BluRay/DVD Reviews

CLASSIC BRITISH THRILLERS

By • Apr 17th, 2009 •

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There’ve been a slew of “Quota Quickies” released on DVD in the past few years, a treasure trove of British ‘B’s, mostly labeled as ‘noirs’, mostly culled from the Hammer Library, and mostly released by VCI. There’s been no discernable theme exhibited in these collections, nor any directorial hand. Not so with this MPI collection which, from a different studio – Gainsborough – dredges up two early exercises from the directorial fist of Michael Powell, shortly thereafter to become, with partner Emeric Pressburger, one of the most beloved and respected filmmakers in the world, a position he still holds today.

I’ve heard and read varying things about his two films in this collection. Some say it’s Powell getting adjusted to the medium. Others think even less of them. Personally I was bowled over by THE PHANTOM LIGHT. I think it’s everything the director would stand for as the decades rolled by, and the criticism strikes me the same as the critics who dismiss Chaplin’s Mutual shorts as rudimentary works. They’re some of Chaplin’s best films, despite being only twenty minutes long and produced by a studio he didn’t own, and serve as trial runs for all his comic concepts, script structures, and directorial skills.

THE PHANTOM LIGHT, released in 1935, is redolent with Powell’s love of rural life forms – dissident personalities clashing from moment to moment, comprising the real substance supporting a superficial plot, and, as Hitchcock was given to drawing us into his thrillers with the droll patter of classic British character types, so Powell here indulges us similarly, only moreso. The humor is sharp, the rhythms are quirky, and it all holds up surprisingly well. Additionally, the casting is superb (with one exception perhaps), and the performances feel quite real and (intentionally) dramatically uncomfortable.

Quoting Powell from the first volume of his encyclopedic autobiography, concerning his lead actor: “Gordon Harker was one of those naturals that every country has – a face to remember: in France Fernandel, in Mexico Cantinflas, in Italy Alberto Sordi, in America Humphrey Bogart, in Ireland Victor McLaglen, in Germany Conrad Veidt, and in England Gordon Harker. He was one of Hitch’s favourite faces, and Hitch had helped to make him into a star. He had one of those flat, disillusioned Cockney faces, half-fish, half-Simian, with an eye like a dead mackerel. In one of Hitch’s first successes, THE RING, a boxing picture, Gordon Harker had played one of the hero’s seconds and nearly stole the picture. He was wonderful in silent films, but even better in talkies. He got his effects with all sorts of strange sounds, and to my delight he could hold a pause as long as any actor I had known. Close-ups were made for him, and we both took full advantage of it.”

All this is absolutely true. Harker’s rhythms are fabulous, and nine out of every ten deadpan jokes he cracks still work today. It’s worth watching the film just for his performance, but the rest of the cast is galloping along right behind him. Powell adds that, concerning the co-starring role of ‘Jim Pearce,’ “I had a major disappointment over casting. This was my first experience of being overridden by the front office and I didn’t like it…I got Ian Hunter, a contract artist… But I vowed to myself that one day I would make Roger [Livesey]’s husky voice beloved all over the world. And I did.” Check out A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH to see just how well he honored his vow.

Despite my love of this little film, with its odd twists and bizarre characters, I fell asleep watching it and it took me two nights to straddle all 76 minutes. But I had a stomach ailment during those days, and I blame my illness, not the film. The quality of the print/transfer is good. The sound, so often a problem with British films of the period, is also good. There were some lines I couldn’t catch, so I watched it the second night with the subtitles on, and some of the dialogue became clearer for me, while other colloquial phrases remained a mystery even when spelled out.

Now, much as I liked THE PHANTOM LIGHT, you can see its ‘B’ limitations clearly when viewing another film in the collection, THE UPTURNED GLASS (a title, incidentally, whose significance eludes me). Though packaged with the two Powell ‘Quota Quickies’, GLASS is an ‘A’ film, one which was produced to rival Hollywood Production value, which is testified to by J. Arthur Rank’s name on a solo title credit. There is a general sense of gloss which the others lack, and wish they had. In addition to the gloss, which certainly doesn’t guarantee a film’s success, it has a good screenplay and a grim, effective central performance by James Mason, who also co-produced. I was taken by the film’s inventive structure, and shocked by its ending. It has been astutely pointed out by Doug Pratt in his ‘DVD LaserDisc Newsletter’ that GLASS is a precursor to Hitchcock’s VERTIGO in a number of ways. One of them, weirdly, is the score, which, in several passages, pre-quotes Bernard Herrmann, though more from NORTH BY NORTHWEST than VERTIGO.

Mason plays a brain surgeon who breaks the socially empty pattern of his life by falling for the mother of a young patient. I actually can’t go further than this without littering the review with ‘spoilers,’ but the narrative goes quite a bit further, way into noir territory. I had a few problems with the film, one being the casting of the mother/love interest (Rosamund John). Nothing intrinsically wrong with her as an actress, but being neither beautiful nor sexual nor unique, she disallowed me the willing suspension of disbelief to buy Mason’s obsessive attraction to her (even though his narration acknowledges that she was in no way special), nor did I detect the requisite chemistry between them – I was just told it was there, and shown that it should have been (there is, in all fairness, a voluptuous kiss that’s beautifully shot and performed, and really does sell their compatibility for a moment). And unfortunately a great deal hinges on that. And later on, in Act three, there were a few other problems, but again, I’d be spoiling the fun by discussing them. In balance, it’s a satisfying cinematic journey.

The print quality of THE UPTURNED GLASS is very good, with only a few areas in which there appears to be irreparable negative wear.

And as a convoluted aside, Pamela Kellino, who both co-authored the script and co-starred in the film, was the wife of cinematographer Roy Kellino, who shot Powell’s THE PHANTOM LIGHT. She met and had an affair with James Mason on the set of an earlier film, I MET A MURDERER, which was produced, directed and shot by her husband. She divorced Kellino in1940, and married Mason in 1941. Their marriage ended in divorce in1964. Her first husband died in1956, aged 44. Mason died in 1984, having been remarried in 1971 to Clarissa Kaye, with whom he appeared in Powell’s final feature, AGE OF CONSENT (1969 – released on a double bill DVD with A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH earlier this year by SONY) and SALEM’S LOT (1979), and to whom he remained married until his death. Pamela, whose film and TV appearances included JEW SUSS (1934), ‘The James Mason Show’ (1956), DOOR TO DOOR MANIAC (1961), and ‘The Pamela Mason Show’ (1965-66 – which she hosted), died in 1996, having never remarried.

Both of these films, and hence the collection, are RECOMMENDED.

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3 Responses »

  1. Wonderful collection I’ll have to keep my eye’s open for. Now if only for a remastered print of “THE HIDDEN ROOM” (“OBSESSION”) starring Robert Newton on dvd………

  2. This sounds like a wonderful collection to own as I always have been a sucker for these great little gems. If only for a nice dvd release of the ghost tale “A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN”
    starring James Mason with Margaret Lockwood.
    Or, for that matter “THE HIDDEN ROOM” starring Robert Newton under its original title
    “OBSESSION”!

  3. I wish someone would rediscover the Eric Portman film CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS which also has the distinction of introducing Christopher Lee to the public…he has one line….I love Eric Portman and any opportunity to see this talented man is worth the effort….well done Roy….

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