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.