Compton Bennett burst upon the British filmmaking scene in 1945 with The Seventh Veil, a weird, sado-masochistically-inflected semi-gothic love story which did much to boost the careers of Ann Todd (neurotic piano prodigy), James Mason (sadistic music teacher) and Herbert Lom (sympathetic psychotherapist). By 1960 he was working mainly in television, having sunk into a kind of middlebrow lethargy along with most British cinema. But in 1948, at the peak of UK cinematic creativity, he directed Daybreak, one of the few British noirs, and a bleaker story than many of the social realist dramas that followed Bennett's career in the sixties. Oddly, the author is also responsible for the story of Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve, another tale of deception and doubled identities, but in a very different key. Monckton Hoffe's tale has here been adapted by Sidney and Muriel Box, who would soon be consumed by the middle-class good taste threatening to sweep over British movies, but here seem animated by the chance to wallow in some good sexy muck.
This is a movie which, as Sam Goldwyn might put it, begins at a hanging and descends deeper into misery from there. Eric Portman (best known perhaps as the sinister squire in Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale) is Britain's hangman, traveling from prison to prison as his work demands. But today, on his last day in the job, he mysteriously breaks down when his latest "client" recognizes him. A flashback will explain all, in due course.
It's a film of multiple identities: Portman works as a hairdresser by day, leaving his partner in charge when he has a special job to do for the state. Only his colleague at the barber's knows about his profitable if grisly sideline. But he has yet another identity, under another name, his birth name, which he's changed somewhere down the line. Under this name, he inherits a fleet of barges, and decides to run this company and leave his other jobs behind. Unfortunately, he will have to carry on as hangman for a few months until a suitable replacement can be found, but the hairdressing business he leaves flat, quipping that if he's ever seen in the establishment again it'll be proof he's lost his mind. (Fateful words...)
In the moodily-named Gravesend, Portman takes charge of his boats, and if the presence of barges in the narrative suggests to you the eroticism of Vigo's L'Atalante or the darkness of Gremillon's Maldone, you won't be far off. More than a noir, this seems like a British answer to French poetic realism (Portman also starred in Corridor of Mirrors, another very conscious attempt to emulate European film manners, directed by future Bond maestro Terrence Young). Even the title recollects Marcel Carné.
Then Ann Todd turns up, dressed in a raincoat like Michele Morgan in Quai des Brumes, and we're into a love story. She appears to be running away from an unhappy relationship, he's eager to start a new life, and they marry with somewhat absurd haste, but then they're into the business of making a home on the barge where his mother lived, rather unhappily, with his brutal drunkard of a father. There are plenty of signs of trouble to come, but the older man seems devoted to his young wife, and she to him.
Portman, by the way, is able to play a working-class character quite naturally. Todd starts by affecting a proletarian accent, which is quite uneven, then drops it completely as the film goes on. Which proves less distracting. Then Maxwell Reed turns up as a Danish sailor, and his accent is so absurd you forget all about everybody else's.
I guess this Irish actor must have had some allure in real life (he married Joan Collins), but it struggles to emerge through the cod-Scandinavian phrasing and greased plume of hair affixed to the front of his skull. He convincingly displays the arrogance and narcissism of the character, but doesn't leave any hint as to why Todd's character would find him irresistible.
Since this is the part of the film where it threatens to turn into a kind of ocean-going version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Reed's lack of conviction as both a Dane and a sex bomb is a slight problem: it's left to Todd to conjure the required sexual obsession more or less by herself. Fortunately, this is possibly Todd's best performance. She's not only unusually warm, she's actually erotic (and has nice outfits). A spiky, sometimes overly glacial presence in films like her husband David Lean's The Passionate Strangers, here she convincingly evokes a sexual passion that threatens to overwhelm her love for her husband. She urges Portman to stay home, but he doesn't recognize the fear she has of her own weakness, and he can't cancel his urgent "business trip", nor can he really explain why it's so important, since he's kept his sideline as executioner a secret from his wife.
As things build to some kind of inevitable tragedy, Bennett directs with low-key skill, shrouding the story in fog and darkness and contriving to glimpse key story details as if by accidents through doorways or between the slats of blinds. Avoiding the chiaroscuro crackle of true noir, he's after the softer monochrome of the French poetic realist school. But while the movies of Carné et al evoked a sense of fatalism which muted the terror of their emotional torments, Bennett provides a more terrible and heartrending conclusion. It's quite un-British: it doesn't seem to teach any moral lesson, although the movie is refreshingly uninterested in gratifying the characters' or the audience's desire for revenge. The story could be taken, I suppose, as a warning of the dangers of unsanctified sexuality, but the emotional affect is too great for such a dated and trivial parable to lie at the root of the story. Things go about as badly wrong as they can, and the film is so compelling we can't get out before the tragedy hits.
I'm reminded of Out of the Past, which in a similar note of generosity, hands the ending over to a minor character. Here, the final scene is carried by Bill Owen, a character player usually cast in comic parts, who would spend the next hundred years of his life, or so it seemed to me, hurtling down hills in a tin bath in an appallingly long-running situation comedy on the BBC.
And I'm also reminded of that line Kubrick quoted approvingly: a work of art is always exhilarating, never depressing, no matter what the subject matter. And Daybreak, despite operating in a predominantly glum post-war register, and ending in awful despair, seems to reach a cathartic frisson of true tragedy, which makes the spectator/participant somehow glad to be alive.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.