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
What a fascinating review. I have the play in my book stacks but haven’t read. Would love to see the film. I was especially interested in this because of the Jefferson Farjeon connection and because of Powell, of course. There’s certainly an air of fantasy about Farjeon’s thrillers. Golden Age thrillers often are rapped for racism and xenophobia, etc., but Farjeon’s tend to be more gentle, humorous and whimsical.
Thanks for the kind words. I have never read the play Curt so I’d love to know what you make of it – well done on finding a copy! My review is obviously biased towards Michael Powell’s contribution (I suppose you could even say it’s a bit auteurist) rather than the evolution of the text. But then I’m a huge fan of Powell and have a special interest in his early films, especially those he made in collaboration with the great Philip Macdonald (either as original author of the source material or as screenwriter). The film adaptation of Rynox is I think for its day pretty notable and I may do a review of that one next week now that it has become available.
I’d like to read that, Rynox is one of my favorite Macdonalds. I’m a great fan of Black Narcissus by the way. Among other things, those sets are amazing.
Cheers Curt, I’ll consider myself booked! Black Narcissus, as with practically all the Powell and Pressburger films of the 40s like the aforementioned titles as well as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Small Back Room, are extraordinary, unique and truly quite sublime movies in my view (which can make them hard to write about honestly, unless you make a conscious effort to stay away from a constantly escalating series of superlatives!).
A fine piece Sergio. You’ve reminded me that I have a copy of this movie but I’ve never gotten round to watching it. I bought that three film US set when it came out and, for one reason or another, it’s remained securely tucked away on my shelves ever since.
Gordon Harker certainly seems like an unusual choice of lead these days. He’s been forgotten totally I imagine, but I remember seeing him in a number of movies on TV back in the 80s, when C4 in particular used to show all kinds of rarities – I miss those days.
Cheers Colin, very good of you. I have a real interest in early Powell (If you Google our names together you’ll get a lot of hits actually, though I’m suggesting you do that) but Phantom Light is really great fun – and probably exactly like you think it will be given the vintage and the actors, only probably a bit better! Oh yes, I know exactly what you mean about older TV schedules int eh UK – I recently found myself pining for his Inspector Hornleigh films, which I rerember watching at my Nan’s in the 80s. Incidentally, a bit belatedly I know, Hotel Reserve is in the post!
I’ll have to try and fit in a viewing of Phantom Light soon.
The scheduling on TV in the early to mid-80s did a lot to broaden the scope of my film viewing – I saw so many movies that I doubt I’d otherwise have been exposed to.
Really looking forward to Hotel Reserve! Let me know when you make a move on the other matter.
Exactly – I still remember my first exposure to so many early films through screenings on Channel Four – apparently a lot of this was down to Leslie Halliwell’s influence.
PS I’ve had to delay that other thing for a bit (financial considerations …) but will definitely let you know! Thanks again.
I know Halliwell comes in for some flak for his dismissal of more recent movies, but his part in acquiring movies for TV broadcast back in those days was a Godsend in retrospect. It helped keep a whole generation of us in touch with older movies, something that’s no longer the case with younger viewers I fear.
No question about that – and I do think that Halliwell was a marvel when it came to his pithy and succinct reviews, irrespective of what you think of his particular critical stance. I must have at least half a dozen of his books littered on the shelves at home …
Liked the review and would most certainly like to see the film. I don’t watch many new films, preferring to delve into the old stuff. One to look for.
Thanks Randy – it’s good, lightweight fun – just like any 1930s British comedy thriller ought to be!
This is one I have never heard of although the plot would not have appealed to me years ago.Perhaps now. Patti Abbott
Thanks for reading. I have no idea if it ever got a release in the US actually – it is very much of its time and is at least partly, perhaps even mostly, worth seeing if you like the later Powell movies. It could easily be transplanted to the US with James Gleason in the Harker role, or even Jack Oakie for instance!
Sergio, a “fine” and “fascinating” review it certainly is. However, I’m afraid I had neither heard of Michael Powell nor of this film or its cast, until now. I’ll definitely watch it at first opportunity. Luckily, VCDs/DVDs of low-budget (and B-grade) films are available in retail stores out here but I’ll have to go hunting for it. For some reason, PEEPING TOM rings a bell, rather loudly too, as being one that was too stark and brutal for its time. I think it has been used in many a curriculum on filmmaking, if I can quite put it that way.
Hi Prashant – well, Michael Powell’s movies shouldn’t be too hard to find – he was the main director on the Korda production of The Thief of Baghdad (1940) starring Sabu and Conrad Veidt and Black Narcissus, from the Rumer Godden novel, might be of special interest though it was all filmed in the UK even if set in India. You can get a good overview of his work at Screenonline (I should admit that I helped out with it). I think he ranks with Hitchcock and David Lean as Britain’s finest filmmaker of the 1940s so I hope you can find some of his films – I think you’ll find them to be really rewarding.
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