Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti Charles Crichton Basil Dearden & Robert Hamer, 1945, UK) Part Two

Continued from Part 1

The sexual undertones present in Dead of Night‘s Christmas Party episode provide one of the many links to the following story, Robert Hamer’s superb “Haunted Mirror”. It too is a story about a violent death from the past returning to haunt characters in the present, though it is much less obviously a ghost story than the prior segment. The focus now is on the soon-to-be married Peter (Ralph Michael) and Joan Courtland (Googie Withers), quickly established as a shallow, vain couple whose life of surface appearances hides an undercurrent of mutual mistrust.

Joan’s buys Peter an antique mirror for his birthday, an act of no small irony given the couple’s apparent superficialness, but after positioning it in his bedroom he becomes distracted, convinced he is seeing things in it which aren’t there in reality. The story is allowed to develop slowly, Peter’s visions becoming ever stronger as he begins to make out in the reflection an alternate room to his own – in direct contrast to the functional, blandly angular décor of the Courtland’s, the mirror shows an ornate, lavishly decorated household – visions which cause him to become increasingly paranoid, mistrustful and ultimately violent.

Visually, the Haunted Mirror episode is the film’s most striking; the disparity between the blandness of the Courtland house compared with the decadent otherworldliness of the ‘other’ house is used to tremendously powerful effect, the viewer captivated as much as Peter by the seductive gothic-inspired image of a milieu far-removed from the drab reality of his everyday life. Strangely, the temperature dynamic is a reversal of that in the Christmas Party segment: here the supernatural is associated with warmth, the heat of the log fire in the room on the other side of the mirror proving more alluring than the sterile coldness of the ‘real’ room, though the long shadows still inevitably signify all that is mysterious and irrational.

Charles Barr, in his magnificent survey Ealing Studios, reads the story as a devastating critique of the type of superficial couple that the Courtlands represent. Their vanities (happily describing themselves as a“handsome couple”, who “dress up and spend a lot of money” as a matter of routine) and snobbish dismissals of other people (Joan appears entirely ungrateful for the “frightful presents” they receive; Peter marks Joan’s friend Guy as “hardly the big-game shooting type”) only serve to highlight their own shallow prejudices, and the mirror will come to reveal to them interior blemishes instead of exterior ones. Hamer’s repeated shots of Peter’s reflection framed in the mirror, significantly at times in a separate panel to that of his wife-to-be, seems to illustrate his isolation from the world around him, and even from the woman ostensibly closest to him.

Barr names the central themes as repression and complacency: Peter’s repressed frustration with the mundanity of his life coupled with his sneaking suspicion that his wife-to-be is unsatisfied in their relationship exposes the lack of trust between them and the blasé manner in which they disregard their true feelings, as well as explaining his increasingly extreme reactions to the vision in the mirror. He concludes that the segment’s conclusion is in effect a ‘lobotomy’ for the couple: they will learn nothing from the experience and go back to their bad old ways. I am not entirely sure whether it is as dire as Barr’s reading; after all, Joan has enough faith in her husband to find out about the mirror’s history, and her eventual solution to the problem illustrates her willingness to make a leap of faith for him. Interestingly, Hamer will come to use the motif of the mirror again to return to a similar theme in his later It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), again starring Googie Withers.

The following segment is the most controversial one of the film, since its lightly-comic tone is at odds with the other, more sinister tales which it rubs shoulders with. “Golfing Story”, directed by Charles Crichton, stars Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford who seven years earlier had stormed to popularity as Charters and Caldicott, the uproariously witty and irreverent cricket-obsessed passengers aboard the train in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). The characters proved so popular that they would make cameos in a number of subsequent films, most significantly Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940).

Their appearance in Dead of Night is as a pair of very similar characters named Parratt and Potter, once again well-to-do Englishmen with the same penchants for sport and making double entendres with one another. Once again, though, sexual matters intrude, this time with the arrival at their golf club of the beautiful Mary; the pair are both instantly smitten with her, and unable to decide who should be allowed to court her, contrive to hold a golf play-off to decide the matter. Parratt wins, and in a pair of shots which strangely predict a similar scene in Mizoguchi’s Sanshō Dayu (1954), Potter solemnly trudges to his death in a nearby river. Parratt, though, has cheated, and soon becomes tormented by the ghost of his former buddy, both on and off the links.

Golfing Story comes as a moment of levity in what is otherwise a solemn film, but is its presence entirely necessary? Sandwiched between the harrowing Haunted Mirror and Ventriloquist’s Dummy segments it may seem an unwelcome distraction from the crescendoing sense of fear contained within the separate stories. One might conversely argue that it creates a chiaroscuro of tone which enhances the effectiveness of the other two stories; certainly in its place was a story of the lesser quality of, say, the Hearse Driver episode, one might suggest that the film as a whole might suffer more as a consequence. The story does also set up an ellipsis within the link-narrative, in which time Craig has decided not to leave Pilgrim’s Farm but instead to remain, the now-jovial atmosphere calming him his fears in time for the film’s final, most horrifying chapter.

Ventriloquist’s Dummy” is rightfully the film’s most well-remembered episode, and lasting more than 23 minutes it is by far its longest section. The key to its success lies perhaps not in the story itself but in what is invested into it by Michael Redgrave’s extraordinary central performance as Maxwell Frere, the ventriloquist apparently being tormented by his own dummy. In fact, to award him with just one acting credit seems woefully inadequate: it what is in effect his double-performance which leaves the viewer considering the possibility that he could be embodying two separate personae that makes the story so gripping and ultimately terrifying.

As the story begins, Frere is called into a noirishly lit police interrogation room by Dr Van Straaten, who is attempting to ascertain psychological reasons why he had attempted to murder his fellow ventriloquist Sylvester Kee; Frere refuses to cooperate, and insists that Hugo, his dummy, is the one who is to blame. In a flashback contained within the wider flashback of the segment as a whole we are transported to a Parisian club where we witness Maxwell and Hugo in action (the geographical setting seems to underline that Maxwell’s surname is very close to the French word for ‘brother’). We see the common dynamic of a ventriloquism act: Maxwell plays the straight-man to Hugo’s sharp-tongued witticisms and occasionally risqué comments. In the audience is an impressed Kee, who ‘Hugo’ invites to meet him backstage at the end of the performance.

Once backstage, the ambiguity of the situation arises: in the darkened room, Kee hears Hugo’s voice and chances upon the solitary puppet, whereupon Maxwell enters the room smoking a cigarette, apparently oblivious to what his puppet has been saying; can he have been speaking, or is Hugo a genuinely autonomous entity? The divide in their personalities seems an amplified version of their onstage ones: Maxwell is a nervous wreck, in diametric opposition to Hugo’s boastful charm. In the following scene, a group of women recognise Maxwell and Hugo at a bar, but when they approach them are drawn to the puppet and not his drunken master. Once again, doubts surface: how can this articulate puppet be being manipulated by someone who is clearly an inebriated wreck?

Alberto Cavalcanti’s previous film Champagne Charlie had been a light-hearted look at the world of entertainment, but Ventriloquist’s Dummy is its darkly sinister reflection, as if glimpsing itself in the mirror of the Hamer segment. A more straightforward parable about the nature of performance might have the off-stage entertainer unable to cope with everyday life away from the spotlight, but here the dynamic is subtly different: there is the possibility that Maxwell has repressed his own personality so much as part of his stage-persona that he is now unable to behave otherwise, but the nagging possibility that Hugo could indeed be a sentient, autonomous being pushes the story into the ambiguous and the supernatural, which is all-the-more frightening. The unsettling denouement pre-dates the strikingly-similar one used in Psycho (1960) by nearly two decades, though a shot containing a very disorientating Hitchcock-like rotation of the camera illustrates that more than likely the influence was mutual.

The film makes a final return to Pilgrim’s Farm and its gathered guests, and leads into what must rank as one of cinema’s greatest ever final reels. As Foley’s power generator fails, the house is thrown into long shadows reminiscent of those associated with the unreal in the film’s various chapters, signalling an entry into the fantasy realm that the stories themselves had. Like the recapitulation of a great symphony, the film’s various motifs begin to swarm around each other, in doing so forming unexpected patterns and resonances, and leading towards that famous montage exposing the full extent of Craig’s nightmare. As this closes, I am ever-reminded of a similar scene in Les Diaboliques (1955) when a character appears to do the impossible, and as with Clouzot’s film it is best not to spoil the big surprise for others.

Even Craig’s apparent demise does not constitute the ending of the film, and its final surprise turns the entire film on its head once again. The film’s lasting influence has perhaps diminished the shock of this device, its having been used – though never in an identical way, and more commonly for different effect – in films as diverse as Belle De Jour (1967), La Jetée (1962), Lost Highway (1997), Twelve Monkeys (1995), and most recently in Christopher Smith psychological thriller Triangle (2009); its philosophical implications may also have been explored more fully in Groundhog Day (1993), but with the element of surprise lessened, the modern viewer might more readily be able to reflect on the film’s structural perfection.

Focusing on this novel aspect of the film’s meta-structure is to downplay its bigger legacy which was the rise of the anthology horror film. It was not the first – a German film entitled Unheimliche Geschichten (1919) has the best claim to that particular title – but its quality and popular success gave rise to countless imitators, serving as a template for the cycle of Amicus anthologies, most obviously Freddie Francis’ Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) which closely mimics Dead of Night‘s framing story. Amicus producer Milton Subotsky described Dead of Night as “the greatest horror film ever”; it is not difficult to see why.

Dead of Night stands out as a curious anomaly in Ealing Studios’ roster, even though the diversity of its output is frequently underestimated in favour of the famous comedies it produced in that remarkable run of films in the decade after World War Two. While it is easy to look back fondly on those comedies for their quaintness and sense of an England (however false) of yesteryear, Dead of Night by contrast retains a freshness simply because its emphasis is entirely different; what is more timeless than a ghost story? Another useful comparison is with Hitchcock’s Spellbound, released the same year and also adapted by Angus MacPhail, but dated horribly by its reliance on quasi-Freudian pop psychology; Dead of Night‘s meditations on perception, reality, mortality, dreams and artistic sacrifice continue to make it as thrilling and disturbing a ride as it has ever been.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti Charles Crichton Basil Dearden & Robert Hamer, 1945, UK) Part Two

  1. What a brilliant essay! Nice to see this film, which I’ve loved and been terrified by from a young age, being discussed with the depth of analysis it deserves. I’ve always thought of Dead Of Night as a magnificent anomaly – not sure how well it did at the time but perhaps post-war audiences weren’t in the mood for horror and supernatural, since it was over 10 years until another bona fide British horror film emerged!

    The influence on Subotsky, with his anthology films often tied around the flimsiest of premises, only goes to show how well structured Dead Of Night is, despite it’s contrasting styles. Also Richard Attenborough’s Magic, which expanded the 23 minute dummy story to 107 minutes whilst removing all terror and tension, only goes to show what an incredible eerie job Cavalcanti did. And agreed, this is by far Redgrave’s greatest ever work on film!

    1. Thanks for your comment Glyn! There’s so much stuff to say about Dead of Night, I eventually just had to stop myself from going on and on interminably..! You’re right, the British horror film took a while to get going afterwards – 10 years in fact until Quatermass arrives on the scene to kick off things at Hammer – which does suggest that DoN’s popular success was found in retrospect. Hard to get box-office figures for such things these days though…

      I’d like to do a longer length study of the portmanteau film, it’s such an interesting format which I think allowed for much more experimentation than the single feature one – as fine directors as Cavalcanti, Hamer and Dearden were, I think a horror feature would have been too much for one of them on their own. The Dead of Night influence was not just on horror – portmanteaux like Bond Street (1948), Marry Me (1949) and Train of Events (1949) all owe something to DoN’s remarkable structure.

      I haven’t seen Attenborough’s Magic, alas, but will try to seek it out, if only to confirm the genius of Cav’s Ventriloquists Dummy segment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s