Haunted Mirrors: The Dark Side of Robert Hamer

As part of its Ealing: Light and Dark season, which runs from 22 October to 30 December at the NFT, the BFI today re-releases its oft-overlooked kitchen sink noir It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), providing a timely opportunity to reassess the career of its director Robert Hamer, a man whose faltering career David Thomson described as “the most serious miscarriage of talent in the postwar British cinema”. Hamer’s decline is perhaps one all-too familiar in the annals of British film history, a career beginning with much promise, yet ultimately marked by artistic compromise, isolation and self-destruction, with the result that there can seem a capricious, contradictory nature to his small body of work, one which began in supernatural horror (Dead of Night (1945)) and ended with light farce (School for Scoundrels (1960)).

Yet look beyond the superficial differences between his films and there can be found common threads. As Charles Barr notes, in Hamer’s films “you find a gallery of individuals, across the range of classes, whose sexual and emotional drives and strongly repressed and as strongly burst out, only to be damped down in an adjustment to the prevailing Ealing/British dispensation which […] accepts restraint on sex drive and ambition and class resentment”. What is fascinating about Hamer’s output is how, amidst diverse social and historical contexts, repeating themes and motifs come together to form a consistent vision of the British condition. “I want to make films about people in dark rooms doing beastly things to each other”, ran Hamer’s oft quoted ethos, and arguably no other British filmmaker has presented in so few films such a comprehensively pessimistic, dark vision of society and its mores.

As as Robert Murphy’s mini-biography of the director at Screenonline states, one important piece of recurring imagery in Hamer’s films is that of the mirror, and that is the one I wish to focus upon here. A useful starting point is the aforementioned It Always Rains on Sunday, as it provides a fulcrum around which several other films can be balanced, not least because it features two actors, Googie Withers and her husband John McCallum, whose films with Hamer both come in his most artistically fertile period (1945-1952) and display the use of the recurring visual motif to its fullest. In the film Withers plays Rose Sandigate, a former East End barmaid now married to a dull middle-aged man (played by Edward Chapman), who learns that her violent former lover Tommy Swann (McCallum) has escaped from prison and is now on the run. In a virtuoso sequence, a dissolve takes us from her combing her hair in the mirror in her drab, domesticated present to a flashback to her first meeting with Swann, glimpsing him in the mirror behind the bar in which she used to work.

Edward Chapman and Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
John McCallum and Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Here, the function of the mirror is as a kind-of portal to an idealized, romanticized past, and an escape from Rose’s drab, repressed life. In some ways it also feels like a reference to Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, a woman condemned to domestication, only able to view life’s “shadows of the world” through the lens of a looking glass. In rendering quasi-physically the difference between the lustrous mirror world of the past and the everyday routines of the present, Hamer finds an elegant visual expression of fantasy and repressed sensuality, and as the narrative unfolds and Tommy’s very real presence returns to Rose’s life, the diametrical planes between these mirrored worlds of reality and fantasy begun to blur together with predictably catastrophic consequences.

Withers made two other films with Robert Hamer at Ealing, most significantly the ‘Haunted Mirror’ segment of their famous portmanteau horror Dead of Night, released some two years before Sunday. Once again, the theme is repression, a mirror acting as a conduit between an exotic fantasy world and mundane reality: Withers plays Joan, about to be married to her fiancee Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael), and who one day buys for him as a present an antique mirror. Note in the still below that when we initially see the mirror, the ‘real’ couple in the foreground are out of focus, instead inviting us to view the pair separated by the triptych frame in the reflection.

Ralph Michael and Googie Withers in Dead of Night (1945)

At this early stage in the narrative, the mirror has no other function than to illustrate visually the suggestion of possible emotional distance between the two characters, something which will be developed further when the mirror’s supernatural properties manifest themselves and Peter finds himself unable to see his fiancee’s reflection at all, as well as crystallizing his paranoia about his bride-to-be and her relationship with her ‘friend’  with whom he suspects she is having an affair. Yet as the story progresses, the mirror motif comes to take on a second main function, namely that of underscoring an overall sense of  the couple’s bourgeois complacency. Although we are in a different, more affluent social milieu to that of the couple in It Always Rains on Sunday, the mise en scene of the segment is again one of drab domesticity. The houses in which they live are shown to be cold, sterile, ordered places of social propriety, while the visions which Peter has in the mirror are in direct opposition, exuding warmth and a seductive exoticism.

Ralph Michael in Dead of Night (1945)

Here, as with It Always Rains on Sunday, is the mirror’s trap: the promise of an exotic fantasy world as an escape from the dissatisfaction of drab domesticity, but one which ultimately leads to destruction. So too is there a temporal element – just as Sunday‘s mirror allowed its protagonist to hark back to the past, Peter’s fantastic vision of a Georgian bedchamber, while not of his own past and thus not strictly a flashback, is one rooted in times gone by, with the accompanying suggestion that the idealized values, mores and hierarchy of a past time are what he, and perhaps many other socially conservative backwards-looking Britons, wish their lives and their country could return to.

Hamer’s other film with Googie Withers, the Victorian-era melodrama Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), makes much less use of the mirror motif, though there are occasional glimpses: in one scene David Sutton (Gordon Jackson), in a slight echo of the Dead of Night still above, fusses over his appearance and is chastised by his sister Victoria (Jean Ireland), who states, “I can’t think what’s come over you lately David. You do nothing but fiddle with your necktie and look at yourself in mirrors“.

Gordon Jackson in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

It is, for the most part, a throwaway scene though gains greater weight when considered in the light of Hamer’s preoccupations: David is the son of repressive patriarch Edward Sutton (Mervyn Johns), the local chemist whose life centres on very Victorian notions of order and discipline (elegantly underlined by the film’s title, a reference to the overly fussy way he ties up his customers’ parcels). David’s increasing attention to his sartorial presentation is seen as an attempt to break free from these moral strictures and become a ‘man about town’, but one which is repeatedly crushed by his father tyranny which leads him, in an act of defiance, to frequent the raucously wanton confines of the local pub, in effect functioning as the film’s exotic otherworldly mirror plane. There, he meets the landlord’s wife Pearl (Googie Withers again) and becomes embroiled in a murder plot: once again, the mirror’s alluring promises leads to destruction. As a sidenote, Withers at one stage is caught in the reflection in a mirror, just before the film’s dramatic peak here:

Googie Withers in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

Another example of Hamer’s striking use of mirrors occurs in The Long Memory (1952); though ostensibly centred on John Mills’ character Phillip Davidson and his quest to hunt down the people who lied at his trial and caused him to have to spend 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the real interest is in the sub-plot between his former lover Fay Driver (Elizabeth Sellars) and her relationship with her policeman husband Bob Lowther (once again, John McCallum). As Davidson closes in, Bob becomes increasingly cognizant of the possibility that his wife perjured herself all those years ago and that she has been hiding the truth from him ever since. As with It Always Rains on Sunday, a criminal past comes back to shatter domestic equilibrium (significantly with McCallum on the right side of the law in this case), and truth and fantasy collide with inevitable catastrophe. Hamer again frames the couple in a mirror’s reflection, visually forcing together two characters who are actually physically, and emotionally, far apart:

Elizabeth Sellars and John McCallum in The Long Memory (1952)

Mirrors then, for Hamer, are used as a device to illustrate divisions, disconnections between characters whose emotions are separated into the realm of fantasy, whether as a result of domestic repression or self-deceit, but regardless have already set them irrevocably on the road towards self-destruction. In 1949 Hamer made a film called The Spider and the Fly, which takes its name from the 1829 poem by Mary Howitt, a cautionary tale which warns of the alluring deceptiveness of surface appearances and the allure of the exotic unknown. For Hewitt, like Hamer, the mirrored reflection is the most untrustworthy of images, within which may find us deceiving ourselves the most.

“Sweet creature!” said the Spider, “you’re witty and you’re wise,

How handsome are your gauzy wings, how brilliant are your eyes!

I’ve a little looking-glass upon my parlour shelf,

If you’ll step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself.”

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