Friday, October 18, 2019

Dead of Night (1945)

UK, 102 minutes
Directors: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer
Writers: John Baines, Angus MacPhail, T.E.B. Clarke, H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson
Photography: Stanley Pavey, Douglas Slocombe
Music: Georges Auric
Editor: Charles Hasse
Cast: Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Frederick Valk, Mary Merrall, Miles Malleson, Sally Ann Howes, Googie Withers, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Michael Redgrave

It may be hard to make out these days, following the advent and then the primacy of TV, but people have never stopped trying to make anthology films work. Just last year the Coen brothers were at it with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and who can forget such efforts as Four Rooms from 1995 or New York Stories from 1989 (which mysteriously elected to include Francis Ford Coppola and exclude Spike Lee). I have the anthology film associated in my mind with epic art cinema—e.g., Boccaccio '70 (1962), Spirits of the Dead (1968), and others—but even more with horror. That brings us to Dead of Night, which may or may not have been the first horror anthology picture but certainly contributed to popularizing the idea, giving evidence it can be made to work. Someone always seems to be giving it another shot: Kwaidan (1964), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), V/H/S (2012), etc.

And Dead of Night does work, very well in some ways. Before I get to the good stuff here, however, I should sound a word of caution as I have run hot and cold on it even in the few times I've seen it. Episode-based TV, which we have been living with coming out of radio for something like 75 years, with its potential for stand-alone shorts—from Twilight Zone to Outer Limits to Black Mirror—brutally exposes the weakest part of anthology films, which is the strained quality of the narrative connective tissue attempting to tie together different work, often by different directors and almost always by different authors. The episode model lets you dispense with that and focus on the merits of each story rather than something phony that is supposed to unify otherwise un-unified stories. That said, the best part of Dead of Night is exactly that connective tissue, for which it is rightly well regarded.

What people seem to miss in their excitement is that the stories lose a lot of their punch in service to the larger vision. The first, for example, is extremely brief. Known as "The Hearse Driver" here, it's based on "The Bus-Conductor" by E.F. Benson. As usual, the original story version is much better than the film version. Having got to the Dead of Night version first, I had low expectations for the Benson story, but it proved to be much better and more substantial than what we get here (though still pretty much a throwaway stunt as horror goes). Similarly, the next piece up, "The Christmas Story," is just routine ghost story business overall. It barely seems interested itself. The stories more get into gear with the last three, two by John Baines, separated by a comic relief piece based on an H.G. Wells story and featuring windy British stalwarts, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. I don't know the story but it's probably better.

Much of the energy in Dead of Night, indeed, seems reserved for the last piece, about a sentient and malevolent ventriloquist's dummy, featuring Michael Redgrave—and, importantly, also reserved for the framing story, which, as it reaches its climax, plays the neatest trick in the whole picture and possibly in the history of anthology films. The picture opens on Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) pulling up to a country house in his roadster, arriving for an unexplained visit. As his host greets him and ushers him into the house, Craig is having an active and extended déjà vu. He claims he has met all these strangers before—again, part of what makes this story work is its own lack of moorings. Why would he be arriving somewhere for a social occasion in which he didn't know anyone? (It's explained, but only at the end.) He even predicts things that will happen, and then they do happen.

Craig says he can trace this experience back to a recurring dream he has had for years. He says what they are living out together now is all part of what will become a nightmare, when "the horrors" start. There's also a skeptical man of science on hand—an avuncular Germanic psychoanalyst sucking on a pipe—who keeps throwing cold water on everything. The strangers, apparently in the mood now, start swapping stories of the unexplained, challenging the psychoanalyst. For the sake of the overall tempo the early stories are brief, as the movie is more interested in plumbing the meaning of Craig's déjà vu experience, and eventually, in the big reveal of the ending, we see where that story has been driving.

Dead of Night doesn't seem to me that good on dreams, though it makes some shrewd decisions, such as giving some of the players double roles, so they are both in the framing story and also scattered into the stories. The finish is so finely crafted it's practically waterproof and it certainly leaves an impression. The first time I saw Dead of Night I was tuning it out, annoyed by the short shrift the stories were getting and their ineffectuality, which was further hampered by a kind of stultifying woodenness of the production. It's not unusual for Ealing Studios productions of the '40s and their DVD versions but I wasn't used to it then. The ending pierced my indifference and made me look at it again later, and then it seemed artful and extraordinary. Still later, another viewing exposed the weaknesses again. I can't make up my mind. My ultimate impression is that probably the best way to see this movie is the hardest one to set up—discovering it by surprise somehow. You'll have to forget this review now and wait for your opportunity.

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