jump forward by six hours, and from his window he sees a hearse below, the driver casually offering up to him: “Just room for one inside, sir”. The scene feels slightly more sinister by having the familiar, affable Miles Malleson as the enigmatic driver. Grainger is intrigued but almost dispels any deeper meaning – until he recognises the same figure as his bus’s conductor. In being too startled to board it, he narrowly saves his life as the bus then crashes. The man later appears inviting him on board an elevator, also warding him away from its own fatal last journey. This story makes an engaging and unthreatening appetiser to lull the audience in before the stronger meat is served.
‘The Christmas Party’ is the second story and also concerns itself with a ghostly apparition, though here grounded in a very real murder case known to moviegoers of that time. Personable teenager Sally O’Hara (Ealing contract player Sally Anne Howes) attends a party during which all the children play a game of Sardines. After a chaste kiss from a playmate who tells her the house is haunted by a murderous child, she strays into what should be the locked nursery. There, she comforts a lonely little boy by the name of Francis Kent who fears that his cruel sister wants to kill him. Taking this lightly, Sally returns downstairs where her encounter is disbelieved by her mother who points out that Francis was indeed killed by his sister Constance but back in the Victorian era.
The murder trial of the actual Constance Kent was a public sensation in the England of 1860. She had killed Frances when she was sixteen and he was aged just three, almost decapitating him with a knife. The case remained a controversial one as her confession had only been given to her priest; speculation fell that it was falsely made to protect her father, a known adulterer. In 2008, author Kate Summerscale’s book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House further extended the debate by suggesting the true killer was her close brother William taking revenge for their father’s transfer of affection to his second marriage’s children. Whatever the truth, the murder of Francis Kent adds a frisson of veracity to Cavalcanti’s direction of McPhail’s script. In the documentary discussion Remembering Dead of Night, Matthew Sweet points out that, surviving to the age of 100 in 1944, Constance Kent almost lived long enough to see herself name-checked in this film.
The third instalment begins to delve into heavier subject matter with ‘The Haunted Mirror’. This is a simple but engrossing tale helmed by Robert Hamer in which Foley’s guest Joan Cortland buys her soon-to-be husband Peter the gift of a Chippendale mirror and then finds him gradually possessed by its reflection of a different bedroom from the past. Decades before wrangling repressed sapphic and homicidal inmates as the prison Governor of TV’s Within These Walls, Withers applies equal cool elegance to weathering Ralph Michael’s suitably tortured Peter before heroically shattering the mirror and the spell.
The red-headed stepchild of episodes is Charles Crichton’s ‘The Golfing Story’ owing partly to a very clear comedic tone unwelcome to some. The more problematic issue was its very British cultural specificity - resulting in the American print excising this whole sequence. (‘The Christmas Party’ was cut out for the U.S. release as well). Esteemed American horror director John Landis recalled that when he viewed this part in an uncut version as a young man - “I didn’t get it”. It’s essentially a love triangle between two male golfers - whose friendship would today be labelled a ‘bromance’ if not something more substantial - and the woman who comes between them, over whom they play a game to decide her future partner. H.G. Wells’ tale ‘The Inexperienced Ghost’ was the inspiration, though only its club setting and spectral vanishing business was used.
The twosome of Parratt and Potter are played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, alias the cricket-obsessed duffers Charters and Caldicott first introduced in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1941). Such was their immediate popularity that three official follow-up films featured the duo over the next two years (Night Train to Munich, Crook’s Tour and Millions Like Us). Ealing had to change their names for Dead of Night in order to benefit from the association but without infringing on any character copyright.
Their closeness is so evident that Peggy Bryan almost seems an encumbrance rather than a desired prize. She does however function as a catalyst for Radford and Wayne to demonstrate the pursuit of sportsmanship (or lack of) as an illustration of trumpeted British decency. This for me is why this story deserves to be included. Whilst Dead of Night makes no mention of the war, golf serves as a metaphor for the pair to reflect back to concerned British audiences those self-regarding English values like fair-play that were once under threat. Ironically, Radford’s victorious cheating in the match triggers Wayne to embody the ultimate Englishman’s stoicism by calmly walking out into the pond to drown himself, a blackly funny suicide in that only his hat remains bubbling above the surface.
Wayne then contrives comedic business from his inability to disappear, an intrusion on Radford’s privacy that seems just punishment. Moreover, when he accidentally vanishes Radford there is an intriguingly kinky suggestion in how he is now free to enjoy his friend’s woman as if Radford would not mind.
Crichton was an excellent choice for this story; indeed, his understanding of comedy technique and the uniquely British character prompted John Cleese to bring him out of retirement to co-direct the charming, Ealing-esque A Fish Called Wanda (1988) at the age of 77.
The strongest and thereby most famous story in Dead of Night showcases a superbly committed performance by Michael Redgrave in ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ under Cavalcanti’s direction. As famous vent actor Maxwell Frere schizophrenically tormented by his macabre dummy Hugo, it was the screen role of a lifetime for him. A celebrated Shakespearean of the stage and father of the illustrious Redgrave acting dynasty, Redgrave acknowledged his debt to it in later life, thus helping ascend the film’s reputation above patronising media attitudes to the genre.
I’ve deliberately avoided in-depth amateur psychoanalysis about the sexual undercurrents running through Dead of Night – there is rich genuine food for musings on sexual awakening, the anxieties of consummation or understated homoeroticism for example - yet it is tempting to consider where potentially real life circumstances may inform notable passion in an actor’s work in Redgrave’s case here. His bisexuality was a life-long source of inner struggle to him, especially in a climate of illegal homosexuality in Britain. Although he confessed his nature when his wife Rachel Kempson proposed to him in 1935, he would always be conflicted about his desires. Like Colin Clive, a similarly troubled fellow Brit shot to horror stardom in the first Frankenstein films, this repressed volcano of feeling may well have added an electrifyingly personal edge when erupting on screen. Certainly, many admirers have noted how remarkably Redgrave seems to live the vulnerability and volatility of Frere’s harrowing slide into psychosis, a literally shattering turn when he climactically crushes the head of his alter ego under foot.
However Redgrave comes by his performance, he is well supported by Frederick Valk as the archetypal ‘Cherman’ psychiatrist Dr Van Straaten, whose account this is, and Hartley Power as the wiseacre American competitor ventriloquist Sylvester Kee duelling for possession of Hugo. (A child custody aspect open to even more elaborate analysis if you wish to go there). The tale ends with the unforgettable, downbeat sight of a broken and bed-ridden Redgrave who haltingly begins to speak, but now in the sinister voice of Hugo, his face a grotesque mask of child-like marvel.
Credit must go to Basil Dearden and McPhail’s screenplay structure for keeping the tension tightrope vibrating beyond this point. Back in Foley’s house, befuddled Walter Craig suddenly finds himself blasted along a nightmare rollercoaster ride through each of the told episodes, most frighteningly accosted by a walking version of Hugo. We are then teased with an epilogue initially tricking us with an “It was all a dream” ending at Craig’s home with his wife until Foley calls and the invite begins again. According to Matthew Sweet, the extended ending showing Craig once more arriving at the house was a benign projectionist accident. What a happy accident it was, as it compounds the cyclical form of Craig’s vision and who knows if it will ever end?
Aside from the wonderful legacy Dead of Night left to horror fans and filmmakers alike, it even radically affected the theories of a major astrophysicist, Fred Hoyle, who was inspired by it to create his Steady State model of an unchanging circular universe.