Directors: Robert Hamer
Writer: Angus MacPhail, Robert Hamer and Henry Cornelius, based on the novel by Arthur La Bern
Stars: Googie Withers, Jack Warner and John McCallum
Index: 2017 Centennials.
Any opportunity to watch an Ealing movie is a good opportunity and the hundredth birthday of one of that studio’s greatest stars, Googie Withers, is even better. There are plenty of other reasons too. Withers stars with her husband to be, John McCallum; their marriage in 1948 lasted until his death in 2010 and she outlived him by only a year. It also features a number of recognisable faces from the British post-war period: Jack Warner, Hermione Baddeley and Alfie Bass, to name just three (Sid James is uncredited as a bandleader, but I couldn’t find him even with frame advance). The superb cinematography is by the legendary Douglas Slocombe, as he was establishing his name at Ealing; he would go on to win three BAFTAs (from ten nods), be nominated for three Oscars and shoot three Indiana Jones pictures. And, if you still want more, it’s one of the most underrated gems from this era of British film, exploring the complexities and interconnections of one memorable Sunday in Bethnal Green.
I had a further personal reason to watch, namely that, if you take my family back only a few generations, we were bootmakers in the east end of London and many of the births, marriages and deaths that I’ve tracked were filed in Bethnal Green. I’m too young to remember this era myself, but my parents were kids at the time and, while both their families had moved a little further to the east by this point, I’m sure they would both recognise a lot of the reference points from their own childhoods. As the film’s trailer suggests, this was described as a ‘symphony of London’s East End’, long before Eastenders took that further into the world of soap opera, and it’s a fair description. It’s amazing to realise just how much is crammed into an hour and a half and it’s rare for a movie to feel this immersive. Most of us will leave it wondering where we might fit in this world: would we try to escape it by landing a good prospect or settle down to darts and Guinness at the Two Compasses? Hopefully we wouldn’t turn into the inept crooks.
We focus in particular on a couple of families, to soak up the atmosphere of their lives, and the most prominent is the Sandigates, a family of five living in cramped, though decent, conditions. George has two teenage daughters by a previous wife and a son by his new one, Rose, fifteen years his younger and a former barmaid at the Two Compasses. I don’t believe we’re ever told what George does for a living, but he’s a good, honest man, if hardly a prize catch; while we might see their two up two down as rather close to slum conditions, there were many living in much worse circumstances after the war. There are bombed out buildings in the area, war-time rationing is still in effect and there’s an Anderson shelter in the Sandigates’ back yard, but this is a London that’s looking very much forward now the war is over rather than back to the horrors of the Blitz. Some are more unscrupulous about how they can better themselves, of course, and one such family is the Hyams.
Solly Hyams, the patriarch of the clan is as Jewish as his name suggests, though his sons are considerably less so (even if they use words like ‘shiksas’ and ‘meshuggah’ in dialogue). Lou runs a local arcade and, from the depth of his pockets, more than that off the books. He’s trying to hire one of George’s daughters, Doris, for something posh up west and how dubious that job would be is open to question. Lou’s brother Morry, runs a local music shop, selling both records and musical instruments, and, as ‘the man with sax appeal’, is a featured attraction at local clubs. His eyes (and other things) are on George’s other daughter, Vi, who plays along with him as she wants an in to one of the various singing competitions in the area; she seems to ignore the existence of his wife and kid. That leaves little Alfie Sandigate, who must be about ten years old and works well to lead us into the main plot that splashes across these little personal stories like a headline on the front page of the News of the World. And talking of that...
Googie Withers does a fantastic job here as the film’s lead, especially once she’s secreted Tommy upstairs in her own bed, keeping him safe until night falls and he can move on, perhaps to Cape Town, if he can catch the breaks. Nothing highlights just how small these houses were like an attempt to hide even one human being for a single day and Rose is continually kept on the hop keeping him concealed. After all, things are so cramped that Doris and Vi share a bed and George has to take his baths in the kitchen. John McCallum plays Tommy in the present with a brutal edge that wasn’t visible in his much more dapper flashback scenes; that’s fair, given that he clearly didn’t enjoy his time inside and states outright that he’d prefer to die before going back. The changes in him since Rose saw him last aren’t lost on her, but she’s so caught up in the turmoil of his reappearance that she’s unable to see them for what they really are. How much she gives him before he leaves is open to question, but she knows it’s more than she should.
Warner’s capable policework isn’t the focal point of this film, at least until we close in on the finalé and it becomes a chase, shot in impeccable style by Douglas Slocombe in scenes that deserve to be compared to those of The 39 Steps or The Third Man. He’s merely one of the most prominent of the supporting actors, fleshing out this neighbourhood as a backdrop to the drama unfolding within the two up two down of the Sandigates. There are so many other characters and so detailed a backdrop that we’re all likely to miss some of it. One tiny moment that stood out to me was when Lou walks into the Two Compasses; as he does so, he drops a coin into the collection tin of a blind trumpeter outside, who promptly says, ‘Thank you, Mr. Hyams.’ This is fantastic background, alongside the Salvation Army, who may or may not be those with banners advertising a march on Hyde Park, a doomsday prophet wearing a sandwich board and a collection of spivs and wide boys in the marketplace.
Perhaps these supporting actors should be best highlighted by pointing out that most of their characters have something to hide, but none of them, except perhaps Lou Hyams, have poker faces worth a damn. Each of the actors are therefore tasked with acting their respective parts and the further parts they play while hiding what their parts have been getting up to, all while failing to see similar behaviour in their colleagues. The talent available in British cinema at the time was astounding and this film perhaps puts it to better use than most. Ironically, of course, its leads weren’t born in England: Withers was born in Karachi, which was British India in 1917 but Pakistan today; her stage name, meaning ‘dove’ or ‘pigeon’ in Punjabi was given to her by her Indian nanny; and McCallum was Australian through and through. At this point, it’s somehow unsurprising to find that Arthur La Bern, the author of the thoroughly English source novel, was born in London to French parents.
Withers stumbled onto a film career, but it became a notable one. She was dancing in a West End stage production when she found work as an extra on The Girl in the Crowd, a 1935 film by Michael Powell. Arriving to discover that the actress cast in the third billed role had been dismissed, she was immediately asked to step into those shoes. She must have done well because she made another four pictures that year, staying busy until the war and keeping working through it. The biggest movie she worked on was The Lady Vanishes, one of Hitchcock’s very best British films, in 1938, but her best roles and her best pictures were to be found at Ealing, not just this one but Dead of Night, Pink String and Sealing Wax and The Loves of Joanna Godden. Those four films in three years led her to be listed as the eighth most popular British star in the country in 1948. Night and the City was still to come, with a great film noir role for her in Jules Dassin’s first British picture after being kicked out of the States by the Communist witch hunters.