I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper

I wasn’t planning on having a Fever Dream Double Feature set in lighthouses, but right after I finally watched Michael Powell’s THE PHANTOM LIGHT, I remembered that I had recently acquired SHIT! THE OCTOPUS, another lighthouse-set comedy thriller, and the synchronicity seemed to strong to resist.

(NB: It’s not really called SHIT! THE OCTOPUS, it’s called SH! THE OCTOPUS, but what I said above about struggling to resist synchronicity goes double here. It’s a very shit film whose title suggests that it might almost be called SHIT! THE OCTOPUS. What can I say?)

THE PHANTOM LIGHT begins with a powerful and terrifying non-diegetic sequence of disembodied reaching arm and beautiful title lettering and storm sounds and windy music and WOW! Then it settles down to a more clunky formula of comedy patter and sloppy plotting, with sudden bursts of invention and atmosphere. This is definitely NOT a quota quickie. The QQs were made to fill a government order that a certain proportion of films in British cinemas HAD to be British productions. This ruling was imposed on the film industry with no consultation, so the filmmakers struggled to fulfill the sudden new production demands. The idea took hold that films could be made JUST to fulfill the quote — they need not have any particular qualities, other than the ability to be projected on a screen. I wish this were LITERALLY true, we could have advanced avant garde cinema by decades. Five reels of Piccadily Circus on a foggy evening — add a V.O. by W.H. Auden and away you go. Didn’t happen. But what it meant in practice was opportunities for a lot of budding filmmakers. They could try, and fail, and try again. Entire careers were built on nothing but failure. Powell failed upwards from the start, building up his technical understanding of film storytelling, and occasionally daring to experiment with the more outré techniques which would in due course make his name.

As I said, THE PHANTOM LIGHT isn’t a quota quickie. It boasts considerable location shooting, including actual night shoots, and a couple of quasi-stars: Gordon (INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH) Harker, and Donald Calthrop (whose career would be hampered when a starlet spontaneously combusted in his dressing room) as “David Owen”, which happens to be my two first names. That said, it predates Powell’s collaboration with Emeric Pressburger so it’s not a major work. Cinematically it stands comparison with the later EDGE OF THE WORLD, but lacks that film’s artistic ambition. THE PHANTOM LIGHT is a pure genre piece with some experimental touches.

Most of these touches clearly owe a lot to Powell’s brilliant editor, Derek Twist, who would rescue EDGE OF THE WORLD from a morass of uncoordinated coverage and nature photography. Here, Powell has done his job well by providing Twist with lots of atmospheric detail shots of the lighthouse and its environs, and Twist uses this material to build suspense, creating virtual walk-throughs of the set, and sequences that almost break the mechanics of the lighthouse down into technical schematics. At the climax, as a ship heads for the rocks, he frenziedly piles shot upon shot in a manner that’s probably influenced by the Russian montage school, but in its hyperactive zest more closely approximates the earlier effects of the White Russian filmmakers in France in the 1910s.

He also has a very neat trick of interrupting talk scenes with very quick cutaways — typically about a second — of spooky activity, simultaneous plot developments, jeopardy, or just random lighthouse business. The ruptured rhythm approach foreshadows P&P’s later films, cut by both Derek Twist and Reginald Mills, which often break drifty, oneiric sequences with sudden shock close-ups: think of the climax of BLACK NARCISSUS or even the ballet in THE RED SHOES. In the case of THE PHANTOM LIGHT, the fractured pacing keeps the audience alert and gives the film far more surprise than its plot can provide (the biggest narrative shock comes AFTER THE ENDING, when we realise that a major story point, the identity of the leading lady’s character, has still not been resolved).

Asides from these pleasures, the film has a lot of unreliable Welsh accents, cheeky dialogue, and Gordon Harker, whose grumpy exterior should have been listed by the National Trust. If I can quote my own INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH article –

A phantasie ~ I want to take Gordon Harker gently by those protruding, handle-like ears, lifting his head free from its cradling shoulders, and tipping it forwards until hot tea spills from his protruding, spout-like lower lip, filling a saucer with rippling reflections. When the tea is drunk, the patterns left by the leaves will spell out, not the future, nor yet a bygone age, but a never-was era of whimsy and intrigue.

SHIT! THE OCTOPUS (1937) is a different kettle of kippers altogether. Based on a couple of plays, apparently wedged together with all their dramatis personae and major incidents intact, the film aspires to the title of Ludicrous Mish-mash, but lacks the cohesiveness to quite attain it. Allen “Officer Dibble” Jenkins and Hugh “Woo-woo!” Herbert play incompetent Irish cops on the trail of a crime lord called the Octopus. They pursue him to a lighthouse without stairs, home to a supposed artist, and are all attacked by a real octopus. Shit indeed.

Characters keep turning up until the screen is thronging with irrelevance. The basic comedy motor is missing. Instead of being a bungling sidekick, Hugh H is a joker, and annoying quip-making character who never says anything funny but is perpetually amusing  to himself. No wonder Jenkins seems to be in a constant tizz. The writers, all eleventy-hundred of them, have gone for a sub-sub-sub-Marx Bros zaniness where the comedy thriller set-up would benefit from characters who actually display cowardice, stupidity, avarice, and other actual human emotions, which can be funny.

What the film does have going for it, although it doesn’t add up to much at the time, is a lot of strange and disturbing imagery. It’s meant to be funny, but is basically creepy and queasy and ooky. In this the film oddly resembles Otto Preminger’s unhilarious DANGER: LOVE AT WORK.

This seems to be Elspeth Dudgeon from THE OLD DARK HOUSE, and she’s just done a transformation by coloured filter a la Mamoulian’s JEKYLL AND HYDE. A nasty moment.

The octopus spends most of its time in the next room, reaching through whenever it wants something. I sometimes wish Julian Sands would adopt the same approach in his movies.

Cinematographer Arthur L Todd. Slow but reliable.

Your basic big bowl o’ wrong.

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22 Responses to “I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper”

  1. “The octopus spends most of its time in the next room, reaching through whenever it wants something. I sometimes wish Julian Sands would adopt the same approach in his movies.”

    It reminds me a little of Julian Sands in Timecode! He plays a masseur sent as a thank you/promotional gift to a film studio and spends most of his time in the first half of the film puttering around in the background pummelling or giving back rubs to each executive during their script meeting!

  2. I’m always shocked when JS is good in something. He certainly CAN be good. But he’s usually appallingly artificial, and seems to be in competition with himself to make his mouth as wide at the sides as possible. Very strange.

  3. Mike Figgis. Go figure.

  4. I had a student come to me worried one time. His girlfriend had been approached by Mike Figgis for some nude modelling. He was worried as to whether he should say he was cool with it or not. I knew this student had had some hard times with a girlfriend before, and had the gray hairs to prove it. So I said “I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”

    Now, I know nothing about Mike Figgis personally, but he IS a film director…

  5. No dissing Julian Sands!!!! When I reside in central Hollywood in the late 80′s he lived a block away and I used to see him jog every morning. Lovely sight.

    Chatted with him a year or so ago at a tribute to Gavin Lambert with almost all of British L.A. in attendance (Jackie Bissett, Barbara Steele, Michael and Pat York, et. al.) and he was as charmingly babe-a-licious as ever.

  6. He’s very good, and very natural in The Killing Fields, where he had the real guy he was playing to study. I don’t know, he usually seems awkward as heck to me. Admittedly he hasn’t always been lucky enought to work with the best people. I can’t hold Warlock against him.

  7. A double-feature of lighthouse-set movies, one of which has an exclamation mark right in the title, and no “Brand Upon The Brain!”?

    I just watched a four-panel sub-Timecode Mike Figgis short as part of the “Ten Minutes Older” series. They hired all the most prestigious directors they could for this thing, but nobody told them Figgis had lost all prestige the year before with “Hotel”.

  8. My favorite lighthouse movie is Portrait of Jennie.

  9. I’m a little short of Maddins, actually. And I keep missing My Winnepeg at the cinema, which infuriates me because it’s clearly one of his very best, and it has Ann Savage.

    Time after time the British entries in these compendium jobs are a damned embarrassment. Mira Nair’s episode of Paris Je T’Aime is so offensively PC and goody-goody it makes me want to spit! It’s like, I agree with all the sentiments, which is why they’re BORING unless you have a good story or visuals or SOMETHING.

    I sometimes think our cinema should be shunned by the international community. We could then get jolly inbred and concentrate on pleasing ourselves, and maybe that would result in something interesting.

  10. Glad you mentioned Maddin. I take that back, then. Band Upon the Brain! is my favorite lighthouse movie.

    Have to catch up with My Winnepeg. Maddin is so marvelously eccentric. LOVe The Saddest Music in the World and Sissy-Boy Slap party.

    Oh and today is Bresson’s 107th Birthday.

  11. I’m toying with saying my favourite lighthouse film is The Day of the Triffids!

    I’m worried about watching Hotel now! It’s another one of those films I’ve picked up but still have yet to watch! I should admit that the one Figgis film that I unreservedly like is Liebestraum.

  12. I should give Figgis another try sometime. Hotel has a horrible reputation.

    Bresson is looking good for his age! I inadvertently celebrated his brithday by watching Pete Kelly’s Blues, which is not as Bressonian as some Jack Webb stuff, but thoroughly pleasurable and smoooooth.

    I like John Wyndham’s stuff but nobody’s yet cracked the triffids on film. One of my crazy ambitions is to film The Chrysalids.

  13. I remember liking what I saw of the 1981 “Triffids” serial. As for the ’60s movie … it’s something of a guilty pleasure. I remember a friend remarking, after we had seen the final religioso scene on television, “… and there will be compulsory chapel on Sunday!”

  14. The TV show was good, but the triffids themselves, unconvincing. All the stuff of mass blindness and societal breakdown ALWAYS works, though.

    Of course, Wyndham also gives filmmakers a problem by not resolving the crisis neatly.

    My imaginary Chrysalids movie would play like a mix of Nic Roeg and Tod Browning. And it would be for children!

  15. It’s not often one can go from Hugh Herbert to Robert Bresson so seemlessly. But one SHOULD.

  16. Oh, by the way I caught a bit of the docu-drama Kenneth Tynan: In Praise Of Hardcore on the television a couple of nights ago and noted that Mr Sands was playing Olivier!

  17. Hmm…two actors I’m not a big fan of…but still pretty different. I think Carrie and Bunny Lake is Missing are my only favourites in Olivier’s career.

    I didn’t much like that show, Tynan’s story is much more interesting than they make it seem, and oddly enough, famed impressionist Rob Brydon doesn’t bother to imitate the real Tynan at all. Alec Guinness did him far better in The Ladykillers.

  18. Cool! I still have to look at King’s films with Slaughter, which at the very least should provide an amazing insight into genuine Victorian melodrama. A good copy of The Phantom Light would be great, mine has French subs burned in.

  19. I’ve seen The Upturned Glass, which has not just an unusual structure but a BIZARRE structure. James Mason produced and stars. A nice curio.

  20. [...] my mind like a pox. He’s not only the author of Michael Powell’s lighthouse mystery THE PHANTOM LIGHT, which I wrote about already, but of THE GHOST CAMERA, written up for The Forgotten over at The [...]

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