9 May 2008 | robert-temple-1
Powerful and harrowing drama, a lost tragic classic
This film is brilliantly directed by the largely forgotten Irish director, Brian Desmond Hurst, and brilliantly performed by its entire cast. But it is largely a 'downer', with its plot of the unremitting grinding of the wheels of Fate. It was filmed in 1939 and released in the spring of 1940. With entry into war, the British public no longer wanted tragedies but 'feel-good films', and they must have tried to forget this film, which was too much like reality to be comfortable. This film is really more like the post-War 'noir' films of America, where doom awaits. It must have been the last of the gritty 1930s British film dramas before the ultimate grit of the Blitz hit in 1940. The film is fascinating in many respects. It shows in intimate detail the life of a working-class urban community in Britain, in those last pre-War moments before most such communities were wiped out forever by German bombs. There are many wonderful location shots of the docks and streets of such areas, later reduced to rubble. For much of the film, I struggled to figure out which part of old London near the docks this could be, and thought I recognised a street near the wharves of old Lambeth (near the reconstructed Globe Theatre) which was only finally demolished about 20 years ago. But towards the end of the film, we are shown a shot of the unmistakable railway bridge hurting northwards across the river into Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and I realized this film must have been meant to take place at Newcastle. But no one in the film has 'Geordie' accents (the unmistakable accent of Newcastle folk). They all speak like Londoners except for Sara Allgood, who does her best to suppress her Irish lilt (she was a famous actress from the old Abbey Theatre in Dublin whom Hurst had directed in his earlier films 'Irish Hearts' of 1934 and 'Riders to the Sea' of 1935.) The young Glynis Johns, aged 17 and already in her fifth film, appears as a fey maid in this film. But the central performances are those of Ralph Richardson and Diana Wynyard, as a couple faced with a terrible dilemma. Wynyard is often of the verge of screaming hysteria in this desperate tale, but her stiff upper lip triumphs. Richardson was perfect for these parts as an introspective and worried husband, and was what you might call 'a steady presence on screen'. His great ability was to stand with the camera on his face and suddenly, as we watch, achieve 'realization' of something, with a nervous narrowing and slight twitching of his eyes. Henry Oscar is marvellously creepy as a miser who sits counting his money alone in his shop at hight, while listening to records of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. (The director makes good use of this, and a special shot featuring the gramophone, which is very effective, was later much copied by other directors.) This is an almost unbearably intense tragedy, thoroughly convincing, but it won't cheer you up, so be strong.