British cinema was renowned for producing two types of film in the years following the end of World War II – polished and witty comedies and hard-bitten, realistic drama. The London based company Ealing Films were accomplished purveyors of both, with the dark humor of their sublime Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) contrasting with the grit of the equally memorable, though often overshadowed, It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). However it was this classic crime story – produced by the legendary Michael Balcon and widely considered one of the best examples of British film noir – set within a dreary and perpetually wet East End of London, which captured the mood and air of working class, postwar Britain to a tee.
When convicted thief and conman Tommy Swann (John McCallum) escapes from prison he heads to the home of the only person he knows he can trust, his old girlfriend Rose (Googie Withers). However Rose is now married to the well-meaning but boring George (Edward Chapman) and, though she still harbors feelings for Tommy, she is now comfortable (to a degree) in the safety of her dull marriage. Suddenly meeting again the man she was once passionately in love with, Rose is forced to make decisions which could have far-reaching repercussions for them all.
Director Robert Hamer proved in It Always Rains on Sunday that the rundown and poor environment of London’s East End could provide just as good a setting for sharp and incisive drama as the more comfortable and affluent surroundings of the city’s western reaches and home counties as depicted in Ealing’s classic ghost story ensemble Dead of Night (1945). In fact it is the close-knit communities which make up the area around Bethnal Green where the film is set, which brings feeling and depth to the characters of Rose and her family, as well as providing countless opportunities for tension and suspense as she tries to hide Tommy from them as they’re confined to the house by yet another damp and miserable Sunday afternoon.
Educated at Cambridge and trained as an editor on Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), Hamer always managed to bring a wonderful insightfulness to the characters of his films, like with the afore mentioned Kind Hearts and Coronets, as well as in It Always Rains on Sunday. Here he also captured a grimy realism within the two-up two-down terrace houses where the characters live as well as the sense of fun and camaraderie felt by the local community in their everyday lives and social activities.
The cast – from the men who are for the most part dodgy two-bit crooks, to their girlfriends and wives who are frequently treated as chattels by their boyfriends and husbands – is as wonderful a group of disparate and varying grotesques as you’d find in any real-life inner-city. The film however belongs to Googie Withers. An accomplished and versatile actress, Withers was as at home playing sophisticated women about town, like her character of Joan Cortland in Dead of Night, as she was frustrated and work-weary housewives such as Rose. Here her increasing fear and the unravelling of her relationship with her family as she desperately tries to hide Tommy from them, and the ever-present fear of detection from the police, create a wonderfully realized study of mounting disquiet and agitation.
Ealing, like Hammer were to do in later years, often employed the same people in front of and behind the camera (both Withers and Hamer worked together on several films for the studio), which helped lend their films a sense of familiar continuity and style that audiences could relate to. It is this which has made films like It Always Rains on Sunday stand the test of time, appearing as sharp today as it did when first released over sixty years ago.
It Always Rains on Sunday was released by StudioCanal for the first time in the UK on blu-ray and special edition DVD on the 12th November, 2012. Extras include a brand new locations featurette, behind the scenes stills gallery, and original trailer.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.