The Ever-growing Empire of Film Noir
The critical concept of film noir, once confined to atmospheric American thrillers and crime films like The Woman in the Window (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), Out of the Past (1947), Gilda (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) has now spread to encompass not only contemporary Hollywood films but large swathes of other national cinemas. British films such as Brighton Rock (1947; dir: John Boulting) and The Third Man (1949, dir: Carol Reed) are habitually referred to as films noir and the idea of a British film noir has been popularised in essays by William K. Everson, Lawrence Miller, Tony Williams and Andrew Spicer. The films they variously propose for inclusion in the noir club – from Black Narcissus (1947; dir: Michael Powell) to The Ladykillers (1955; dir: Alexander Mackendrick), from The Blue Lamp (1950; dir: Basil Dearden) to The Long Good Friday (1980; dir: John Mackenzie), hardly fit James Damico’s classic definition:
Either because he is fated to do so by chance or because he has been hired for a job specifically associated with her, a man whose experience of life has left him sanguine and often bitter meets a not-innocent woman of similar outlook to whom he is sexually and fatally attracted. Through this attraction, either because the woman induces him to it or because it is the natural result of their relationship, the man comes to cheat, attempt to murder, or actually murder a second man to whom the woman is unhappily or unwillingly attached (generally he is her husband or lover), an act which often leads to the woman’s betrayal of the protagonist, but which in any event brings about the sometimes metaphoric, but usually literal destruction of the woman, the man to whom she is attached, and frequently the protagonist himself.
But this doesn’t necessarily disqualify them. Other parameter-setting essays, such as Place and Peterson’s ‘Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir’, which define film noir in terms of dramatic visual style, their setting in rainy, dark streets, glittering night-clubs and dance halls, their convoluted plots, damaged characters and their disillusioned world view, offer more hope.
Damico’s stress on the role of a ‘not innocent woman’ make it almost impossible for British noir films, which are more likely to have a fatally charismatic man at their core than a femme fatale, to come in under the net. In Brighton Rock poor innocent Rose is mesmerised and enthralled by the cruelly passionless Pinkie. In The Third Man it is Harry, not Anna, who draws Holly Martins into the Viennese web of intrigue. Clem Morgan is tempted into a criminal career in They Made Me a Fugitive (1947; dir: Alberto Cavalcanti) by a jovially evil spiv whose glamorous blonde girlfriend becomes Clem’s main ally in his bid to extricate himself. Apart from their appearances in Americanised B films like The Flamingo Affair (1948; dir: Horace Shepherd) and Soho Incident (1956; dir: Vernon Sewell) femme fatales hardly figure in British films. The scheming bitches played by Margaret Lockwood in costume films like The Man in Grey (1943; dir: Leslie Arliss) and The Wicked Lady (1945; dir: Leslie Arliss) are adventuressess whose transgressions are punished by male violence. The faithless wives played by Greta Gynt in Dear Murderer (1947: dir: Arthur Crabtree) and Sally Gray in Obsession (1948; dir: Edward Dmytryk) attract a degree of sympathy, trapped as they are in empty marriages to coldly possessive men; and, in contrast to American noirs, it is the jealous husband, not the lover, who dominates the action. When wickedly manipulative women do materialise – Christine Norden in Nightbeat (1948; dir: Harold Huth), Margaret Lockwood in Bedelia (1946; dir: Lance Comfort) or Simone Simon in Temptation Harbour (1947; dir: Lance Comfort) – their ploys are so transparent that we are encouraged to view the men who fall for them as fools. Women in noirish British films are more likely to be loyal and good-hearted – as Sally is in They Made Me a Fugitive and Anna is in The Third Man, even when they are associated with evil men. Typically, Jean Kent’s floozy in Good Time Girl (1948; dir: David Macdonald), is inconsolable when she realises she has brought about the death of the one man who has shown her compassion and kindness.
The adoption of film noir as a term to cover films made in disparate periods and contexts, while explicable as a way of validating films which explore frightening and unsavoury aspects of society in ways which are more visceral than calmly rational, robs it of a valuable historical specificity. Classic American film noir has clearly defined roots and a radical viewpoint on society that makes it more than a visual style. It flowers in the period of uneasy transition from war to peace to cold war and draws on the cynicism and worldliness, social and sexual disorientation of returning ex-servicemen. Britain had different cinematic traditions and a very different experience of the Second World War and it might be considered surprising that an equivalent wave of films noir should occur. But British films of the 1940s and 1950s bespeak a similar unease and anxiety and use a similarly expressive visual language to recreate this unsettled view of the world. If women are less of a threat, men still find their masculinity undermined, their place in society uncertain. However, if the concept of film noir is to be usefully applied to British cinema it has to accommodate a range of disparate traditions and influences.
Macabre Traditions in British Cinema
Victorian melodrama was a hugely popular form in the early years of the twentieth century before being superseded by the cinema. It is strikingly preserved in films starring the last great stage villain, Tod Slaughter, such as Maria Marten: or the Murder in the Red Barn (1935; dir: Milton Rosmer) and Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936; dir: George King). Most of Slaughter’s films were adaptations of old but popular stage melodramas. But it wasn’t necessary to go back to Victorian originals to find melodramas. Plenty were being written in the 1920s and 1930s – most prolifically by Edgar Wallace, who was involved in the film industry from the late 1920s, helping to set up British Lion before going to Hollywood to write King Kong and die. His films lived on (over 50 between 1925 and 1939), most enjoyably in the flamboyantly sensational The Dark Eyes of London (1939; dir: Walter Summers) starring Bela Lugosi as the villain and Greta Gynt as the much threatened heroine.
Whether ancient or modern, these melodramas tended to show the world as a dangerous place haunted by unscrupulous villains and criminal masterminds. Though justice generally triumphed in the end, it did so after much violence and suffering. Wallace films like The Frightened Lady (1932; dir: T. Hayes Hunter), The Terror (1938; dir: Richard Bird) and The Dark Eyes of London might be seen more as progenitors of the horror film than of film noir, but there are clear links between The Terror, for example, with its organ-playing avenger (Wilfrid Lawson), and the distinctly noirish The Night Has Eyes (1942; dir: Leslie Arliss), where Lawson is relegated to minor villainy and James Mason plays a misogynistic piano-playing Spanish Civil War veteran. Mason’s subtle sadism was a clear break with the rollicking villainy of Victorian melodrama, as is the doleful misanthropy of Eric Portman in a series of noir-streaked films of the 1940s, but the charismatic villain was to become a prominent characteristic of British noir films.
Melodramatic elements have to be balanced against more realistic input. A literary vogue for books set inside the English underworld flourished briefly in the late thirties – Wide Boys Never Work by Robert Westerby, Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, The Creaking Chair by Lawrence Meynall, Only Mugs Work by Walter Greenwood, Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, Low Company by Mark Benney, and four novels by James Curtis, The Gilt Kid, You’re In the Racket Too, They Drive By Night and There ‘Ain’t No Justice – were all published between 1936 and 1938. As their titles suggest they are set in a rough and sordid world a million miles from the country houses and sleepy English villages of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers’ whodunits. But, in contrast to the American pulp fiction pastiches written by Peter Cheyney and James Hadley Chase, these novels revel in an English underworld where gangsters rely on chains and coshes and easily discarded beer bottles when giving battle, and enemies and traitors are not machine-gunned from cars but visited by the chiv-man who would carefully slice a face with his taped-down razor or chop through collar bones with his little hatchet.
Curtis is particularly good at taking up the cause of the petty and unglamorous criminal. The ‘gilt kid’ puffs himself up with revolutionary ardour after flicking through the first chapter of Marx’s Capital and justifies the burglary of his girlfriend’s flat as appropriation of the ill-gotten gains of the bourgeoisie. But his political pretensions soon dissolve in the struggle for survival. Shortie Matthews, the hero of They Drive By Night emerges from prison only to find himself hunted for a murder he is innocent of. He goes on the run, rescues a battered road-girl from the unwanted attentions of a couple of middle class motorists, but finally decides to give himself up. Arriving, cold, hungry and exhausted at a police station in a small Northern town, he is beaten up to extract a ‘confession’ which is discarded when the real murderer – a middle class psychopath – is caught. Stoically he accepts a twelve-month sentence for ‘assaulting the police’.
They Drive by Night (1939; dir: Arthur Woods) was made by Warner Bros. at their small studio in Teddington and successfully combines the iconography of Warner’s American social dramas and gangster films with an indigenous English idiom. Graham Greene, not normally enthusiastic about the output of the British film industry, was impressed by ‘the authentic background of dance palaces, public houses, seedy Soho clubs and the huge wet expanse of the great North Road, with its bungaloid cafés, the grinding gears, and the monstrous six-wheeled lorries plunging through the rain.’ The road-girl becomes a dance hostess and Shortie suffers less at the hands of the police, but the gritty pessimism of Curtis’s novel is preserved in the gloomy, rain-swept atmosphere of the film, and Emlyn Williams, despite a shaky working class accent, makes an admirably down-trodden hero.
The other key influence, evident in another pre-war noir precursor, Brian Desmond Hurst’s On the Night of the Fire (1939) was the French poetic realist cinema of Jean Renoir, Julian Duvivier and Marcel Carné, which superseded German Expressionism and Russian agitprop as the cinema most admired by British intellectuals. However, poetic realism itself owed debts to German Expressionism both in ethos and visual style – Carné’s Port of Shadows (Quai des brumes, 1938), for example, was shot by the German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan – and in determining influences on English noir style, it is difficult to disentangle these Continental influences.
The Legacy of the War
War did much to heal the bitter divisions caused by the General Strike of 1926 and the mass unemployment of the 1930s Depression. The temporary but very real solidarity induced by the threat of invasion and the ordeal of the blitz made for an unprecedented emphasis on communal life and accentuated a drive towards greater equality between men and women. The political manifestation of this social and cultural shift was the election of a Labour government in 1945 which was committed to levelling class barriers and extending the benevolent protection of the state to cover the employment and health of its citizens. Austerity and egalitarianism made for a very different atmosphere from that of post-war America.
However, this did not mean that Britain was a happy, stable country with no inner tensions needing to find an outlet in noir-ish films. The war had been won but at a heavy cost: 355,000 British citizens had been killed by enemy action and three-quarters of a million dwellings destroyed or severely damaged by bombing. Few resources had been diverted from the war effort into rebuilding and repair and the economy had been distorted to fit the demands of war. After the war ended, austerity continued and there was a rampant black market. Late 1940s and 1950s society was riven with a conflict between a desire for stability and the pleasures of peace and a harking back to the danger and excitement of the war. Britain was as troubled in its own way as America, though the way in which these traumas were expressed in film was inevitably different. Three, by no means watertight, groups of films with noirish tendencies can be identified which have in common a dramatic visual style, a downbeat, gloomy atmosphere and disturbed, maladjusted characters.
These films centre upon spivs, those flashily dressed wide boys and black marketeers who seemed to flourish in a post-war Britain afflicted by shortages and rationing. Some of the films are gruesome and serious: like Appointment with Crime (1945; dir: John Harlow), Black Memory (1947; dir: Oswald Mitchell), Night Beat, Good Time Girl, Brighton Rock, and Night and the City (1950, dir: Jules Dassin); others have comic elements, though of the blackest hue, such as Dancing With Crime (1947; dir: John Paddy Carstairs), Noose (1948; dir: Edmond T. Greville) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947; dir: Robert Hamer). The spivs range from the irredeemably evil Narcy in They Made Me a Fugitive to the almost endearing Bar Gorman in Noose, and often they are counterposed against a war veteran who comes to realise the folly of a life of crime.
Even when they ignore the war, these films, where an escaped convict, or an army deserter, or a murderer, or a man accused of murder, is on the run, seem imbued with post-war anxiety about life in a confusingly disordered world. Men on the run figure in Hitchcock films like The 39 Steps (1935) and Young and Innocent (1937), but there the fugitive is innocent. In 1940s films the man is often guilty – like Harry Lime in The Third Man or Jack Warner’s George Martin in My Brother’s Keeper (1948; dir: Alfred Roome). Often though – like James Mason’s IRA gunman in Odd Man Out (1947; dir: Carol Reed), or Trevor Howard’s war hero turned racketeer in They Made Me a Fugitive, or Rex Harrison’s police killer in Escape (1948; dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz) – they are more sinned against than sinners and we feel considerable sympathy towards them.
Films featuring a damaged and disturbed male protagonist
These films vary considerably in tone and range. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Small Back Room (1949), for example is a psychologically realist – if at time visually spectacular – film where a man has to come to terms with a painful physical injury which he feels impairs his manhood. The action is set during the war and though government chicanery and cynicism is exposed there is no criminal activity. The damaged hero (John Mills) in Roy Baker and Eric Ambler’s The October Man (1947) has been injured in a car crash, but his uncertainties about his manliness and his sanity could just as well have come from his experience of war. Although he is accused of murder we know he is innocent. By contrast, Eric Portman in Lawrence Huntington’s Wanted for Murder (1946), is physically undamaged but mentally deranged and we are soon made aware that he is the man responsible for the murder of young women. In Edward Dmytryk’s Obsession Robert Newton’s jealousy over his pleasure-loving wife (Sally Gray) lead him to kidnap her lover and keep him imprisoned in a cellar while he gradually fills up a bath of acid in which he plans to dissolve him once the hue and cry has died down. Like Portman’s similarly jealous husband taunted by a similarly blonde temptress of a wife (Greta Gynt) in Arthur Crabtree’s Dear Murderer, Newton, restraining his penchant for eye-rolling villainy, is the epitome of cold English repression and is mad only in the sense that he subsumes his whole being into his lust for revenge.
These three inter-related groups of films form the backbone of a noir tradition in British cinema which extends through he 1950s, into the 1960s – where the Cold War replaces the Second World War as the source of anxiety – and up to the present day where, in films like Croupier (1998; dir: Mike Hodges) and Essex Boys (2000; dir: Terry Winsor), where crime has supplanted war anxieties entirely.
Noir Auteurs: the case of Robert Hamer
Like Hammer horror and Gainsborough costume films, these dark melodramas and thrillers provide grist to the mills of those who want to overturn the persistent notion that British cinema is predominately earnest and realist, only timidly critical of established values and visually unadventurous. The same revaluation of a British cinema beyond realism has enabled a proper appreciation of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but there are other directors whose position might be constructively reassessed within this differently configured British cinema, most obviously Robert Hamer.
Hamer is generally seen as a very talented film-maker who found it impossible to fulfil his potential in an industry dominated by narrowly commercial concerns. This emphasis on the tragic aspects of his career has made his atypical Ealing comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) appear a one-off masterpiece. At Ealing Hamer was always something of a maverick, at odds with the ethos of the studio, but if one were to situate Hamer’s films, all of which are touched by an anguished pessimism, within a noir tradition in British cinema than Hamer, can be seen as a pivotal figure. In terms of a harmonious union of actors, script, director and ethos, Kind Hearts and Coronets might still be considered Hamer’s masterpiece. But it is in It Always Rains on Sunday, The Spider and the Fly (1950) and The Long Memory (1952), where humour is decreasingly present, that we glimpse an excitingly radical alternative view of how a society recovering from six years of war might look at the world.
Hamer’s reputation rests on three pillars. Firstly there was the sympathetic approval of his contemporaries – he might have been sent down from Cambridge and have troubles with his sexual orientation and his alcohol intake but he was witty, sophisticated and highly intelligent. Secondly, he had made a film that was an international success – something of a rarity for a British director. Surprisingly, the trade journals of the late 1940s indicate that Kind Hearts and Coronets was not exceptionally successful at the box-office in Britain – much less so than John Paddy Carstairs’s now disregarded comedy The Chiltern Hundreds, for example, and was only modestly praised by the critics. But after it was taken up in France and America it came to be regarded as a classic. Thirdly, it is possible to see Hamer as Britain’s answer to Orson Welles – a brilliant artist whose temperament made it impossible to work successfully within the crassly commercial purlieus of an industry concerned more with profit than with art.
Hamer may have eventually found it difficult to fulfil his potential in the British film industry but he was allowed opportunities other young film-makers might have envied. At Denham, he was taken under the wing of the German producer Erich Pommer, and when Pommer set up Mayflower Pictures with Charles Laughton, Hamer was allowed to edit Vessel of Wrath (1938) and Jamaica Inn (1939), prestigious films designed for the international market. Pommer and Laughton went to Hollywood as the clouds of war gathered and Hamer joined Alberto Cavalcanti at the GPO film unit. When Cavalcanti went to Ealing it wasn’t long before Hamer followed him there and he rose rapidly from editor to associate producer to director. After the resonantly allegorical ‘Haunted Mirror’ episode of Dead of Night (1945), he made his feature debut with Pink String and Sealing Wax (1946) Roland Pertwee’s psychological re-working of Victorian melodrama in the manner of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight. Hamer is too diffident to really come to grips with it and the relationship between the young chemist (Gordon Jackson) and the scheming barmaid (Googie Withers) who values him for his access to poison, arouses too little interest. His next film, It Always Rains on Sunday, is also something of a compromise – between the Ealing tendency towards celebrating close-knit communities and Hamer’s darker view of life as a doomed struggle against an unfair world. As in Pink String and Sealing Wax, his viewpoint is embodied in a robust, passionate woman turned shrewish by her treatment by the world played by Googie Withers. Rose Sandigate initially appears as unsympathetically harsh as Pearl Bond in Pink String. With the reappearance of her lover, Tommy Swann, now a desperate ex-convict, we gain insight into her predicament, but the impact of her story is muffled by the cheery sub-plots of East End life in which it is enmeshed. With such a distinctly English setting it is easy to miss the Continental allusions, but in both subject matter and style the films owes much to French poetic realism.
Kind Hearts and Coronets, Hamer’s next film, signalled a turning point. Michael Balcon, who had assiduously promoted Hamer’s career at Ealing objected to the sexual element (which rarely emerged in an Ealing film), and the darkness of Hamer’s vision made it difficult for him to find subsequent projects which fitted in with the ethos of the studio. Soho Melodrama, a script he developed with Mark Benney, an ex-burglar who had become a successful reporter and novelist, was rejected because of censorship problems. Hamer’s plan to cast Margaret Lockwood as Edith Thompson, who had been hanged in 1937 when her lover was found guilty of murdering her husband, was abandoned as too controversial. A dramatisation of Richard Mason’s novel, The Shadow and the Peak, which Hamer wanted to make with Vivien Leigh in the starring role, was held back by Balcon as too expensive and too erotic (it was eventually made for the Rank Organisation by Rudolph Cartier as Passionate Summer).
In 1949 Hamer took leave from Ealing to make The Spider and the Fly for his old company, Mayflower, now run by Aubrey Baring and Maxwell Setton. With a solid script by Robert Westerby and good performances from Eric Portman, Guy Rolfe and Nadia Gray, it is an intelligent and interesting film. Set in France at the time of the First World War, it centres upon the rivalry between a policeman (Portman) and a gentleman thief (Rolfe) which is accentuated when they fall in love with the same woman (Gray). Neither of them gets her because the thief is caught and imprisoned and the policeman turns his back on her when he becomes convinced that she loves his rival not him. The two men team up to break into the offices of German Intelligence and steal a list of German spies and informers, They are successful and the thief wins his freedom and a medal. But one of the names on the list is the woman they both still love. The policeman reluctantly arrests her and sends her to be off to be executed for treason, The film ends at a gloomy railway station where the policeman sees the thief, now an infantryman, boarding a troop train bound for Verdun and almost certain death. In ethos, atmosphere and visual style it is a period film noir, though, as with most British films noir, the woman is less a femme fatale than a good-hearted woman who suffers because of the manipulative and exploitative behaviour of men. We are given no proper explanation for her treason but we know that she was innocent and loyal before she got involved with the two men.
The Spider and the Fly is the most uncompromisingly bleak of Hamer’s films. Pink String and Sealing Wax offers hope for the future with a softening of the tyranny of its Victorian patriarch and a reconciliation with the son whose brush with murder has taught him something of the value of family support. The end of It Always Rains on Sunday signals the end of Rose Sandigate’s fantasies of escape from a poor working class community, but it is a community which is happy to welcome her back in and offer warmth and sympathy. At the end of The Spider and the Fly there is only death to look forward to.
It is significant not only that The Spider and the Fly was not made at Ealing, but that it was made for Mayflower, the company set up by Erich Pommer, the producer of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis. By training and inclination Hamer is very much a European film-maker and if one is to situate him within a tradition of film noir, it is one that owes little to Hollywood.
Hamer was still under contract to Ealing and returned to make His Excellency (1951) a potentially interesting film about a working class trade union leader who is sent by the Labour government to be governor of an island naval base (very like Malta or Gibraltar). Despite sympathetic performances from Eric Portman as the governor and Susan Stephen as his daughter, Hamer makes a complete mess of it. Freda Bruce Lockhart, who interviewed him late in 1951, when the film was being completed, discerned that it was a task ‘for which he had little heart’. Hamer told his interviewer that he regarded Ealing ‘rather as if it were a family co-operative than an employer’ and praised ‘Sir Michael Balcon’s wisdom in giving the members of his team a free hand, subject to rational safeguards.’ But it was almost as if he had to do something really awful to break away from Ealing’s cosy embrace.
It is unlikely that Balcon would have sanctioned Hamer’s next film, The Long Memory (1952), though other films made at the studio such as Basil Dearden’s Cage of Gold (1950), Sandy Mackendrick’s Mandy (1952) and Charles Frend’s The Cruel Sea (1953), should dispel the idea that Ealing was dedicated to fluffy sentimental comedy. The Long Memory was produced by Hugh Stewart who had co-edited St Martin’s Lane (1938) with Hamer, and bears comparison with Marcel Carné’s Quai des brumes. John Mills plays Phillip Davidson, a convict released after serving twelve years in prison for a murder he did not commit and determined to track down those responsible for framing him. With a certain appropriate irony, the policeman who puts him away – and marries the woman he had loved and who has betrayed him – is played by John McCallum who had played Tommy Swann in It Always Rains. It is an extraordinary film, shot extensively on location around the Thames estuary and ending with the wounded hero chased from Tower Bridge to the mudflats beyond Gravesend by the man he is supposed to have murdered. He is saved (physically) by a canny old-tramp and (emotionally) by a European refugee who has been traumatised by the war.
Davidson has missed the war completely, it having happened while he is incarcerated in prison, but his relationship with the down-trodden refugee girl who seeks shelter with him seems to summon up the nighmarish presence of the war. Happiness – or rather the chance to live without hurting or being hurt – is possible here, but only among a community of outcasts. The certainty of human frailty, the possibility of human kindness only between those who have lost everything and know the taste of despair, seems to epitomise Hamer’s world view.
The aura of wounded pessimism that surrounds The Long Memory seems peculiarly appropriate for Hamer, but it is not a mood confined to his films. Gloom pervades Cavalcanti’s equally remarkable They Made Me a Fugitive, made five years earlier, though Trevor Howard’s escaped convict is less wounded and more resilient. And David Farrar’s Sammy Rice in Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room is equally angst-ridden (though he has the support of a loving and untraumatised woman). The most relevant comparison though, is with The Clouded Yellow (1950), one of the first films made by Ralph Thomas and Betty Box at Pinewood before they went on to make Doctor in the House (1954) and similar films epitomising the optimism of 1950s Britain as it moved from austerity to affluence. Trevor Howard plays David Somers, an SIS/MI6 agent who returns from war-torn Europe to find himself pensioned off as no longer stable enough to deal with the rigours of undercover life. He takes a sort of convalescent job cataloguing the butterfly collection of a country gentleman and forms a bond with his employee’s niece, Sophie Malraux (Jean Simmons) who is beautiful but supposed mad. When she is accused of murdering the lecherous handyman (Maxwell Reed), Somers helps her escape and goes on the run with her, relying on his Secret Service contacts (people he has helped escape the clutches of the Nazis – not his cynical boss, who attempts to turn him in) to keep clear of the police until the real murderer reveals himself. It is a less stylised and more conventional film than The Long Memory, though the location sequences in the Lake District, Newcastle and Liverpool are impressive – but the two films share a similar ethos where damaged, abused people help each other survive in an unsympathetic and unjust world.
Two of Hamer’s subsequent films, Father Brown (1954) and The Scapegoat (1958) and his television adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (1955), interestingly if imperfectly also embody Hamer’s pessimistic world view, though The Scapegoat was so mutilated by MGM that it is barely comprehensible. If one adds this noirish trilogy – It Always Rains on Sunday, The Spider and the Fly and The Long Memory – to Kind Hearts and Coronets, it is possible to see Hamer as an almost great director who, in the right environment could have made more and better films. But there is also a more optimistic way of seeing him as an exemplar of a tradition of atmospheric and visually sophisticated British cinema – and here I would include the post-war films of David Lean and Carol Reed and well as those of Powell and Pressburger – which belie the still widespread myth that British cinema has always been minor, second rate and insignificant. Whether or not one calls them film noir is, in a sense, irrelevant.
Robert Murphy teaches film studies and scriptwriting. He has written several books on British cinema.
This article was originally published in Film International 7, vol. 2, no. 1, 2004.
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