Essay Essay Essay

As you may or may not know, I have for the best part of four years been introducing films at The Cube cinema for one of their repertory slots called 20th Century Cube, a monthly night programmed in conjunction with Bristol’s legendary (yes) 20th Century Flicks video shop. Last May, as I was unable to make it to that month’s screening in person, we decided to embrace the miracle that is modern technology and compile a short narrated video introduction instead, thereby entering us into the burgeoning and somewhat uncharted creative sphere of video essay making. The experiment seemed to be a success – the visual aspect unsurprisingly proving a more enriching experience than that of that guy again standing up and delivering a monologue – and since then I have been assembling videos for almost all of our screenings.

By way of an apology for not having posted on here for a while then, I offer the fruits of my recent labours as some form of recompense, nearly all of which are now collected over at my YouTube channel. The early ones, predictably enough, are a bit rough and ready, but my more recent ones are getting a little more sophisticated as I find myself increasingly comfortable in navigating my way around the editing software. Anyway, here’s the ones which i’m most happy with: Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and Suzuki Seijun’s Branded to Kill (1967). More to follow, as and when they arrive…

Ghosts in the Machine: The TRON Legacy

Arcade Fever


“I got a pocket full of quarters, and I’m headed to the arcade.
I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m bringing everything I made.
I’ve got a callous on my finger, and my shoulder’s hurting too.
I’m gonna eat them all up, just as soon as they turn blue.”

So ran the lyrics to Pac-Man Fever, Buckner & Garcia’s novelty hit single of 1982 which, by the end of that year, had sold over one million copies in the United States alone. Its success was redolent of the firm hold that arcade games had achieved on the American popular consciousness by that time: 1982 saw revenues for the North American video game market reach their all-time peak value – a figure outstripping those of both Hollywood and the music industry combined – and in November of that same year LIFE magazine was on hand to document the gathering of the country’s most prominent gamers at the Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa, confirming the phenomenon as now part of the country’s cultural mainstream.

Although arcade games had appeared in passing cinematic cameos in a number of films produced during the 1970s, it was Disney’s TRON (1982) which would be the first to place them at the centre of the action, unleashing a trend which would continue in the proceeding years with such films as Joysticks (1983), WarGames (1983), The Last Starfighter (1984) and Cloak & Dagger (1984), and a forebear of the recent trend in the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) and Wreck-it-Ralph (2012) for films to reference, appropriate and subvert the aesthetic, structure and narrative tropes of the arcade game form.


Returning to the film now, some thirty-one years on from its initial release, inevitably brings a pang of nostalgia for that putative golden age of arcade games, and in particular how it harks back to a prior technological era in which gaming was a physically communal experience. Flynn’s Arcade in TRON, much like those featured in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and The Karate Kid (1984), showed it as the place for teenagers to congregate in the early 1980s, illustrating the phenomenon’s social function at the time as similar to that of Mel’s Drive-In in the 1950s world of American Graffiti (1973) or the Emporium in Dazed and Confused‘s (1993) summer of ’76. Fast-forward to the present-day of TRON: Legacy (2010), and the once-boisterous Flynn’s is presented as now merely a solemn, long-shuttered electronic museum-cum-graveyard.

Another telling contrast between the original film and its sequel is in the characterization of their protagonists: in the former, Flynn Sr. is a social butterfly, and his interactions with his friends is relaxed and convivial, in sharp contrast to the post-The Dark Knight (2008) stylings of the sequel, in which son Sam is portrayed as an existentially angst-ridden loner. As video games have, in the thirty years since TRON, shifted from arcades to bedrooms, so their cinematic representation has since become a metaphor for modern alienation, as witnessed in the considerably darker tones of game-based films since such as Oshii Mamoru’s Avalon (2001) and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), supplementing the rise of internet-centric shockers like Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Kairo (2001) and William Malone’s FeardotCom (2002).


The film’s significance, however, goes far beyond its representation of its specific period of video gaming culture. Its release in 1982 coincided with the publication of William Gibson’s novel Burning Chrome and its coining of the term ‘cyberspace’ which, in conceptual terms, TRON‘s Grid appears to be an early embodiment of. Whilst now a familiar (and even outmoded) notion as a result of the popularity of Gibson’s subsequent NeuromancerShirō Masamune’s sprawling manga/anime franchise Ghost in the Shell and films such as The Lawnmower Man (1992) , in the yet-to-be-computer-saturated early 1980s it was an idea that was little short of revolutionary.

In visual terms too, the film would prove to be a landmark: TRON‘s fifteen-minute light cycle sequence signalled the first extensive use of three-dimensional CGI in film a decade before its landmark employment in the likes of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and Toy Story (1995), and the future-chic aesthetic of the Grid – glowing neon stripes set against wire-frame landscapes and solid polygonal structures, coupled with Moebius‘ conceptual designs and synth pioneer Wendy Carlos‘ evocative score – has proved a lasting influence across the spectrum of the creative disciplines, from television advertising to Jean Paul Gaultier catwalk collections, from Snow Crash to Daft Punk. Indeed, while the advancement of CGI technology has a tendency to render the ‘realistic’ look of films of a prior decade (or sooner) as outmoded, TRON‘s world of sheer artifice might be seen to have matured like a fine vintage wine.

The Shadows in the Cave


While TRON‘s depiction of its Game Grid as a walled-off world-within-a-world is strictly in the realms of sci-fi, its roots might be traced back to an altogether different form of fiction. Just as The Matrix (1999) winkingly alludes to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, TRON‘s colourful alternate sphere populated with characters who seem to bear uncanny resemblances to ‘real-world’ equivalents in effect renders the film a digital updating of The Wizard of Oz (1939), with the sinister Master Control Program as oppressive Wicked Witch of the West, digitizing laser as the surrogate tornado, and fluorescent neon piping as the new blue gingham.

In philosophical terms, Flynn’s digitization onto The Grid separates TRON from many of its successors. Where the likes of Brainstorm (1983), The Lawnmower Man and Strange Days (1995) involve the protagonist’s interface with a form of brain–computer interface, Flynn completes a physical, as well as mental, transportation to this virtual other world. Such a set-up precludes the film from addressing, as those films others do, the Cartesian dualism of the separation of mind and body, but instead presents its world as a physical construction beyond which its inhabitants are, at least initially, unable to see.

Such a dual-world construction, certainly in terms of science fiction cinema, anticipates both Dark City (1998) and The Matrix as well as the multiple levels of the aforementioned Avalon and eXistenZ, but can also be seen to share a kinship with the worlds-within-worlds of The Truman Show (1998), Pleasantville (1998) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), as well as hinting at the kind of reflexive construct-within-a-construct ideas at the heart of metafilmic texts such as 8 ½ (1963), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and the oeuvre of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

The virtual reality world-within-a-world found its earliest cinematic expression in World on a Wire (1973), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s until-recently little-seen adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron-3. Its multi-planar construction reached its logical apotheosis in the teasingly ambiguous Lady-Or-The-Tiger endings of both Josef Rusnak’s adaptation of the same source novel The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and Christopher Nolan’s labyrinthine Inception (2010), both ultimately serving to question the possibility of the knowledge of an absolute reality, as well as suggesting an infernal mise en abyme of mirror worlds dreamt up by the combined imaginations of Escher, Borges and the art designers of Droste cocoa powder. While TRON never goes as far as to question the veracity of the objective reality in which it begins, its set-up still implicitly provokes the same questions about the reliability and limits of perception which have troubled philosophers from Plato to Baudrillard.

The Gosateizm in the Machine


Another dimension to TRON’s appeal lies in its delineation of analogues of equivalent real-world language and concepts. Time is measured in ‘microcycles’ or ‘nanoseconds’, ‘thinking’ becomes ‘calculating’, liquid nourishment comes in the form of water-like ‘energy’, and the term ‘derez’ serves as a handily euphemistic term for death in what was intended as a family-friendly PG-rated movie. The Master Control Program’s ability to quantify anything and everything is both played for laughs and serve as a sinister shorthand for its lack of humanity, its voice somewhere between the cold, dispassionate logic of the HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the sinister croak of the Big Brother-like Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).

Futuristic, yes, but the future this is not, and TRON‘s ostensible present-day setting in some respects separates it from the more speculative, dystopian nature of traditional cyberpunk texts, although its time-capsule-like view on issues contemporaneous to its production are not dissimilar from familiar tropes of the genre. There is, for example, a light critique of the corporatization of Reaganomic America: just as the mega-corporations of Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984) are seen to be malevolent, morally-questionable forces in their worlds, so too is TRON‘s secretive, hierarchical ENCOM company and its motives viewed with suspicion, reinforced by the direct analogy to the MCP’s corruption of power on the Grid.

The more prevalent theme, however, is that of the United States’ deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union, following its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Following the years of détente in the 1970s and prior to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost, the two competing superpowers were once again balanced on the delicate high-wire act of Mutually Assured Destruction, as played out in 1983’s box office smash WarGamesTRON, too, takes place in this same climate of fear: when the MCP threatens to take control of both the Kremlin and the Pentagon it might seem like a generic threat, but coming in 1982 this was a serious business, carrying with it the weight of a potential global nuclear holocaust. If such a detail might seem incidental, then the early presence of a sign bearing the words ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto‘ – a visual allusion to Robert Wise’s pacifist-themed Cold War parable The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – ought to confirm otherwise.


Just as The Day the Earth Stood Still‘s ‘Mr. Carpenter’ stands as an analogue Christ figure, so too does TRON carry a religious subtext at its core, deepening its commentary on the political climate of the age. The theological parallel between man’s relationship to God in the real world and the Grid programs’ belief in an unknowable putative creator is, in some respects played for laughs – see the humourous linguistic substitution in Ram’s famous cry of “Oh my User” – yet in the malevolent figure of the Master Control Program, there is too a serious-minded implicit critique of totalitarianism: the MCP’s suppression of the ‘superstitious’ belief in Users directly parallels the Soviet state policy of atheistic gosateizm, with the cruel games it forces the Programs to play akin to the Roman ‘sport’ of placing Christian martyrs in gladiatorial arenas to meet their near-certain death.

While such a thematic concern might suggest overlap with the apparent anti-Communist sentiment of Red Dawn (1984), it is balanced by the film’s questioning attitude towards free market corporatization, as well as a scepticism about the virtues of the increasing technologization of the modern world. The MCP’s reduction of human emotion and judgement to quantifiable numerical values warns of a pernicious dehumanization associated with the rise of the digital world, going some way to look – with a similar feeling of fear – at the potential nightmarish hegemonies-of-the-machine of The Terminator and The Matrix, or the passionless dystopias of Equilibrium (2002) and Gattaca (1997).



When TRON opened in the summer of 1982, its attempt to ride on the wave of popularity of the arcade game phenomenon was deemed by its studio to be a failure: its box-office takings were, while not the disaster of widespread repute, still considered a disappointment in that still-nascent era of the Hollywood blockbuster. There is, indeed, a certain irony in the fact that the highest-grossing film of the year, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), itself significantly contributed towards the near-catastrophic North American video game crash of the following years after the flop of Atari Inc.’s notorious movie tie-in game.

As shown by two excellent recent documentaries – The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2005) and Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2005) – there is a certain wistfulness in looking back on the period in question as a more innocent, bygone age of gaming. Yet TRON ultimately transcends the status of mere Pop Culture snapshot; The Grid’s distinctive, irresistible visual style of pure artifice is an aesthetic milestone which still has the capacity inspire awe in the modern-day viewer, and its rich diversity of thematic concerns still provokes the same searching questions which cinema – science fiction or otherwise – continues to puzzle over afresh.

TRON screens at Bristol’s Watershed as part of its Filmic 2013 season on Friday 22 March.

Polanski at the crossroads: Knife in the Water

This is the text of my introduction to Roman Polanski’s film Knife in the Water which I gave for Film Club Bristol at Arnolfini on 27 May 2012. You can follow Film Club Bristol on Twitter here.

Roman Polanski’s début feature film Knife In The Water (1962), shot in the summer of 1961 and released in Poland the following year, came at the end of a significant period for the Polish film industry. The great director Andrzej Wajda described his former protégé’s debut feature as “the beginning of the new Polish cinema” and i’d like to go into a little detail about the filmmaking circumstances in order to provide some context. Poland had been occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, and a Communist government had been in operation since 1948. Like other satellite states, it had quickly adopted the centralised Soviet system of film production.

Film was considered a very important propaganda tool, and consequently film-making was financially subsidized by the Ministry of Culture, which also oversaw the establishment of a national film school in the city of Łódź in 1948. Films had to be strictly Party-approved for their ideological content at all stages of production, from the script stage all the way through to post-production, when it was viewed by a panel called a kolaudacja, after which  it was not uncommon for re-shoots to be ordered by the Ministry after a film had been finished if it was not considered ideologically sound. This had a constricting effect on the creativity of filmmakers, whose films were, from the outset, forced to follow dogmatic political lines.

The death of Josef Stalin in 1953 and a subsequent speech made by Nikita Khruschev’s which denounced his ‘cult of personality’ led to the so-called ‘thaw’ in the Soviet Union; the effect of this quickly spread to Poland, leading to the Polish October uprising of 1956 and the rise to power of the reformist politician Władysław Gomułka. This thaw had the effect that Eastern Bloc countries began to decentralise their creative policies and weaken these ideological controls, and also led to the establishment of new modes of film education and production. In 1955 the Creative Film Unit system was introduced, in which a regional production unit, headed by an artistic director, was given greater autonomy over film production, and which allowed greater freedom for filmmakers to express themselves.

From this, emerged a kind-of New Wave referred to as the Polish Film School. Films by directors such as Andrzej Munk and Andrzej Wajda moved Polish cinema away from proscribed Socialist Realism and towards a national cinema dealing with personal issues more relevant to the country’s experience, in particular the still very recent memories of wartime. The thaw continued up until the early 1960s, with films such as Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (1960) and Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels (1961). However, Polish leader Gomułka was becoming increasingly vocal in his denunciation of where the industry was heading; at a Prague conference in 1957 films of the Polish School were condemned, with calls for an ideological line one again to be towed. With political pressure intensifying, the most influential filmmakers soon found themselves silenced. Andrzej Wajda quickly went abroad where he would make international co-productions; Andrzej Munk died in a car crash in 1961.

Roman Polanski (centre) in Wajda’s Pokolenie (A Generation) (1955)

It was in this climate of thaw and freeze in which Roman Polanski entered the filmmaking stage. He had enrolled at the Łódź national film school in 1954, just as the Polish School was beginning to emerge, and thanks to the new Creative Film Unit system he would rub shoulders with the likes of Wajda and Munk, even appearing as an actor in Wajda’s fim A Generation (1955) . Before graduating in 1959 he would make several short films, including Two Men in a Wardrobe (1958), which would win a prize at the prestigious Brussels Experimental Film Festival. Emboldened by this success, he began writing an outline for his debut feature film with the intention of keeping it minimalistic: three characters, one setting – on a boat in a Mazurian lake – and occurring over the course of three days. The setting is particularly important – Polanski felt that the theatricality of the three person setup was lost when located on a sailboat.

Needing extra input in order to bring a more earthy feel to the dialogue, he recruited a fellow Łódź attendee and future filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski. Skolimowski had an enormous input into the finished script, paring the dialogue down to a bare minimum, fleshing out the character of the younger man, but also, inspired by the unities of Greek tragedy, changing the timeframe to the course of 24 hours. His subsequent Polish films deal with tensions between the younger and older generations of Poles, and with drifters disillusioned by contemporary society, and the central conflict in Knife in the Water – between a materialistic, faux cosmopolitan couple who can afford Western luxuries such as a car and a yacht and a poor, hitchhiking student more aligned with primal matters such as hunting and roughing it – makes the film fascinating to examine as much as a product of Skolimowski’s interests.

In spite of this, the film is definitely identifiable as a Roman Polanski film, and it offers many resonances with the films he would make later in his career. Much of the writing about Polanski’s work has focused on the more lurid details about his private life, interpreting his later work in the light of both the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family, and later on his conviction for the sexual assault of a minor and subsequent flight from the United States. However, for me the most important details in his autobiography which came to shape his work are from his childhood. He was living in the city of Kraków when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and was forced to subsist in the crammed Jewish Ghetto while his parents were deported to labour camps. Like the author JG Ballard, whose work was informed by his experiences as a child in a Shanghai internment camp, Polanski’s childhood trauma seems throughout his career to have shaped his obsession with power, domination, cruelty and the barbarism which underscores all human interactions.

The first of Knife in the Water‘s Polanskian characteristics is the setting – though the water-borne location might suggest freedom and liberty, for Polanski it represents confinement and aimlessness. His best films – especially the so-called apartment trilogy of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) – deal with characters existing in confined personal spaces, in a figurative sense cut off from the outside world, while other films such as Death & the Maiden (1994), Cul-De-Sac (1966) and his more recent film The Ghost Writer (2010) take place on windswept islands more literally cast adrift from the rest of humanity. Water is a key symbol in these latter films, and so too elsewhere: in Pirates (1986) and Bitter Moon (1992) Polanski situates us once again aboard ships, in Chinatown (1974) it is the core of the central mystery plot, and in Rosemary’s Baby, the first of Rosemary’s hallucinatory dreams takes place on a vessel on stormy seas. The other motif in the title – the knife – has both a literal and metaphorical value. Its presence in the film’s title, as well as being an ominous presence throughout the story itself, intimates towards violence, though, as in Michelangelo Antonioni’s ironically titled L’Avventura (1960) – the adventure – it is a promise which goes largely unfulfilled in the narrative. The knife also carries with it a rather obvious phallic connotation for this film about male rivalry, and it is also worth noting that Polanski would go on to make an adaptation of Macbeth, in which a knife and water are both important symbols of violence and the quest for purity and absolution.

There is almost always an undercurrent of violence in Polanski’s films, though rather than exploding physically it more often comes in the form of emotional violence; couples in Polanski’s films are seldom happy together, their relationships more often characterised by cruelty, emotional manipulation, possessiveness, frequently sliding into a kind-of sadomasochistic co-dependency and repressed passion. These relationships are then frequently further disturbed by the introduction of a third party, interlopers who bring these problems in to sharper focus. These sexual triangles – most visible in the likes of Cul De Sac, Death & the Maiden and Bitter Moon – then become funny games about domination. In Knife in the Water, Polanski communicates this visually in his narrow, Academy Ratio frame by employing a deep focus, one character in the foreground looming large over the others in the distance. In spite of this, Polanski’s trademark black humour is evident throughout, thanks largely to the jaunty score by his most important collaborator, the musician Krzysztof Komeda. In spite of its virtues, Knife in the Water suffered from the climate of “freeze” which was once again subsuming the Polish film industry. The Ministry of Culture board initially rejected the script of the film for its lack of social commitment, causing Polanski and Skolimowski to go back and add extra dialogue, what they describe as “some bullshit about the younger man living in student accommodation” which, when the script was resubmitted, was enough to get it accepted several years later. At the kolaudacja screening of the film, the reception by party officials was lukewarm – the ending was deemed too ambiguous, a problem which – bizarrely enough – was apparently solved by changing it from two shots of the scene to just one.

The critical reaction was less favourable: “all Polanski has is an international driving licence and no film school diploma”,  ran one review, and the film was released without fanfare with only a limited run. Even Communist leader Gomułka condemned the film publicly as being “not relevant to Polish society.”  Wajda, however, sensed its importance as a way of moving past the old mode of wartime cinema, describing it as “the beginning of the new Polish cinema”. Miraculously the film was eventually picked up by the New York Film Festival, and it became an international hit, making the cover of Time magazine and eventually winning an Academy Award nomination, where it lost out to Fellini’s 8 ½.

The final shot of the film – a stationary car sitting at a crossroads – is an elegant summation of where it had left Polanski and Skolimowski. The latter continued to toil under the censorious Polish system for the remainder of the 60s until the banning of his film Hands Up! led him to go and work abroad, most famously in England with his films Deep End and The Shout. Polanski, however, took the other road; he moved to Paris, began writing Cul De Sac with Gerard Brach, and emerged two years later in Britain with Repulsion. The rest, as they say, is history.

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.

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

Whilst it can be said that, in the more than a century of cinema, films have been able to inspire many kinds of ideas in viewers, theories about the nature of the cosmos can seldom have been frequently among them them. Yet this is what Dead of Night, the supernaturally-themed anthology film produced by Ealing Studios in 1945, is said to have done in the minds of physicists Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi, whose Steady State theory of the apparent expansion of the universe apparently derived from the film’s distinctive and much-imitated meta-structure. But whilst their theory has long since been refuted in favour of the Big Bang model, the film which inspired it continues to endure as one of the true classics of British horror.

It starts oddly cheerfully, and in a broad daylight seemingly at odds with the title. A car canters along a country lane, with Georges Auric’s breezy score betraying only a hint of the sinister through the brief shiver of strings which greets Walter Craig’s (Mervyn Johns) shake of the head as he appears to recognise his destination, a country manor aptly named Pilgrim’s House. On arrival, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), model of stiff-upper-lip Englishness the kind of which Ealing’s output is more commonly identified with, greets the spooked Craig, who mysteriously seems to be already familiar with the details of his host’s house and his gathered houseguests. Unable to recall anything more than scant details, he remains convinced that he has had repeated dreams placing him in this same situation and with the same group of people; “It sounds like a sentimental song, doesn’t it? I’ve dreamed about you over and over again”, he exclaims with bemusement.

Prominent among the group is Dr Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), a psychologist who will cast his scholarly eye over proceedings, in a way a physical embodiment of the cognitive dissonance internal to Craig as he tries to rationalise why he is able to recall these surroundings which should be entirely unfamiliar to him. The other guests humour him, and one-by-one they take it in turns to recount their own personal encounters with the supernatural. This sets up the primary internal structure of the film, the now-familiar but then-relatively novel anthology format which in this case comprises five sub-stories chained together by the link-narrative of the house party.

The anthology or portmanteau film, a format which was popularized in the 1930s with the star-studded likes of Paramount’s If I Had a Million (1932) and MGM’s Grand Hotel (1932) but whose roots can arguable be traced back as far as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), was a convenient way for a studio to showcase the talent it held on its roster. In the case of Dead of Night, four directors shared the directing duties of the six segments: the now poorly-regarded Basil Dearden handled the linking narrative as well as contributing first tale “Hearse Driver”; Alberto Cavalcanti, who had had enjoyed previous successes at the studio with Went the Day Well? (1942) and Champagne Charlie (1944), provided two segments, and future star directors Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer one apiece.

When considering its various episodes, the inevitable tendency has been to compare their respective qualities. This, to me, seems an erroneous approach, since the film works so successfully precisely because of their differences and their position within the film’s global narrative structure. Credit for this lies with Angus MacPhail, the veteran screenwriter and script doctor who had worked on Cavalcanti’s Champagne Charlie and adapted the Palmer and Saunders story The House of Dr. Edwardes into what would become Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). Notably, he is also generally considered to have coined the term ‘MacGuffin’ for Alfred Hitchcock, and as Charles Drazin argues in his book The Finest Years, McPhail was taken on at Ealing as something of a problem-solver; his input here was essential in helping to weave together the seemingly disparate stories of Dead of Night into a more homogeneous whole.

The first sub-story “Hearse Driver” – in which a man has a vision which appears to warn him of his impending death – is often cited as the weakest of the film’s segments, but though it lacks the both the visual imagination and psychological effectiveness of the other stories, it plays a key role in the wider story. Indeed, the very fact that the occupation of its main focus, Hugh Granger, is a racing driver can be interpreted to be emblematic of the film’s meta-structure: the film opens and closes with the same shot of a car driving along a road, in a sense signifying Craig’s completion of one ‘lap’ in an apparently endless race. The story, lasting a mere 6 minutes, serves as a gentle prelude for the longer, more developed stories to come, as well as acting as an introduction to several of the film’s main running themes. Most importantly, its position in the narrative comes between Craig’s presaging of the arrival of a sixth character – a “penniless brunette” – and her arrival in the link narrative. The short story of clairvoyance thus is bookended by a much longer one; this mirroring is reinforced by the presence in the story of Granger’s doctor, whose rational explanations are in agreement with Dr Van Straaten.

The lack of critical attention give to the Hearse Driver segment may mostly derive from Dearden’s unsubtle directing technique, in particular the way he over-emphasises key elements of the story through a series of clumsy zooms. The key central moment – a reveal from a darkened hospital room to daylight outside – lacks drama, and the sight of the horse-drawn hearse pales into insignificance when compared to the ethereal otherworldliness of Victor Sjöström’s Körkarlen (1921). The story is not entirely without visual merit: the shot of Granger emerging from his bed, casting a massive shadow on the curtain covering the hospital room’s window catches the eye, but there is too much that is forgettable in its short duration. Nevertheless, there are two items of note which will be echoed in later stories. Firstly, the sexual dynamic in the story: while in hospital Granger flirts with his nurse, a women who will later go on to marry. Secondly, the nature of his vision of the hearse, reality and unreality being separated by the frame of his hospital window. Both motifs will be repeated later.

The second tale, Alberto Cavalcanti’s “Christmas Party”, is the film’s most straightforward ghost story. Told by the Sally, the youngest present among Foley’s gathered guests, it begins in the opulent living room of what is evidently a spacious country mansion. The frame is filled with young children scurrying about, playing games with Sally and her friend Jimmy Watson, both visibly older than their playmates. The mise en scene is rich, lively and warm, but as a game of ‘Sardines’ begins and Sally runs upstairs to hide, the upper floors of the house are revealed to be cold and cloaked in menacing expressionistic shadows. There, Sally encounters a boy who she will discover afterwards to be the apparition of a child who was murdered by his older sister in the house many years beforehand.

Despite being only slightly longer in duration than the Hearse Driver segment, it feels a much more satisfying piece and of much greater depth, Cavalcanti evidently proving himself a much more inventive, imaginative director than Dearden. The disparity between the warmth and familiarity of the living room and the cold strangeness of the upper floors is beautifully evoked, the air of mystery teeing up the sense of the supernatural which the first story was lacking. As Sally pauses in the doorway to a spiral staircase there is even a fairytale-like sense of the ethereal, not too dissimilar to Belle’s entry into the Beast’s mansion in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946), surely a reflection of Cavalcanti’s association with the French avant-garde during the 1920s. The muffled, calamitous piano score as she ascends also helps to suggest entry into an off-kilter alternate world.

Once again, there is a sexual element to the story. Sally and Jimmy are noticeably older than the young children they play with, both evidently of pubescent age and already familiar with each other as evidenced by her blindfolded recognition of the shape of his ‘silly’ nose. Their exchanges illustrate a flirtatious, deprecatory fondness between the two of them, though one might advisedly not take too Freudian a reading of the mask he wears with its large protuberant nose. His persistently makes advances, taking advantage of the coldness of the house’s upper levels, though his attempts to kiss her ultimately lead Sally to her discovery of the ghost. On encountering the boy, her very maternal tending and singing to him further suggest her own burgeoning sexuality.

Continued in Part Two…