Dead of Night (1945, Cavalcanti / Charles Crichton / Basil Dearden / Robert Hamer)
It’s never been easy for British cinema to assert a widespread dominance or even keep the world’s attention for long; the greatest filmmakers always seemed to swarm off to Hollywood, something producer Michael Balcon — as the man who’d ushered Alfred Hitchcock to stardom — knew all too well. But there are a pair of UK films from the 1940s that have had as large and lasting an effect on cinema itself as anything to come out of America in the same period. One is, of course, Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Here’s the other one, the horror anthology film from which nearly all others (and a host of television series) spawned. It comes from the most unlikely of places.
Ealing Studios, run by Balcon during this period, is far better known today for its comedies than for any ghoulish contribution it made to celluloid terror — though there’s a sense in which those dark, occasionally grim farces sometimes are brazen and angry enough to suggest something lurid and menacing underneath. Even the most exhilarating and clever of their films, Kind Hearts and Coronets, runs upon death as its engine of plotting; the same for their only color film, The Ladykillers. Still, it’s impressive that not only would this unlikely-in-every-way setting suggest a filmed nightmare, but that the Ealing contribution to the ever-growing stock of filmed nightmares would have so broad an effect, and would still be remembered with trembling fondness seventy years later. The now-discredited Steady State origin theory of the universe was conjured up as a result of the somewhat maddening structure of this film’s wraparounds. The whole conceit of a group of people gathering together to introduce horrifying ghost stories and eerie anecdotes may not have been invented here, with TCM crediting Waxworks as an earlier instance, but its take has become so implanted on a cultural subconscious that it seems the idea leads back here. That’s despite the fact that the film is not widely available and not many people today have even seen it.
Your Mobius strip is designed thusly: weary and weathered normal Walter (Mervyn Johns) shows up to evaluate an architectural project at a country house, where he lets the group gathered there in on an overwhelming sense of deja vu, that he’s dreamed of all of them in grave detail — and that the dream ended horribly. Everyone giggles about it but some credulity takes hold, until inevitably Walter acts out his dark premonition, an act of murder, and sets off on a surreal flight of fancy terrifyingly reprising the various tales and memories heretofore revealed. Then he wakes up. It was, again, all a dream! He bids farewell to his wife and sets out on the road to evaluate an architectural project at a country house, where he lets a group… well. Though it ends with a bang, the contextual sequences in Dead of Night are mostly just so much pacing around and grousing about believability, nearly always a pointless exercise in movies. Either accept the supernatural nature of the world of the film or quit wasting valuable celluloid; why confuse fantasy with reality in this dull manner? That said, everything weak or middling about the film is justified in large part by the closing sequence — and by the alarming frightfulness of many of the episodes included, trips to the Twilight Zone before there was such a thing.
Basil Dearden, director of the introductory sequences, contributes a brief variation on the traditional “hearse driver premonition” folklore that posits a vision of being told of one’s possible death in enough time to avoid it, the key moment being a real-life appearance of the sinister hallucination. Charles Crichton, many years later to direct A Fish Called Wanda, offers a drab comic-relief story about golf featuring variants on Chalders and Caldecott played by the same actors, neither of whom knows how to work without the strong material Hitchcock gave them, though the image of Naunton Wayne nonchalantly drowing himself is rather priceless. Coronets director Robert Hamer brings forth a stronger, more focused and empathetic — and possibly symbolic, knowing the sexuality and moral ambiguity of Hamer’s other work — marital drama of an engaged couple being nearly torn apart by the gift from future wife to future husband of an unnerving ancient mirror. When Peter (Ralph Michael) looks into the mirror he seems himself in an entirely different room, and feels himself becoming the killer of his fiancée (Googie Withers, another Lady Vanishes vet) who has little idea of the danger she’s in. When she does catch on, it’s thanks to the spooky research of an antiques dealer who confirms the excruciatingly morbid tale of the mirror’s former home.
Similar themes of escape and the lingering past populate the contributions of Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti, whose work is by a longshot the film’s most visually arresting and narratively strong. The short sequence occurring at a children’s Christmas party, featuring a chillingly nonchalant encounter with a young murder victim, has the ghostly texture and spirited deception of youthful memory in perfect black & white. (The reprise of this setting is a powerful element of the film’s climax.) But it’s the ventriloquist sequence starring Michael Redgrave, an outstanding actor who seldom appeared in films, for which Dead of Night and Cavalcanti will forever be remembered and recognized. The story itself, wherein a ventriloquist is tormented by his dummy and their personalities are finally interchangeable, is echoed as often as any narrative line from a classic film, suggested by nothing less than Psycho to say nothing of countless horror stories about dummies and their tightly wound operators. It may be a stretch to say that most of Dead of Night reaches beyond mere creepiness into actual fright, but the final scene of Cavalcanti’s extended segment is genuinely unsettling, followed swiftly by the equally disturbing finale of the linking narrative. The faces of Redgrave and his dummy were ingrained in the minds of a generation of British schoolchildren for life; in some cases, based on internet testimonies, they’re still there cackling, shouting out that menacing “Goodniiiiiight!”
The cast that’s required to carry much of the film is uniformly good, although Frederick Valk’s contribution as a skeptical psychiatrist is mildly overwrought. Withers and Sally Ann Howes each have plum, enthusiastic roles that end up perking up the atmosphere provided by the frequently dour male counterparts. The strongest impression Dead of Night gives is in its photography; it’s amazingly enough the work of three separate men (Jack Parker, Stanley Pavey, and the great Douglas Slocombe) but it’s seamless. Like The Third Man, it matches the almost unbearable tension in its final ten minutes with some of the most memorable shots in cinema history, particularly those in which Walter is confronted by the outstretched arms of undead tormenters, who later gaze at him terrifyingly through a doorway, stacked as if disembodied heads. Quite apart from the lingering effect of Dead of Night as a strong genre piece, it still has the capability of getting someone (i.e., me) up three times during the night to make sure he locked the door. And to make sure he isn’t dreaming all this.