Dead Of Night
This movie almost redefined the Universe. After seeing the film astronomic scientist Fred Hoyle thought about the framing narrative that linked the five stories. He decided that there was something before the Big Bang. Fred concluded that the Universe had existed in an alternative steady state. Today the theory is disputed. Most astronomers prefer to believe that there was nothing before the Big Bang. Dead Of Night begins as it ends. On a country road a man stops his car and looks out of the side window. He is puzzled and hesitant. The man is too ordinary to think about the beginning of the Universe. He endures mystery, and explanation is beyond him. Nothing in cinema defines the supernatural in our imagination as well as the final shot in Dead Of Night. The man looks out of his car. He knows that his next steps will be into the unknown and that it consists of the future, the past and something else that will never be explained. Meanwhile, because he is powerless, everything continues.
Dead Of Night is a portmanteau movie that contains five stories. A group in a country house tell supernatural tales. The man who looks out of the car at the country house arrives as an outsider. His story and his relationship to them will provide the framing narrative of the film. Dead Of Night was made in 1945. Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios had to wait until the Second World War was over because horror film production was banned in Britain during the War. There are no references to the recent War in the film. If the War influences the film, it is only in the sense that the group who meet at the country house are wary of something. They neither mention the War nor talk of recovery and progress. They use their best British manners to keep threats at bay. The expert psychiatrist is the rational scientific voice in the group. His explanations for the odd tales are pathetic and convince no one. Indeed his story is the most disturbing of all.
The stories that are told in the film are not classic horror stories. The film disturbs and has fine moments but it succeeds because of how the stories are linked rather than the concepts behind the individual stories. The framing device that links the stories is exceptional, and the guests tell stories that suit their characters. Everyone is connected, and this will be important in the new world after the Second World War. Or so they thought.
The first story is no more than an anecdote, the type we think of as urban legend, yet it is interesting because it captures an irrational moment that will define what happens in the rest of a life. It is told by a racing driver, a man who has to trust chance and fortune. The second tale is about childhood friendship and betrayal. It is shared with the group by a young girl. In the tale the girl screams, ‘I’m not frightened.’ She could be referring to the ghost or the threat from childhood friends whom she now realises will change. Some will grow into monsters. Her trust has disappeared. In the third story a man looks into a mirror and sees a different time and place. Eventually he becomes the man who used to own the mirror. The woman who has told this tale is ambitious. To survive she needs mirrors to assess her worth. The fourth is a comic tale, and we discover that the owner of the house has invented this story. He is like the heroes of his story, uncomplicated and unaware that the world is changing. Men obsessed with golf, their women will not help them to understand life and death. The final story is revealed by the know-all psychiatrist. A ventriloquist is driven mad, either by himself or his dummy. The madness of others is what the psychiatrist has to keep at bay. The rational explanations of the psychiatrist are useless and cannot even protect a wooden dummy from being destroyed. The guest whose tale is the framing device is an architect. He works on homes that exist and remain. Apart from his strange repetitive dream his work requires him to be part of the loop of day-to-day existence. We understand that all these characters are defined by their memories. It is how we meet them.
There may have been a Second World War to redefine society but the past is rapacious. More stays the same than changes, and memories persist. Despite the different storytellers all the stories have echoes of the others. The window that reveals a secret to the racing driver is like the mirror that confuses the trusting and naive fiancé. The fear of others that is left in the young girl at the Christmas party exists in the ventriloquist who is terrified of his dummy. In the comic episode the two golfers exchange identities, as do characters in the other stories. Sexual competition and anxiety lead to self-annihilation in the golfing story. The sexual interest is less obvious in the other tales but it exists. The racing driver desires his nurse and decides her life in the same way that his has been decided by an instance in fate. To save the man from the mirror his fiancé has not only to take control of the man but also share his sexual anxiety. Even the ventriloquist competes with his dummy and is tortured by the belief that the dummy is the more potent male. The architect is different. He is a dreamer. Unlike the others inside the house the architect is unable to isolate mysterious episodes and continue with an unimaginative version of reality that is practical and self-serving. Because of his persistent imagination, the architect is drawn into all of the episodes.
Michael Redgrave plays the ventriloquist driven mad by his relationship to his dummy. Fred Hoyle belonged to that group of men who thought knowledge was a blessing. The ventriloquist knows something about his dummy that no one else can. The final pathetic look of Redgrave reveals not only the terror of unique knowledge and understanding but also the fragility of human identity. People are not what they pretend to be and they also know they are no different from the people to whom they tell lies. Human relationships are artificial and loaded with deceit. It is not difficult for the wilful to destroy others. Even those we only imagine can have that power.
The breakdown of Redgrave in his cell was stolen by Hitchcock for his last shot in Psycho. Anthony Perkins is a great actor but he is not the equal of Redgrave in Dead Of Night. No cinematic actor has travelled to a darker place than Redgrave did in that performance. The mystery is how Redgrave appeared fifteen years later as the confident and irresponsible master in The Innocents. Something happened to Redgrave in Dead Of Night but at least he recovered. In any other film the great Googie Withers would have been blessed with praise. Because of the exceptional performance by Redgrave, she is overlooked. Although the ambitious woman played by Withers copes whereas the insecure ventriloquist does not, she has been disturbed by what happens. After she tells her tale she needs to be consoled, not for long because she is a strong character. Her damage exists, though, and we are disturbed to see an assured woman still affected by a buried incident. Her fiancé does not have her strength. Distressed by what he sees in the mirror he doubts his mental resilience and proposes that they should not marry. The smile and comment from Withers is a passing moment but special. In one simple expression and phrase she brushes his doubts aside. Without Withers saying so the audience realises that she has expected this reaction. We know that she will marry and manage the weaker partner. The man will not be loved but he will have a fighter on his side.
British film companies had less money than Hollywood producers. Often their films were theatrical rather than cinematic. Good actors delivered their lines on sets that resembled what they knew from the stage because that was what could be afforded. The opening scene in the country house in Dead Of Night is theatrical. English actors with good clear voices move around a single room as if they are acting in a theatre. The opening may have been done this way for budgetary reasons but at the end of the film there is a surprising cinematic flourish that resembles the final expressionist scenes in The Lady From Shanghai by Orson Welles. How reality is represented in Dead Of Night is not consistent but this helps the film. Unlike the scenes in the country house the individual episodes are cinematic rather than theatrical. The two exceptions are the opening story, which is a simple tale that only has consequence for the lucky storyteller, and the tale of the mirror where nothing is as interesting as what is seen in the mirror. The golfing tale uses the landscape, the ventriloquist sequence has opulent sets and the story of the young girl features a camera determined to move around a luxurious mansion. Only the odd events have the supposed authenticity of the cinema. In Dead Of Night the reality that we create for survival is far less real than the nightmares we attempt to ignore.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His next book is due this summer. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.