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.