It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

When most people think of Ealing Studios they think of the comedies – Whisky Galore!, Passport to Pimilico and so on. Very few would think of Film Noir but that the best description of It Always Rains on Sunday (dir. Robert Hamer, 1947). It features a woman, Rose Sandigate, (Googie Withers) who helps her former lover, Tommy Swann (John McCallum)  who has escaped from prison, thus jeopardising her family life because of her sexual desires and a fair amount of shadowy shots. So far so noir but this is British Noir. It isn’t about glamour. Set in and around Bethnal Green, much of the action takes place in Petticoat Lane and gives a realist snapshot of post-war Britain, cheese rations and blackout material included. It Always Rains on Sunday

The action all takes place on one Sunday (which as the title suggests is a rainy one) and begins with a normal family waking up and going about their business, with a fair amount of bickering. Little do they know that the matriarch’s past is about to come back to shatter their peace. At the start it appears that there are several disjointed storylines – the escaped convict, the unhappily married woman, her step-daughters’ love lives, the local criminal networks and the unfaithful band leader. Hamer takes these storylines and weaves them into a story that although complex is brilliantly executed and brings to the fore Jack Warner as Detective Sergeant Fothergill who is occupied trying to find Tommy Swann and also one by one arresting the gang of crooks. Largely through their own incompetence.

The film culminates with a very good chase sequence which acts like a needle, sewing up all the loose ends until the film comes to a bleak and real ending, much more akin to the Kitchen Sink dramas of the late fifties and sixties than the Ealing comedies we know.

There are several recognisable Ealing comedy moments including the neighbour disturbing Rose whilst she smuggles Tommy into her house to discuss the meat they are each having for Sunday lunch or the fact the central gang of crooks have bungled a warehouse raid and ended up with a truck load of Roller Skates.

This surprising film deserves to takes its place next to the finest post-war British films.

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The First Born (1928)

Silent, black and white and full of drama. Not The Artist but The First Born, a British film made in 1928 and with all the drama and suspense of any film out today. Directed and written by Miles Mander, based on his play. Mander is the lead Sir Hugo Boycott, Madeleine Carroll his wife Madeleine and John Loder is David, Lord Harborough. All give great performances with the requisite over the top gestures and dramatic looks.

This is a tale of adultery, deceit and double standards with twists you don’t expect. All to a backdrop of English Manor houses and political intrigue. Who needs Downton Abbey with all this lurking in the archives? It also has one of the best death scenes in cinema. Whereas The Artist is all about staircases (one day I will bore you with a long post about staircases in The Artist) it is doors which feature in First Born, everything happens with the use of the door. You can even tell which house they are in by the door.

It is the story of a caddish aristocrat who marries a beautiful young woman but when she doesn’t provide an heir he leaves for Africa. She then sets in motion a plan winger him back. Little does she know what she has started. A lot of the narrative is moved forward by letters and telegrams which works very well.

There are many things that are questionable about this film to modern eyes, the depiction of Africans and the giving a child a pipe to smoke to name just a couple. However the storyline and film techniques seem well ahead of their time.

The BFI have restored First Born as part of a project to restore films from the hey day of silent cinema in the UK. Part of the restoration included matching a 16mm print with the 35mm orignal and there are a few points where there are slit jumps however by using shot-by-shot analysis the amazing team at the BFI have met the challenge and delivered a film of great quality.

Jess and I saw this at the BFI with a live score written by Stephen Horne performed by himself (piano, flute and accordion), Janey Miller (oboe) and Martin Pyne (tuned percussion). The score appears perfect, it reflects what is happening on screen and doesn’t give anything away. I am amazed at the skill of fitting a piece to match the film so well.

Watching this made me think again – what is film? Without words you are transfixed to the screen because everything that is happening is happening visually. It is aided by the score but without the images the score is just some nice music. We didn’t need anything else to know what was happening. I have seen a fair few silent films over the years but this is the first original silent film I have seen at the cinema and it is at the cinema that the experience really hits home. Nothing can distract you and you are immersed in the pictures.

Of course the experience of watching silent films in the 1920s would have been quite different, reports suggest people chatted while watching and, as continued for many years, they came and went throughout the film so they may have come in 20 minutes before the end.

I think one of the most interesting things about The First Born was that it had a Hitchcockian feel to it. The focus on eyes, the use of psychology and many shots I can’t mention without ruining the plot. The thing is Hitchcock’s name doesn’t appear anywhere on the credits however Miles Mander worked with Hitchcock and Alma Reville produced the scenarios alongwith Mander and she is otherwise known as Mrs Alfred Hitchcock. It makes me think back to arguments about Auteur Theory. It is well known Reville was Hitchcock’s closest collaborator but how much did they influence each other’s work?If you are lucky enough to get the chance to watch this on the big screen I suggest you don’t hesitate.