Saturday, 23 April 2016

The edge of the World … The Phantom Light (1935)

"I am a sucker for lighthouses. The lonelier and more inaccessible the better. And I love comedy thrillers. I said yes to this one right away, and never regretted it. I enjoyed every minute. The less said about the plot the better…” Michael Powell, A Life in Movies

This is one of Michael Powell’s quota quickies made when he was learning his trade as a director and helping to keep cinema British at least long enough for the main feature to be shown. With the freedom of a tight budget he manages to work some sense of wonder with this film and there are emerging themes that would later be trademark.

And then there were four...
Based on a play taken from a book, The Haunted Light by Evadne Price, The Phantom Light treads that fine line between humour and “horror” in the same way as Arthur Askey’s The Ghost Train (ithankyou!) and Will Hay’s Ask a Policeman. It’s an unabashed guilty pleasure but with some substance.

Actual Wales
For a start, literally, Powell opens the film in actual Wales, as a train (on the Festiniog Railway no less) carries lighthouse keeper Sam Higgins (Gordon Harker) through southern Snowdonia to Tan y Bwlch station. He’s greeted by a gaelic-speaking old woman in local dress who wishes him “nos da” and leaves him to his own devices.

He comes across a stranded blonde, Alice Bright (Liverpudlian stage-star, Binnie Hale) who looks like she’s fallen off the back of a pre-code screwball comedy. The two meet a railway worker who points them on their way in pure cockney…

Prynhawn da...
They arrive after a bumpy car journey through more landscape in what is now gorgeous Gwynedd to arrive at a very welcoming village inn. Everyone if very keen to greet the new keeper for the Northstack Lighthouse, not just because they are welsh and hospitable but because there’s a ghostly mystery… and the previous two keepers didn’t complete his contract in the most unorthodox of ways…

Fishing in the pub
Alice is also most interested in the Northstack and she is very, very keen to visit it as, indeed, is a business man from down south called Jim Pearce (Hitchcock's silent boxer Ian Hunter) who plies Sam with double rum but to no avail. Alice asks Jim for help too but he’s not buying her little girl lost routine. Not surprisingly, what’s so special about a dangerous, possibly haunted lighthouse?

Sam makes his way over with the local crew including David Owen (Hitchcock's silent blackmailer Donald Calthrop) and a Doctor Carey (Milton Rosmer) who has to see to one of the men, Tom Evans (Reginald Tate), who has developed a fever leading to violent, hallucinatory episodes (yes, I know…). The Doctor decides that he is too ill to leave the lighthouse (yes, I know…) – it is a long way to Ysbyty Gwynedd.

Serious moonlight
Sam is pleased to renew acquaintance with an old mucker, Claff Owen (Herbert Lomas) who is out of his mind with worry about the ghostly light that has appeared, luring a merchant vessel to its doom whilst their own light was mysteriously shut down.

All perfectly reasonable… and then a boat arrives carrying the intrepidly-determined Mr Pearce and, what’s more, Alice has stowed away completely undetected! The seas are now a bit choppy and Alice takes the perfectly logical step of jumping into the water in order to get to the lighthouse (the reason will be apparent in a sec...)

Binnie in her water-proof high-heels
Both safely “on-board” Alice is wet through and there is no option but for her to get undressed in the room with the disturbed Tom in it and then to put on Sam’s Sunday best. Problem is, the trousers are a bit big for her and so she – again – does the logical thing and cuts them as really short-shorts: all the better for showing off the lengthy Hale legs which still retain her high-heels (maybe they’re water-proof?).

So, there we have it, a lighthouse full of mystery – an unwanted ghost, two unwanted guests, a woman in unnecessary shorts… all is set for a final third of nail-biting predictability.

Hunter and Hale
But, all said and done, the film has a little bit of magic, the locations and the lighthouse claustrophobia work well and the performance of Harker in particular. Graham Greene praised his “sure-fire Cockney performance” in The Spectator, reflecting Powell’s own assessment… “Gordon Harker was one of those naturals that every country has – a face to remember… He had one of those flat, disillusioned Cockney faces, half-fish, half-simian, with an eye like a dead mackerel… he could hold a pause as long as any actor I had known. Close-ups were made for him…”

Dead mackerel eyes...
Herbert Lomas is great at evoking wide-eyed terror and sometimes has to stand and wait while the rest catch up. Binnie is very hale and hearty whilst Ian Hunter is an upstanding leading hero (although he was Powell’s second choice after Roger Livesey, whose time would come…).  Whilst there’s a host of excellent character actors in support – I especially liked the relationship between the local bobby Sergeant Owen (Edgar K. Bruce) and the pub landlady Mrs. Owen (Alice O'Day).

Ian Hunter, not Roger Livesey
Roy Kellino’s cinematographic skill helps the director catch those wonderful glimpses of Wales – even the bits filmed in Devon where the actual lighthouse – Hartland Point – was (mostly). There would be much better days ahead for MP but this was a worthwhile stopping point en route to his greater, more personal works.

Powell was already thinking of St Kilda...
The Phantom Light has just been released on budget DVD from Network who are on a good run – unearthing some overlooked and long-forgotten neo-classics of British cinema – quota-produced and fuller-budgeted alike.

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