Another sad entry in the criminal history of British barbering! For it is a remarkable fact that any time the protagonist of a Brit flick reaches for the straight razor or scoops out a handful of Brylcream, his fate is sealed and the gallows awaits. One need only think of Uno Henning in Anthony Asquith's luminous-black slice of English expressionism, A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), or Eric Porter in Compton Bennett's Daybreak (1948), a British answer to French poetic realism and one of the saddest films ever made (reviewed for The Forgotten here).
Both those films represent clear (and successful) attempts to transplant essentially foreign modes of film-making onto British soil. On the Night of the Fire (1939) is something different: it gathers together all the key elements of the classic American noir, and plays them out in an unusual working class and regional setting, but it does so before Hollywood had encoded those genre principles. 1939 is before Murder My Sweet, The Maltese Falcon, even before Stranger on the Third Floor. Crucially, it's also before World War Two, during which British filmmakers turned their efforts to uplifting propaganda, leaving tales of crime and kitchen-sink misery aside. Social realism didn't find a cinematic outlet for another twenty years.
Based on a novel by F.L. Green, whose work also inspired Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, the film tells a simple story, not so much a morality tale warning against theft, as a doom-laden wallow in paranoia: step out of line, break the social rules forbidding theft, and a whole juggernaut of fate and evil and the heavy hand of justice will come down on you and destroy you and everyone you love.
An opening shot establishes designer John Bryan's Newcastle back-street set. Not too convincing, but moody. The rest of the film does feature some impressive location shots, capturing the northern city which later provided a gritty backdrop to Mike Hodges' Get Carter. (It hadn't changed much between '39 and '71, but nearly every building seen in the later film is now gone.) Strolling through the smoky streets is Ralph Richardson, a struggling hairdresser. Spotting an open window, he sees a stack of money lying unattended. Vaulting cheerfully over the sill, he pockets it and is off. This casual, almost whimsical crime will lead inexorably to his downfall.
Richardson immediately treats his wife (Diana Wynyard, Gaslight) to some new things, but conceals from her the source of his new-found wealth. When she reads of the robbery in the newspaper, the clue of a detached button causes her to realize her hubby's involvement. And when he confesses to her, she in turn confesses that she's run up considerable expenses at the local haberdashery store, out of a touchingly-expressed desire to look attractive again after her recent months of pregnancy. Paying off the debt causes the shopkeeper to realize Richardson's guilt, and now blackmail enters the picture. A shrewd college-educated detective (with new-fangled "psychological" ideas) is hanging around, but a dockside blaze distracts attention for long enough to allow Richardson to graduate from robbery to murder...
Director Brian Desmond Hurst, a native of Northern Ireland, had an interesting film career, beginning as a bit player in John Ford's Hangman's House (1929), padding a crowd scene in the company of another background artist by the name of John Wayne. Hurst made his directing debut with a 1934 adaptation of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, cashing in on the American craze for horror movies, and his best-known credit is the 1951 Scrooge, probably the best adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and featuring the best Ebenezer in the form of the quavering and twitchy Alastair Sim. He was also a veteran of WWI, a flamboyant "terrible old queen," and Ireland's most prolific director.
Much of his work may be competent rather than inspired, and it's possible that the war derailed his career from the very promising track it was on. A killing staged with Bach's Air on the G String playing on a gramophone makes for a striking set-piece, and the total commitment of the whole cast raises the film well beyond conventional thriller status.
Assisting Hurst on script duties is Terence Young, later responsible for helming James Bond's first big-screen outings, and his editor is Terence Fisher, who would breath life into Hammer's Frankenstein and Dracula. Best of all, Miklos Rosza provides an outstanding score. The Hungarian emigre was stopping off in England (a stay which also gave us his score for The Thief of Bagdad) on his way to Hollywood, where his contributions to mainstream noir would include soundtracks for The Killers, Double Indemnity, The Naked City, making him one of the key figures of the hardboiled school. His style, always amongst the most recognizable in the business, had not yet hardened into a persistent set of mannerisms, but there's a thrill to hearing his gypsy violins lamenting over scenes of the murky slums of Newcastle.
Of course, British cinema didn't have a tradition of working-class grit like the Warner Bros. school of American realism, and stage-trained Brit thesps did not naturally adapt to the demands of speaking like ordinary working men and women. The distinctive (and sometimes near-incomprehensible) Geordie dialect is scarcely heard in the film, with most of the cast opting for accents wavering somewhere between Yorkshire and Cockney. But as the city, while quite recognizable, is never named, that's not a fatal flaw. The story does allow for plenty of memorable characterizations, with sterling work from Henry Oscar as the most sinister haberdasher in creation, Mary Clare as a street lunatic ("I'mgonnascreamAAAAAAAAAAH!") Sarah Allgood and Irene Handl as boozy charwomen, and a teenage Glynis Johns. Richardson, in a rare working-joe part, is very touching, and Wynyard conjures her character's vulnerability more effectively than she managed in Thorold Dickinson's Gaslight the following year.
There's no question that the cinema of Britain would have followed a very different path if the war had not energized its efforts towards celebrating the national spirit: that manifested itself in many ways, and led to a post-war ebullience which gave us the romantic vision of Powell & Pressburger, the melancholy irony of Carol Reed, and the operatic intensity of Lean. Hurst did his bit, but the particular vision of social criticism by popular thriller, so successful in post-war American film, did not find fertile ground in the UK after this eloquent and heartfelt film.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
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