The Phantom Light (1935)

In the late 1920s, the British government mandated a production quota for locally-made movies, a measure designed to protect the native industry from being overwhelmed by Hollywood’s ever-quickening output. Faced with far more limited resources and often unreceptive audiences, this protectionist measure was soon to be derided as merely encouraging the making of poor screen filler that degraded the industry’s reputation for hand-crafted quality, as studios churned out short, cheap movies dubbed “quota quickies.” But the age of the quota quickie proved an invaluable training ground for talent, as the filmmakers who emerged in that time were readily able to adapt to the straitened circumstances of wartime production, and WW2 would generally be seen as the real flowering of British cinema. One great filmmaker who undoubtedly owed his career to the quota quickie was Michael Powell. Powell had made his first foray onto a studio movie set in 1928 taking on-set stills for Alfred Hitchcock on Champagne, and within a couple of years signed a deal to direct short, inexpensive films. By the time of his fortuitous encounter with Emeric Pressburger, Powell had already churned out some two-dozen features.

Powell’s output in this phase included an ambitious portrait of big business captaincy contending with Depression-era straits and worker unease, Red Ensign (1934), but The Phantom Light, shot for Gainsborough Films, is perhaps the more revealing and entertaining relic from amongst his juvenilia. Most obviously, it announces Powell’s fascination for travellers heading to the world’s alien fringes, and regional populaces or hermetic subcultures suffering upheaval thanks to strange new arrivals or transgressive influences, and his ironic tendency to exoticise corners of the seemingly familiar world. Such fixations he would take up more concertedly with The Edge of the World (1937), generally regarded as his first truly personal labour and breakthrough to wder attention, and enlarge upon in works like I Know Where I’m Going (1945), Black Narcissus (1946), Gone to Earth (1950), and They’re A Weird Mob (1966). In The Phantom Light this theme is played mostly for wry comic value, casting stage star Gordon Harker as a crusty lighthouse keeper, Sam Higgins, who finds himself assigned at short notice to the North Stack Light, located just off the coast from small Welsh village of Tan-Y-Bwlch.

Arriving at the town’s railway station, Higgins is bewildered by bursts of Welsh and cheered to encounter a porter who’s been sent into exile from Clapham Junction. He's thrust into the company of the comely but seemingly rather batty Alice Bright (Binnie Hale), who offers many, increasingly unlikely narratives regarding her background and identity, and seems determined for some reason to accompany Higgins to his lighthouse; Higgins huffily infers she’s a prostitute, to her great offence. Also seeking passage to the lighthouse is another stranger in town, Jim Pearce (Ian Hunter), who tries a more direct approach with Higgins in buying him booze and offering bribes, but earns only Higgins’ proudly contemptuous dismissal. 

Higgins’ hearty vigour is however dimmed as he learns the reason for his rapid call to service: the last chief of the North Stack was found dead that morning, and another of his crew, Tom Evans (Reginald Tate), seems to have been driven barking mad, to the point where local doctor Carey (Milton Rosnier) advises against taking him off the light until he’s had time to calm down. Higgins eases into his new post with the jitters for a night spent with a loony as well as hulking, balefully superstitious underling Claff Owen (Herbert Lomas). Claff recounts the mysterious circumstances surrounding the previous night’s calamities, and legends of dead men rising from the sea and a ghostly light that sometimes appears on the cliffs and lures ships into crack up on the rocks. Meanwhile Pearce hires a motor boat to sneak out to the light, with Alice stowing away, and Higgins reluctantly brings them into lonely structure after their boat runs out of petrol.

The Phantom Light saw Powell working with material similar to what Hitchcock had wrestled with in his Number Seventeen (1932). Both are adaptations of stage comedy-thrillers, and as in Hitchcock’s film every now and there’s a potent flash of a director’s native talent struggling to emerge from the music hall-inflected satire on hoary pulp shenanigans, in the context of the early sound cinema and studios still struggling to adapt to the new form. The eerie, isolated setting of The Phantom Light seems made for sinuous, claustrophobic tension and mounting mystery, and Powell does wring the material for some of this, but the film is mostly a jokey, sometimes intriguingly self-aware project that pokes fun at its own roots. The script was taken from a stage farce penned by Joan Roy Byford and Evadne Price. In this regard, Powell was luckier than Hitchcock, because the material he landed here was a bit better. The Phantom Light makes for an odd mixture of the sophisticated and silly, the anticipatory and the hackneyed.

Harker had also made films with Hitchcock, having acted in ChampagneGrouchy, balding, and sarcastic, Harker probably never had a better screen vehicle than this, as he offers a prototypical version of a now fairly familiar brand of comic protagonist, one who assesses his own jokes (“That’s not bad, he judges after one quip), and tossing pop culture-accented jokes about, some of which are still comprehensible (“Blummy,” he exclaims upon seeing the hulking Claff, “King Kong.”) and others that require a little historical knowledge (listening to one of Alice’s improbable histories, claiming to have been a stage actress chased by rival lovers and involved in murder, Higgins asks if she was starring in the infamously overwrought melodrama East Lynne). Harker’s screen persona, alternating bluff and pompous posturing with attacks of quivering anxiety (faced with the lunatic Evans, Higgins waves a bottle of sleeping pills and a wooden baton at him, telling him he has two ways to put him to sleep), is a little reminiscent of Bob Hope’s, if with a much more working-class, very London sensibility, and The Phantom Light has many similarities as a bogus-haunting tale to Hope’s later starring vehicle The Cat and the Canary (1939). A few other British music hall stars migrating into cinema, including Will Hay and Arthur Askey, would follow with their own similar vehicles (Oh! Mr Porter, 1938; The Ghost Train, 1941), whilst today the mix of comic shenanigans and very mild spook-house frissons linked to criminal enterprise inevitably calls to mind Scooby-Doo.

Hunter, who would soon head to Hollywood (Richard the Lionheart in The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938, is probably his best-known part), makes for a persuasively cool hero, offering an edge of sly knowing even in playing the nominal straight man matched against Harker and Hale’s insistently cute-annoying performance as chatterbox Alice. Hale contrasts Harker’s surprising edge of post-modern whilst also extending it, as her role as an apparently compulsive fabulist allows her to careen wildly and satirically through every conceivable melodrama cliché, until eventually she proves to be the voice of nascent social shifts, as she’s actually a police detective sent to team up with the oblivious Pearce (“What’s the force coming to?” Higgins scoffs). The mystery they’re contending with, which both Pearce and Alice are aware of but Higgins is initially oblvious to, is actually a plot by locals, led by Carey, to sink a ship Pearce’s brother is an officer on, as part of an insurance swindle. Higgins however overhears only part of Pearce and Alice's conversation, and comes away with the impression they’re a pair of “ruddy Bolshies” intending to blow up the lighthouse in an act of terrorist mayhem. 

Harker and Hale pull off a neat bit of physical comedy as Higgins tries to get Alice snugly ensconced in a borrowed pair of his trousers, after she’s had to peel off her wet things. This leads into the inevitable jigger of sex appeal as Alice cuts his pants down to a pair of short shorts, revealing a pair of gams that must have really set pulses moving in 1935. The ladies get the sight of burly Hunter stripping off his shirt to make a heroic swim back to shore and rouse aid after the evil plots succeed in knocking out the light. When the vaudeville quips run out, Powell stages the finale’s eruptions of action and urgency well, with Rosnier effective as a clipped, cool Moriarty-ish villain. Powell is restrained by the setting and dialogue-heavy rhythms, but his occasional cutaways to menacing shadows on walls and doors inexplicably closing and opening, conjuring the sensation of being watched and stalked by forces subliminal, see him writing extremely rough drafts for the animate halls of the Black Narcissus nunnery, the fantasy landscapes of The Red Shoes (1948) and countryside of Gone to Earth. Tate’s look of blazing-eyed madness as his character raves in the throes of trauma, filmed by Powell in abrupt and thrusting close-up, looks forward to the glowering ferocity of Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus and Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes. The opening shots of Harker framed against passing Welsh countryside from a train spurns back-projection and hints at Powell’s early dabbling in neorealist methods.

This aspect to Powell’s style also bobs to the surface in his documentary-like interest in the business of running the lighthouse and the actions of ocean rescue teams setting out in the finale. Powell shoots such sights with severely canted expressionist camera angles that nudge reportage towards a more heightened and dreamlike sensibility, clearly revealing this fascinating dichotomy in Powell's art, the tension between realism and the fantastical that would define and lend vibrant propulsion to so much of his subsequent output, was nascent here. The director is delighted by off-hand sights and bits of business, from a shy but smarmy policeman flirting with his female equivalent, a rotund pub landlady, to Higgins' pride in serving up sausages fried to his exacting standards. A biblical quote carved into the interior of the lighthouse’s cylindrical wall is read in a dazzling camera pivot during a montage that describes the lighthouse in anatomising images rather than via stolid establishing shots. The finale sees Powell properly cut loose as action takes over, the phantom light itself shines out eerily from the cliffs, and the director hits crescendo with a rather amazing spasm of Dziga Vertov editing, as our heroes desperately try to get the lighthouse relit and a ship has to avoid being shattered on the rocks. Nobody would ever mistake The Phantom Light for a lost classic, but it’s the kind of quaint, atmospheric, sprightly by-product that still makes for a perfectly relaxing hour and a bit, and clearly reveals in flashes a great talent behind the camera, straining at all tethers of finance and industrial expedience to demonstrate itself.

The Phantom Light can be viewed here on YouTube.

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