While Went the Day Well? is by no means an anodyne propaganda film, elements that feel misplaced or troublingly heavy in tone in that film find their proper footing in his 1947 film They Made Me a Fugitive (known, rather more prosaically, as I Became a Criminal in the United States).
It’s ironic that Went the Day Well? is the two of the films based upon a Graham Greene short story, since They Made Me a Fugitive embodies the feeling of his writing and is not dissimilar from his plotting. Clement Morgan is an ex-RAF officer drowning himself in booze from boredom and indolence after the war. He falls in with a small time blackmarket operation who work under the guise of a funeral parlour. Unfortunately, he wrongs the leader of the gang, Narcissus, (his nickname Narci sounding all too similar to ‘Nazi’) and is framed for the murder of a police officer. He breaks out of prison and goes on the run to wreak revenge and clear his name.
Of course, it’s a fair match to Brighton Rock, with the British take on gangsters and the setting playing against the theme (seaside glamour in Rock’s case; a funeral parlour in Fugitive’s). There’s also an overriding sense of doom, of listless and deliberate alcoholism of ennui, of women who are equally victim and vixen. It’s a fantastic mix that doesn’t feel entirely like a British attempt to ‘do’ noir; instead it is a separate category, infected with a British pessimism and post-war malaise. Although we’re used to seeing the noir hero as the man apart, whose troubles cannot be penetrated by anyone (except perhaps Lauren Bacall), this film adds psychological depth to this archetype by relating it to the demobbing experience. Perhaps it’s an overly historical view, but characters like Clem, unable to make sense of their wartime experience, and now unsuitable for legitimate work, might well have been very relatable so soon after the end of the war. As Clem says midway through the film, ‘Madam the only reason I’m a fat headed fool rather than a hero is that I kept on doing what the country put me in a uniform to do after they’d taken it back.’
<Spoilers from now on>
This unsettling thought is but one of the many that dig deep into the mind, beyond the general mood of glum noir. In the scene in which Clem speaks of his wartime experience, a blank eyed housewife invites him into the house while he is on the run. She clothes, bathes and feeds him, but her intentions are not pure. She quizzes him on his war record, and, discovering he has killed (She: “How did you kill him?” Clem: “With a beer bottle. It’s alright… it was empty.”), commissions him to do away with her husband.
He refuses, and there is genuine horror at the thought (indeed, shown throughout as a defender of women, he strikes her). She twists this act of hospitality, just as she twists his wartime experience. There is no valour in killing now, and none in the recollection of it. The values that won the war have changed and become outmoded. Or more precisely, they have stayed the same, but the country now has no use of them and would prefer to forget. But, just as culture fixates on stories of ghost in art and literature after a war, so there’s a collective stain, a gloom that hangs over that sets it apart from its wartime brother.
If the plotting and tone is most similar to Graham Green, then visually it can be paired with Hitchcock. In many ways, this film feels like a continuation of Hitchcock’s English films (the Miss Marple-esque ‘murder in mothballs’ feeling of The Lady Vanishes in particular), the man himself having moved to Hollywood. In the final scene of the film, this becomes particularly true. Narci and his gang are lead back to the funeral parlour by the promise of murdering Clem. The wide range of off-kilter camera angles in the claustrophobic scene in the backroom are very similar to Hitchcock’s.That’s not to mention the sardonic humour: various momento mori decorate the place (including the iconic anti-speeding fatality poster featuring another blank eyed woman), bullets ricochet off angel statuettes and goons spring from coffins. Perhaps the best visual joke comes as both characters track over a smashed sampler motto (“It’s later than you think.”) as the audience recognises that their fighting signals endgame for the picture as well as one of the pugilists.
Furthermore, structurally he mirrors Hitchcock’s time in Hollywood. Often, his films are effectively episodic and always drive forward, never retracing their steps. In They Made Me a Criminal there is a similar drive, an isolation of events from one character’s perspective (think Cary Grant in North by Northwest) that gives the film an urgency such a thriller needs. One classic thriller scenario (also seen in Dark Passage with Humphrey Bogart) has Clem picked up on the roadside and while the driver slowly pieces together their identity. Cavalcanti makes good use of the claustrophobia of the lorry cab by placing the camera never far from the faces of the two passengers. As they approach the roadblock and we break away from the cab for the first time, and the viewer is left wondering where escape will come, we eventually return to the same shot, but now with Clem at the wheel, impersonating the now dispatched driver.
Of course, there’s endless mileage to be had in the comparisons between the Vertigo-like finale on the rooftop that follows. But it’s actually where Cavalcanti sets himself apart from Hitchcock that holds most interest. Narci’s death is a handled in a horrific, cruel way that offers no redemption. His face blacked on one side, almost as though we’re seen part of his soul stripped back, with his dying words he curses Clem. The death rattle with which he says the line will stick with you (‘Oh you do…do you? Well you can both rot in <hell>.’ The last word is mouthed with his dying breath, an effect both infinitely creepy and in accordance with the censors). It’s consistent with the downward spiral of this increasingly nasty film. Narcissus begins as a cheeky and low stakes criminal. He deals in cheap Scotch and Cockney badinage (bringing Clem into his criminal enterprise he plays off the suspicions of the fellow gang members: ‘I’m ashamed of you Bert – standing in the way of a job for an ex-serviceman.’). Soon enough though, we realise he is peddling heroin (“sherbet”), framing for murder and beating women for information. Like a recruit off to war, They Made Me a Fugitive ends with no redemption for its protagonist, having begun so chipper and bright.