Dead Of Night (1945)

Directors: Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Deardon, Robert Hamer.

Starring: Mervyn Johns, Frederick Valk, Michael Redgrave.

Ah, there’s something about a compendium isn’t there. They remind me of Christmas, as a youngling tearing the wrapping off the annual Top Of The Pops compilation album, chock full of the year’s greatest hits (hits on the vinyl, tits on the record sleeve – result!). Variety, eh? A bit of everything. I mean, you’re sort of getting a bunch of films for the price of 1. And if any genre benefits from the portmanteau format it’s horror/ supernatural. Yeh, compendiums and horror go together like coffee and cream, pineapple and gammon. Rain and Manchester (wryly glances out of window). Without further ado I give you, Dead Of Night.

Safe to say the film is very much a product of its time. Horror flicks were heavily censored in the UK between 1937 and 1950 – an ‘H’ certificate to restrict the audience to 16 and over. In fact between 1942 and 1945 ‘H’ films were banned altogether; wasn’t there real horror enough, shown in the flickering World War Two newsreels of the day? The Government deemed it so. This in mind, Ealing Studios took a mighty risk with Dead Of Night. But the gamble paid off, Britain’s censors awarded the film an ‘A’ certificate making it accessible to a younger audience, albeit in the company of an adult. How did they swing the certificate? They’ve been a bit crafty, see, hiding the proper chills amongst slight and whimsy. I can easily imagine censors clocking the first two Dead Of Night segments and then sneaking off for a cheeky glass of port instead, satisfied that there would be nothing terribly scary to follow and the sensitive British folk were completely safe in the hands of Cavalcanti & Co. And luckily, the movie-starved public were more than ready – relieved, even – to lose themselves within a few fictional frights…

The first thing to strike you is just how awfully well-spoken these people are (censor placating posh folk, methinks another clever certificate dodging trick). Second, there’s a shed-load of politically incorrect smoking going on! Seriously, if ever a Spec-Ed DVD is released all the cigs will be CG’d out and replaced with walkie-talkies. Anyway, into this company comes an architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns – Scrooge, 1951) who has been invited to discuss renovations to a lovely farmhouse. Craig immediately seems ill at ease and strangely knowledgeable about the place and its occupants even though he’s never been here or met them before. All of this, he tells them, belongs in a recurring dream he’s been having. This odd revelation naturally piques their interest and they are inspired to impart personal tales of the uncanny for the benefit of sceptical psychiatrist Von Straaten (Frederick Valk – Thunder Rock, 1942) who is keen to debunk Craig’s dream and their stories with professional expertise…

Two brief, almost dainty segments set us on our way. The Hearse Driver directed by Basil Deardon (Khartoum, 1966, plus he also shot the excellent framing farmhouse narrative here) features a race car driver, Hugh Grainger (Antony Baird, who went forth mainly into episodic television) involved in a near fatal crash. On waking from a fever it appears he has been given the gift of future sight. We also hear the film’s catchphrase for the first time – “Just room for one inside, sir!” This is followed by The Christmas Party directed by Cavalcanti (Nicholas Nickleby, 1947). A young girl, Sally (Sally Ann Howes – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968) is playing hide and seek in a rather stately house with friends (including pervy Jimmy who you will want to punch repeatedly). While hiding she discovers a little boy, weeping and frightened – and you’ll know what’s coming since Jimbo has already planted the seeds earlier.

It’s interesting to compare the difference in style, Deardon’s contemporary, matter-of-fact setting alongside Cavalcanti’s grandeur and opulence. And though Sally and Grainger are of the same time period, they could easily exist decades apart. I kind of got wrong-footed, must have been the ‘fancy dress’ and the Victorian-era decor – “How can they be together in the farmhouse, same age as they are in the stories when one is set… oh. Ah.” That’s the subtlety of The Christmas Party, I suppose time has slipped for Sally. Whereas The Christmas Party uses its short running time to perfection, I always feel The Hearse Driver could do with another five minutes or so, have Grainger build up to his big flash with a couple of smaller ones first, maybe move to catch a vase before it’s been dislodged, or knowing that a specific person will enter the room – that kind of thing. All in all, both tales are an easy warm-up for the chunky stuff…

Oh aye, my favourite segment, The Haunted Mirror, directed by Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts & Coronets, 1949). A well-to-do fella, Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael – Children Of The Damned, 1963) is given an ornate mirror by his fiancé, a mirror that does not always show the correct reflection. Indeed, poor old Pete keeps seeing another room, in another century. There’s something utterly compelling about a mirror with the power to reflect a place other than the one you’re standing in, or even a person other than yourself – the neck hairs go up just thinking about it to be honest. There’s a sense of the Lovecraftian pervading the story, I kept expecting to see an unfeasibly tentacled creature creep closer and closer to our Pete each time he looked in the mirror. It’s more insidious than that; the ‘monster’ is already present in the room… The Haunted Mirror also features the best scene in the whole movie for me, as Cortland, staring blankly through a fog of cigarette smoke, quietly imparts his worst fears of the mirror to his fiancé, Joan (Googie Withers – Night And The City, 1950). The camera slowly pushes in as he speaks and you’ll find yourself leaning forward along with it, hanging on his every word.

And then it happens. Just as the atmosphere is cranking up nicely, along comes The Golfing Story directed by Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951) in which golfing pals play for the hand of a lady. It’s a “What were they thinking?” moment. Now, away from Dead and placed in a comedy collection this would be a mildly diverting little wheeze but here, right in the middle of the most suspenseful part so far of a horror film? The story is an intentional joke as told by farmhouse owner Eliot Foley (Roland Culver – Rockets Galore!, 1957) to give his guests a laugh after Googie’s mirror chiller and a subsequent nervy outburst from Craig. Likewise, it serves the same purpose for the audience (and the ruddy censor, no doubt). But frustratingly, it pulls the rug out from under the carefully constructed sense of rising dread. It just seems to be in there to allow Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne to reprise their popular recurring characters (though not in name) from The Lady Vanishes (1938). What Dead needed at this juncture was another sketch in the mould of The Christmas Party to sustain both atmosphere and momentum. That said, Cavalcanti wastes little time in winning it back…

The best known segment, rightly so, is The Ventriloquist’s Dummy and starring Michael Redgrave (Thunder Rock, 1942) as Maxwell Frere, a famed ventriloquist suffering a minor problem controlling his dummy, Hugo. Redgrave is great, again, all wild-eyed paranoia and hysteria-tinged tittering while he runs a gamut of emotions, from helplessness to drunken resignation and ultimately vengeful rage. Director Cavalcanti never allows the audience to be sure whether Hugo has become a living, malign presence or it is Frere, manifesting a chronic dual-personality disorder. There are a couple of moments when Hugo moves and Cavalcanti knowingly disguises contact between Frere and his dummy. And there’s one very creepy moment when Frere’s acquaintance Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power – Roman Holiday, 1953) innocently scoops limp Hugo up under his arm and we see the dummy’s eyebrows flutter… The final image of Redgrave is quite chilling. You will laugh, but it’ll be a nervous laugh. I don’t think there’s any doubt that The Ventriloquist’s Dummy was a huge influence on the Anthony Hopkins starrer Magic (1978).

By now the shadows have deepened, impeccably managed by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Raiders Of The Lost Ark, 1981) to mimic the passing of the hours. As Craig’s prophecies pile up we swing into my second favourite moment in the film, a breathless and twisted sequence when all of the featured tales (excluding comedic golf shenanigans) merge into one, a nightmarish collision that culminates with Hugo and Craig, and a host of macabre faces pressed to the bars of a cell door while the image shrinks toward Dead’s possibly circular climax…

The film is won by Frederick Valk (teaming up with Thunder Rock co-star Redgrave again) as the German psychiatrist Doctor Von Straaten. Step up, mate, take a bow. His verbal skirmishing with the British really does give away the mood of a nation during the Second World War! But he stands his ground and delivers a performance I’m quite sure has been the inspiration for many actors picked to play an accented psychiatrist/ doctor. When comedian Kenny Everett wrote the character of ‘Dr. Heinrich Von Gitfinger’ for his Captain Kremmen radio show, he must have been watching Valk at some point! It’s quintessential; one line after another – pure gold. In the face of their ganging up on him – “You know, I’m a little in-digger-nant.” Love it. And as all their tales stack up to shoot his theories down – “I’m becoming quite alarmed!” Quality. Just recite those lines in your best German psychiatrist voice. But it’s the way he puts his glasses on that slays me. Having already nearly missed his own face early in the film, he adopts this marvellously deliberate ‘over the eyebrow’ manoeuvre. Cracks me up every time.

Dead Of Night is regarded as a classic and I wouldn’t argue with that. But I can’t help but think The Golfing Story puts a dent in its classic status. Listen, I’m sticking my neck on the line here, for such utterances British film historians would have me executed for treason. I’m not trying to take the gloss off the movie, just pointing out it could have been a more potent and consistently terrifying experience. There are some great performances throughout, particularly from Redgrave, Valk, Ralph Michael and Mervyn Johns. Incidentally, the barman in The Golfing Story is the voice of ‘The Book’ in BBC TV’s The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (1981), an uncredited Peter Jones.

The film can be found in several parts on YouTube – http://tinyurl.com/yb5f4fp – but grab a better quality copy if you can.

ThereWolf, November 2009

About ThereWolf

I only come out at night... mostly...

20 responses to “Dead Of Night (1945)”

  1. M. Blitz says :

    Never seen this. Comedic golf story? Wow.

    Still, I’ll have to take a look. Is the youtube copy really bad? Oh wait, I guess I can just find that out myself, seeing as you conveniently linked to it. Hmmmm….

  2. Lord Bronco says :

    Excellent review-you can and do outdo even Abominable SnowCone in sheer verbosity as well as rarefied wit.

    I would say more, but it’s nappy-time for me.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Cheers, Bronco. I do try. I’ve never seen meself as a reviewer – when I read back what I’ve written all I see is “waffle, waffle, waffle, waffle…”

      Mmmm… waffles. Now I’m hungry…

  3. Bartleby says :

    An excellent review, There. One of the finest I’ve read in a while. Ilove this movie and you aren’t wrong about the golf story. For years Ive shown this one and skipped that segment. Lately, it was on AMC and my wife was like, where did this section come from? I never remember it. I then had to point out my ruse. The dummy and christmas party segments are first rate though.

  4. Continentalop says :

    I like DEAD OF NIGHT, but I also find it really disapointing. So many of the vignettes start out strong and have a good set-up, but then fail to deliver. “The Christmas Party” had great sense of dread when the young boy talks about his cruel sister; I was just dreading the moment she appears, but she never shows up. A missed oppurtunity.

    Same with Hamer’s segment, since the previous owner of the mirror had been described as a bitter cripple, I was fearing his appearance in the mirror, crawling on the floor from his bed towards the viewers. But he never appeared.

    Maybe I am to influenced by modern horror movies, but I thought having the appearance of either ghost in those stories would have been even scarier than the climax of THE RING (The only real effective part in that movie).

    (And not to title drop, but if you are a Hamer fan and haven’t seem them, check out the original SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS, FATHER BROWN and THE SCAPEGOAT).

    Finally, I completely agree about the golf story. The problem with it is that it is A) completely out of tone with the picture; B) not that funny; and C) the characters of Charters and Caldicott are not that popular or well known. Back then, they had appeared in THE LADY VANISHES, NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH, and a couple other movies. It would be like watching an American movie from that period and seeing the Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys; you know they might be famous, but you are generally unfamiliar with their work.

    Otherwise, great review.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Interesting. I’ve never considered that actually, about seeing the ghosts in ‘The Christmas Party’ or ‘The Haunted Mirror’. I don’t think it detracts from the stories though and in the case of ‘Mirror’, you feel the other guy’s presence even if you don’t see him. He’s trapped in the room, having spent so long crippled in there his soul remains; the room is him.

      Charters & Caldicott, is that what they were called. From pawing through film books years ago I understood they were ‘popular’ at some point and obviously I noted their appearance in ‘Dead Of Night’. But I knew the character names Parratt & Potter weren’t the ones in ‘The Lady Vanishes’.

      The only other Hamer I’ve seen is ‘Father Brown’ which is ace.

      Cheers, Conti.

      • Continentalop says :

        Charters & Caldicott are what they are called in THE LADY VANISHES & NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH, the two movies I have seen. I know that they appeared in half-a-dozen other movies a recurring characters. In fact, they were supposed to be in Carol Reed’s THE THIRD, but their parts got cut out of the script.

        The reason their names were changed in this movie is because the got in a fight with the studio about another project and refused to do it unless they got bigger parts. The studio retaliated by preventing the
        from using their characters name in any other films (since they technically owned the character names).

    • ThereWolf says :

      Thanks for the info. That’ll teach me to do some research next time!

      • Continentalop says :

        Wolf, I only know about it because I saw a retrospective of NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH, and the programmer informed us about them. Otherwise, I would know shit…

  5. Jarv says :

    That’s a bit harsh. I think this is superb.

    Kind Hearts and Coronets is the fucking BOMB. One of the greatest films ever made.

  6. Bartleby says :

    Yes, actually, Im glad the film avoids the ghosts in that way Conti. Its primarily what makes Dead of Night so unique all these years later. This, The Innocents and Val Lewton’s stuff are beautiful precisely because they exist in a universe where something bloody well terrible may be right around the corner but it sure can’t be arsed to show itself to you, because, well…where’s the fun in that?

    Also, don’t know why I got british in that last sentence. Too many of you around here I guess.

    • Continentalop says :

      I hear what you are saying, but for me personally it just doesn’t deliver the payoff that I wanted. Which is funny, because I am a big fan of the INNOCENTS, THE HAUNTING, and Val Lewton movies.

      Maybe because they are short stories I have been conditioned to expect a bigger shock. Thanks EC comics!

    • M. Blitz says :

      “Also, don’t know why I got british in that last sentence.”

      I hear ya, Bartleby. ‘Arsed’ is such a great & useful word. ‘Cunt’ is nicely redeemed by the Brits as well. Has a much nicer ring to it then hearing some grouchy old man w/ a Philly accent screaming it at me from his car because he couldn’t be ‘arsed’ to stop @ a stop sign. Cunt!

  7. xiphos0311 says :

    I need to track this down and watch it sounds interesting although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the ventriloquist one.

    Nice review wolf.

  8. ThereWolf says :

    For me, that’s the exact reason for its inclusion. But as I say, they could’ve (and should’ve) gone with another ‘softer’ supernatural tale just to keep the atmosphere going. The Golfing Story feels like an advert – I always think, “Right, I’ll go and make meself a brew while this is on…”

    ‘The Dummy’ is top. Redgrave is great.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: