Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sunday in the dark with Googie

A noir-ish melodrama that anticipates the British "kitchen sink" strain of gritty realism, 1947's It Always Rains on Sunday was the first big hit from Ealing Studios, best known for its whimsical comedies (not unlike the charming Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, shot at Ealing Studios and opening this Friday). The movie, which Film Forum is showcasing for a week beginning this Friday, was co-written and directed by Robert Hamer, of Kind Hearts and Coronets fame.

That was black comedy; this is bleak, though not oppressively so. The film takes place in Bethnal Green, right around the corner from Eastenders. The borough wasn't a bundle of laughs, then, either. It is indeed raining this particular postwar Sunday, and there is a lot of crying on the inside, too, as upper lips are stiffened against the depression of stifled lives. Holding back the most tears is ex-barmaid and housewife Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers), who settled on marraige to the older, blustery George (Edward Chapman). As her son, daughter and stepdaughter go through the motions of an ordinary day, which opens the story out onto the green and its somewhat less-than-upstanding citizens, Rose gets an unexpected respite from her growing bitterness--her former fiance, jailbird Tommy Swann (John McCallum) has slipped away from prison and has shown up at her house looking to make good his escape.

The photo is rather misleading. Rose's misgivings slip away once she agrees to help Tommy and in an erotically charged sequence that would have been unthinkable under the U.S. Production Code the two recommence their affair, Tommy's ring flashing as they embrace in the upstairs bedroom where the criminal is stashed. The heat of illicit passion, not something the British are known for, is palpable and jolts the picture. It jolted Withers and McCallum, too: The performers, who celebrate their 91st birthdays next week, married the following year and reside in Sydney as they plan their 60th wedding anniversary.

Withers, whose most recent screen appearance was in the 1996 Oscar winner Shine, is best remembered for her roles in the classic 1945 horror anthology Dead of Night (in the Hamer-directed haunted mirror segment) and the original Night and the City. Just 29 when this film was shot, I can only assume she was acting frustration, and very skillfully; Rose's disenchantment is practically a living presence, one clearly felt by her children (who hang out with lowlifes or indulge in petty blackmail schemes). Or it may just be that living in England at that straitened time of rationing took a severe toll, hardening a young woman in the manner of the brittle Judith Anderson in Rebecca. (She's an even tougher customer in 1952's City.) There are reserves of warmth in the community but no one in the picture, from the music store owner, a resident of the Jewish quarter, chasing women to the journalist chasing a story, has clean hands. (The music store owner's sister is played by Jane Hylton, who went on to creature features like 1960's Circus of Horrors and The Manster, in 1962.)

I wouldn't call the film a recovered masterpiece; it's good, with a trainyard chase climax finely photographed by Douglas Slocombe, and the depiction of the town as a hotbed of secrets that spill over in the rain is well-done. Apparently it improves on the said-to-be-dull novel on which it was based, though it may not be dark enough for noir lovers and a bit too gimmicky for the kitchen-sink set. There is no improving upon how Withers shows an iced-over heart starting a dangerous thaw, however.

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