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.”

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…

Four Lions (Christopher Morris, 2010, UK)

Thanks to his presence as the lynchpin of the much-lauded television programmes The Day Today (1994) and Brass Eye (1997), the name Chris Morris has become practically synonymous with a particular brand of satire: the lampooning of the mores and excesses of tabloid broadcast news media and the illustration of how both their verbal language and their visual presentation serve to render absurd what little information content is contained within them. Such is these shows’ influence, and the degree to which they are associated with him specifically, that the adjective ‘Chris Morris-esque’ is almost invariably applied to any subsequent programme with a similarly satirical bent.

The expectation that Four Lions (2010), his debut feature film, will follow in this tradition is, however, a misguided one based on the reductive assumption of his status as a kind-of satirical auteur. In fact, the lens through which it is best to examine his career is by seeing it as a series of important collaborations. Significantly, The Day Today, its radio precursor On The Hour (1991) and the later Brass Eye were the product of a largely consistent core writing team: Morris, production whizz-kid Armando Iannucci and co-writers Peter Baynham, Graham Linehan, Arthur Matthews and David Quantick. They were also the programmes in which Morris was not just behind the camera, but in front of it playing the central egotistical anchor, and it is this artificial persona which is as much part of the perception of his work as anything more strictly authorial.

Following this, the surreal and often disturbing late-night oddity Jam (2000) was again a collaboration with Baynham but rather than pastiching the televisual medium, it instead explored a dream-like world with a markedly darker, downbeat tone. His later Nathan Barley (2005) came out of a partnership with writer and columnist Charlie Brooker and was a further move away from outright satire and towards character-based observation. A first foray into something approaching cinema, a short film entitled My Wrongs 8245-8249 and 117 (2002) hinted at a more slapstick approach to comedy than had necessarily been dominant beforehand.

Four Lions is then, despite its obviously political subject matter, an extension of this move away from satire and towards situation-based comedy, reflected in Morris’ choice of collaborative writing team: Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, most familiar as the creators of sitcom Peep Show (2003), as well as contributors to Armando Iannucci’s The Thick Of It (2005) and In The Loop (2009). The former two shows share a commonality in that while ostensibly using ‘realistic’ visual aesthetics – Peep Show is shot exclusively in the first-person, The Thick of It resembles a fly-on-the-wall documentary – the dialogue is written in a heavily-stylized a micro-language that Dashiell Hammett might have done had he been born in the second half of the twentieth century.

The witty dialogue in both shows derives from the internal tensions which arise within a disparate group of individuals thrown together by circumstance, and this proves to be Four Lions’ strong suit too. The characters of the would-be suicide bombers are drawn with broad strokes and, like Peep Show‘s Mark and Jeremy, of little interest in isolation. However, it is in their interactions with each other – their misunderstandings, verbal sparring and exasperation at each others’ stupidity – which raises the most laughs, as does the way that their combined idiocy leads them to conclusions that one idiot alone could not have arrived at single-handedly – one rabble-rousing speech in particular managing to inspire another character to declare their Jihadi ire against a famous brand of wax-covered cheese.

As a knockabout farce, the laughs come thick and fast, and I suspect a less confident filmmaker and writing team would have eased up on the comedy and succumbed to greater concessions towards illustrating the actual physical threat that such a group could cause, even an incompetent one. As it is, our budding Jihadis come over as about as menacing as a Dad’s Army character waving a bayonet but holding it the wrong way around. The wider political point is underlined by the closing montage of mock-CCTV stills, the kind that are shown on news programmes after an actual terrorist attack: far from the anonymous, menacing characters that are impressionistically disseminated in hindsight, the reality that Morris discovered in his research is that they are fallible, comic figures as we all can be on occasion.

If Four Lions succeeds as a comedy, as a film ultimately it feels flawed. The reliance on short, fairly self-contained gag-based routines provides a series of laughs within each individual scene, but because the overall narrative is flimsy and, more often than not, lacking in a clear storytelling direction, all too often each scene feels isolated from the wider story. Since the characters are painted broadly and largely caricatures, there is by-and-large little or no discernible character development, at least until the final scenes, and their very two-dimensional nature removes the reality of the situation to diminish the impact of what political points Morris is trying to make. What pathos is generated is entirely for the character of Omar, the protagonist and most recognizably normal member of the gang, and whose interactions with his wife and young son prove to be the film’s only emotional outlets. It seemed odd to me that his wife Sofia had such an unquestioning attitude towards his plan to widow her, but there are some genuinely touching scenes with his son and his trying to explain to him what he plans to in terms of a badly-judged Lion King metaphor.

Four Lions is, then, a very funny film but one that is let down by some of its own contradictions. Watching this and Cemetery Junction, the Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant film, in close proximity did make me consider what I would prefer: the former, a flawed but challenging singularity, or the latter, a by-the-book film desperately lacking a soul. In the end, I would rather have more of the first.