Monthly Archives: August 2010

They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)

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).

Narcissus true reflection

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.

Fantastic transition between a pool hall and the man hunt

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.

Another mild mannered woman turns to violence in this Cavalcanti

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.

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Went the Day Well? (1942)

Alberto Cavalcanti’s films are currently receiving a brief retrospective at the BFI. I’ll be highlighting two of his films in the next two posts: firstly Went the Day Well? and soon They Made Me a Fugitive.

Went the Day Well? tells the story of the invasion of a small British town by disguised Nazi operatives. It’s a curious hodgepodge of ideas and tones, released beyond the point of relevancy, when the threat of an invasion on English soil seemed distant, but, like all the best British wartime pictures, it comments on (and itself constitutes) the unique qualities of the British at a time where their assertion was utterly necessary.

The film is set in the small town of Bramley End. The opening sequence has the camera snaking along a small country road, a perfect scene of English summer leisure awaiting us at its end. This scene acts as a framing device, as a villager outlines the story we’re about to see. It’s significant that the outcome of both the war and the small scale affair that the film covers are assured at this early stage: the British will win on both fronts. It’s a peculiar device, given how far the film goes at times to make us see how precarious victory is. The villager tells us, ‘Nothing was said about it until the war was over, mind.’ These events could really have happened, and their lesson is critical. ‘As peaceful and quiet then, as it is now.’ The underlying message is about the danger on the home front. For the average viewer, deep into the war and detached beyond reports, this tale has a vitality that might have shaken some from their complacency in the local cinema.

The film deals with the village life at all levels, but is no fantasy of the idyllic village. Indeed, almost all of the characters are satirised in one way or another. The lady of the manor, eager to be the centre of attention. The aging maiden, primping herself before her portly beau arrives. The poacher sneaking rabbits under the nose of the dim-witted policeman. Although these characters are clearly types, representatives of the ‘average’ community, their flaws give them a depth that goes beyond the allegorical. Without these faults, the film would fail both in its failure to connect with the viewer by its humour and to give a realistic example for the viewer to follow.

The film makes use of a variety of locations both indoors and outdoors much like its wartime counterpart A Canterbury Tale. As in that film, the protagonists take a moment to look down upon the village they have been walking through from the vantage of a hill. But while in Powell and Pressburger’s film this scene is an opportunity to survey the wonders of England by the American sergeant, here it reveals how vulnerable village life is to infestation, as the disguised Nazi’s plan their attack. Throughout, we’re urged to see how, despite valiant attempts, plans are frustrated and doom seems likely. The tacit message is that prevention (conviction in our suspicions and constant vigilance) would have been better than cure. Of course, the British are ready to put up a fight nonetheless.

Cavalcanti has a facility when it comes to homicide (as we’ll also see in They Made Me a Fugitive). Misrule descends when the first killing happens.  The elderly vicar refuses to comply with their captors and begins ringing the church bell, a signal to the nearby Home Guard of invasion. It’s a chilling moment when the vicar is shot in cold blood and one that feels far more serious than what has come before and sets the tone for what is to come. Unarmed, aged, a man of the cloth: while the film does make it clear that the Germans don’t ‘stick babies on the ends of bayonets’, the cruelty and cowardice of their behaviour is never in doubt.

Flying in the face of this deathly seriousness, the film sets up a series of farcical frustrations to the villagers attempts to get their message out. Pleas for help are scribbled upon egg deliveries: the delivery boy is run off the road by a driver who has used her own unwitting cry for help as a means to plug the gap in her car window. Violence turns to comedy which turns to violence. The landlady of the local pub throws pepper into her captor’s eyes, but there is nothing comic about her horror as she finishes him with a hatchet.

Things become more definite as we move into the Saturday evening of the film (title cards display this information, perhaps to remind us how rapidly all can be lost, and won; indeed the USA gave it the title 48 Hours) and Cavalcanti makes what I always think is an effective turn in the final part: he limits the action to a single location, as the villagers defend the manor house.

Two moments at the end of the film bear close inspection: two deaths, the opposite of each other in ostentation. Nora, misled by the man she loves throughout the film, allows the scales to fall from her eyes. She takes a gun from the arsenal and begins, blank faced, to descend the stair, as an officer explains to two girls off screen how to fire the rifle. This acts as a narration of what Nora must now do. She confronts Hammond in the drawing room as he removes boxes from the barricade. She is certain now, the doubt that prevented her from speaking before removed. Cavalcanti, as always, does not shy away from the violence, but also makes clear the drain it takes upon Nora as she fires aghast. It’s not without humour (her cackhandedness with the gun is unintentionally similar to the modern day ‘gangster grip’) but it has a haunting quality that will stick in the mind far beyond the concluding victory that is moments away.

Likewise the moment of the lady of the manor’s death. She has been harbouring evacuee children in her home and they are holed up in one of the bedrooms. A grenade is thrown through the window and she grabs it without a word. Taking it from the room, she barely has time to close the door before it explodes. There’s only the briefest reaction, a gasp, before the next scene begins. It’s the opposite of the previous death, wordless and shown offscreen, but it makes an equal impact. There’s a purity to the way she handles the situation, the unthinkingness of the sacrifice; neither of these moments are followed up by the film. Cavalcanti takes no time to make heroes out of these people: they are merely doing their duty.

Went the Day Well? is a peculiar picture to say the least. There’s a certain amount of material that seems to be bubbling up from under the propagandist aim, even though British pictures of the period, or at least the ones that are still watched today, are never so simplistic as to not be able to accommodate troubling undercurrents. Perhaps it’s only in Cavalcanti’s post war film that we truly see these elements find their footing. Tune in next time for They Made Me a Fugitive.

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