The work of Michael Powell, the director of such classics as Peeping Tom and The Red Shoes, falls into several distinct phases. During his ‘apprentice’ period in the 1930s he made two dozen low-budget movies in many genres. Often dismissed as mere ‘quota quickies’ made to fulfill legal obligations to get more expensive American productions released in the UK, now they are being reclaimed as above-average entertainments. Then came the collaborations with writer Emeric Pressburger, which over a 20-year period saw them produce such classics as A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus; and then his less popular later films, made mostly solo after the team split up, though with some occasional input from Pressburger, which saw the director’s reputation dented by the release of Peeping Tom, a film now seen as a classic but critically reviled in its day.
The Phantom Light, a spooky tale of smugglers laying siege to a light house, was a ‘quota’ film that Powell made which looked to the future, with his eye firmly set on the light at the end of the tunnel. The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
“… an exciting, simple story of wreckers on the Welsh Coast” - Graham Greene
The Phantom Light would be the last of over a dozen low-budget films Powell made with his producing partner Jerry Jackson and one of his most popular, not least for the drawing power of Gordon Harker, an unlikely comedy leading man who was a favourite of Edgar Wallace, worked with Hitchcock and was very popular in his day. In fact the film was re-released as late as 1950 (albeit in a slightly shortened version), all of which may help explain why until fairly recently it was one of only five of his ‘quota’ films thought to have survived (many have since been recovered). He plays Sam Higgins, the hardboiled new light keeper in Tan-y-bwlch, a remote village on the Welsh coast. Right from the start he is told that the place is haunted, apparently by the spirit of a predecessor in the job, Jack Davis; in fact Tom Evans, one of the current crew at the light house, seems to have gone slightly mad, scared by a recent encounter with said spirit. Despite this evil portent, several newcomers seem strangely insistent about getting there. These include dull-but-reliable leading man Ian Hunter (who starred in several Powell movies before heading to Hollywood) and top-billed Binnie Hale as a platinum blonde adventuress who seems more than a little scatty (the local policeman is unimpressed: “These skinny bits of girls from London do not know when they are well off, indeed”).
When reviewed by Today’s Cinema, they complimented the film as an ‘adroit blend of comedy and melodramatic action’, notable for its ‘eerie atmosphere of impending sensation’ (10 January 1935). When re-released, it added (in its inimitable style), ‘This star-director combination of particular interest in the light of current achievements, pointing promise of later eminence in both spheres,’ (25 October 1950).
“It was the light that drowned them all …”
It is also, of all Powell’s early films, the one that seems the most overtly like his later work. This is not so much for its plot but for its theme of Celtic mysticism, its fairytale and other-worldly atmosphere, and the way it emphasises nature and the elements. Of all the films he made in this period, this has the most location work, and is the one that most clearly benefits from it. It successfully disguises the stage origins of the film, but it is used by Powell to create a number of interesting effects. Most of them stem from the presumed haunting of the lighthouse, but are linked to a general air of the unreal and supernatural that is present from the very beginning, when the train emerges from a tunnel into what seems to be a highly unreal atmosphere. As it pulls in, shrouded in steam, a woman dressed in a cape and a wide-brimmed, long pointed hat, in other words like a witch’s hat, approaches it. However, in Kevin Gough-Yates’ words, the ‘… witch-like figure in silhouette near the track turns out to be a woman in local costume.’ Sam is however completely unimpressed by the local ‘colour’ and it is typical of this film that these ‘other-worldly’ manifestations are proved ultimately to be completely rational. The air of fantasy that permeates so many of Powell’s later films however certainly gets its first expression here.
“… a fairy tale really, for particularly in films there are such opportunities for visual notes and shocks and things” - Michael Powell
The dream-like atmosphere of the film is achieved partly from the use of gauzes on the lens, which are used throughout the first part of the film, before Harker gets into the lighthouse. This initial part of the film, with its train journey, strange portents, and its use of the sound of the sea, the waves and the gulls, has been compared by Kevin Gough-Yates (in his 1973 book on Powell) to the opening of “I Know Where I’m Going!”, which was made in 1945, ten years after The Phantom Light. If the film clearly looks forward to Powell’s break-through island film The Edge of the World and has similarities in its early part to “I Know Where I’m Going!”, then the latter part of the film has decided affinities with Black Narcissus (1947). Stripped to their essentials, the two stories are strikingly similar; both the new lighthouse keeper and the nuns come to take over a post whose previous incumbent left under mysterious circumstances. They are both new arrivals in a strange, foreign place (they even speak a different language). They eventually arrive at their outpost, which is high up, exposed to the elements that will directly and indirectly shape their destiny. They are both there to do a job, and refuse to waver from it, or to compromise these rules of their employment (or order). Both stories end with one of the characters failing to their death from a great height.
Although in embryonic form, the development of the theme of man against the elements is accomplished in very similar terms. The characters inhabit an enclosed, claustrophobic world that is constantly at the mercy of nature and man, and even of supernatural forces. Sam refuses bribery (from Hunter, who says he is a journalist) and cajoling (from Hale, who says she is an innocent on the run from the authorities) and heads to his posting, but eventually the other two manage to get themselves there and upset his carefully worked out work schedule. The sense of claustrophobia continues to grow as they all become isolated and convinced that external forces are out to get them, so as to create finally a siege mentality. Obviously, in the case of The Phantom Light, this can in part be attributed to its stage origins, and one can see how Powell is doing his best to get out of the studio and on location. This is the exact opposite of the case with Black Narcissus, where conventional wisdom would have dictated that it be shot on location, but it was all shot in the studio instead. The atmosphere, however, remains fundamentally the same, as does the main plot.
Both stories are characterised by the presence of people that appear to have gone mad. When we first see Tom Evans (played by Reginald Tate), he is presented in exactly the same way as Sister Ruth (played by Kathleen Byron) is at the climax of Black Narcissus: he rushes through a door looking directly at the camera, his hair windswept, his face covered in perspiration and his eyes wide open. When we see Tom prowling around the lighthouse, this is shot in the same way as Ruth’s stalking of sister Clodagh, in that we barely see him, but instead concentrate on the prey. In this sense Tom embodies those external elements that have been steadily putting pressure on the characters throughout the film. On the other hand, the tone is lightweight, with Hale donning a pair of prototypical hotpants to show off her gams while helping Hunter in his schemes.
Powell’s films of the 1940s, with their use of colour and expansive locations, can be seen as a reaction to the confining limitations of the earlier ‘quota’ films he slaved through with their minuscule budgets, short shooting schedules and their total avoidance of any kind of experimentation. As early as 1938, Powell said that, ‘ … many so-called second features were really mass-produced mediocrities and did the cinema much harm’ (Film Weekly, August 1938). In view of Powell’s background in these films, it is perhaps no surprise that given the chance, he wanted to get away as far as he could from the intense discipline and rigour of the style and content that was imposed in making them. Much the same can be said for Alexander Korda, who began directing in Britain by making ‘quota’ films for Paramount. But Phantom Light, which was actually one of his higher budgeted films from the time, doesn’t display too many limitations and is a well made, well-constructed comedy thriller along familiar lines. Harker’s role gets slightly curtailed once Hunter’s real identity is revealed, which is a bit of a shame actually as he is clearly the best thing in the film whether he is showing off his prowess at cooking sausages or subtly trying to find out if the two stowaways are Bolsheys by asking them if they happen to have visited Russia lately …
The Phantom Light is a fast-paced entertainment (75 minutes in total), with Harker delivering his funny lines (courtesy of J. Jefferson Farjeon, a writer ripe for re-discovery recently profiled by Curt over at The Passing Tramp blog) with great relish, stoically putting up with the fairly predictable twists as villains and heroes alike all reveal their secret identities. This is very much in the fashion of an Edgar Wallace play (as discussed previously here), which seems clearly to have been the inspiration here. Powell’s early films (only a few of which have so far been released on home video) are a valuable resource in themselves as well as primers for his better known later work, and films such as Phantom Light now run no risk of being truly forgotten.
DVD Availability: The Phantom Light is available in a region 1 DVD as part of a 3-film set released under the title ‘Classic British Thrillers’ that also includes Powell’s Red Ensign and the James Mason film The Upturned Glass. The French release of the film offers superior image quality but has forced subtitles, though these can removed on some computer players.
The Phantom Light (1935)
Director: Michael Powell
Producer: Jerry Jackson
Screenplay: Ralph Smart, J. Jefferson Farjeon and Austin Melford (from the play ‘The Haunted Light’ by Joan Roy Byford and Evadne Price)
Cinematography: Roy Kellino
Art Direction: Alex Vetchinsky
Music: Louis Levy
Cast: Gordon Harker, Binnie Hale, Ian Hunter, Donald Calthrop, Milton Rosmer, Reginald Tate