Always On Sunday

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY — the title was almost literally true in those days, since the factory smoke seeded the clouds during the week, and on the one day when the factories didn’t belch their fumes skywards, the clouds would take the opportunity to drop their watery payload.

Rain predominates in Robert Hamer’s post-war British noir, a genuinely oppressive and glum film, typifying the Ealing fondness for “network narratives” (David Bordwell’s useful phrase) branching out from families or neighbourhoods or institutions. Here, a group of honest and dishonest citizens in BethnalĀ Green, in the East End of London, go about their business, breaking hearts and by-laws, while housewife Googie Withers shelters her ex-lover, John McCallum who’s just escaped from Dartmoor Prison.

When we learn that McCallum’s been given “the cat” — his back is a lattice of scares from the prison whipping — I believed it, having learned that this appalling punishment was still being practiced in postwar Britain after raising doubts about Burt Lancaster’s flogging in KISS THE BLOOD OF MY HANDS. But I think I would have believed it anyway — Hamer’s movie reeks with authenticity, unlike Norman Foster’s slick comic-book thriller. Despite a reliance on studio work, the movie convincingly evokes East End life, with a surprising emphasis on Jewishness and a reasonable authenticity of dialect all round. Of course, the cockney’s have all had V-chips installed so they can’t swear, but I always get a kick out of characters saying “Sweet Fanny Adams” in Ealing movies. The expression may need some explaining for non-Brits. The etymology of the phrase is pretty convoluted, but my favourite reading of it sees it as word substitution code for “sweet fuck-all.” So its frequent use represents a triumph over the British Board of Film Censors.

Here’s Hamer’s fellow Ealing director Alexander Mackendrick, quoted from On Film-Making ~

“Though common in television, group stories seem to have died as a form of cinema these days.” (Well, they’re back now.) “They used to be much more common, and if I have a prejudice against them, it is probably because the English studio at which I got some early training was addicted to the kind of stories that had multiple protagonists (the Ealing comedies PASSPORT TO PIMLICO and WHISKY GALORE! for example).

“I have never been sure why writers and directors of that era were so happy with this formula. I think they believed it provided the opportunity for not only more variety of characters but also a lively pacing that could be achieved by intercutting the progression of the subplots. After one film of this kind I began to dislike the structure because I felt it weakened the drive of the narrative rather than strengthened it. All of the characters essentially became cameo roles that couldn’t be developed in any depth, and the multiplicity of minor tensions was apt to reduce the tension of the main theme.”

Now, it seems to me, we have enough successful, artistically interesting examples of the network narrative to see Mackendrick’s objection as signposting a potential pitfall rather than a necessary weakness of the form. And IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY stands as perhaps Ealing’s finest achievement with this manner of storytelling, centered upon the Withers storyline but spreading out to take in the adventures of her different family members, various east End characters, and the detective trailing McCallum (Jack Warner, Ealing’s favourite copper).

Flashback to a blonde Googie, echoing her early screen appearances (see THE LADY VANISHES).

When I looked at the movie years ago, I found its persistent gloom oppressive, stifling and itchy, which it is, but that’s the brilliance of the filmmaking. Hamer manages to make his widespread narratives all as claustrophobic as the adventure of the escaped convict in the tiny two-up-two-down house. I was also struck by the mysterious resemblance the film bears to Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER: in both films, the mother secretes her fugitive lover within the marital home, betraying her husband and clashing with her (step)daughter. The main difference is the substitution of Doug Bradley’s Pinhead for Jack Warner’s detective, and the fact that the lover in HELLRAISER has no skin. I wonder if Hamer’s film was an influence on Barker. It’s a powerful storyline, which seems capable of shifting through yet more genres: it has one foot in bedroom farce (“Quick, in here!”) already.

Hamer, who two years later would triumph with that greatest of black comedies, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, largely shuns humour here, defying Ealing’s usual chirpy manner and sinking us in meanness and corruption. There is a persistent strain of pessimism in British film of this period, perhaps stemming from our disappointment with the “land fit for heroes” we’d been promised in the war. This acerbic strain was gradually extirpated by the bureaucrats running the film business in the fifties, but would make a savage return with greater realism in the sixties.

The movie’s climax, a chase at the railway yard, magnificently lit by Douglas Slocombe, is marred by a couple of rather inexplicable model shots, but is nevertheless tense and expressionistic and dynamic — the crime story really does seem like the best way to make realism palatable to a wide audience as entertainment.

IAROS is based on a novel by Arthur LaBern, whose Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square was filmed much later, by Alfred Hitchcock, as FRENZY. In that movie, realism is no longer the keynote…

Ealing Studios DVD Collection – Champagne Charlie/The Maggie/It Always Rains On Sunday/Whisky Galore

30 Responses to “Always On Sunday”

  1. It very well could have been an influence on Clive. He’s cinematically learned, among his many other gifts. If I see him over the holidays I’ll ask him.

  2. This is one of my favourite British films. It’s really one of the key post-war films and it breathes with the life of the East End. David Bordwell calls it “network narratives”, I prefer ensemble films or mosaics. This also paved the way for Jules Dassin’s NIGHT AND THE CITY with the low life setting and Googie Withers and the doom-laden chase(here it’s even more brutal because he doesn’t die because he’s going back to prison and living death). Robert Altman said later on that the British films of the 40s impressed him, he cited Brief Encounter as a kind of short hand but I bet he might have seen this.

    Even more impressive as an ensemble piece is possibly the greatest film made at Ealing – Pink String and Sealing Wax also by Hamer and starring Googie Withers. It does for 19th Century London what Hamer did later for the East End and it has one of the most powerful suicide scenes in film history.

  3. So, “Sweet Fanny Adams” is a bit like W.C. Fields’ unique “Godfrey Daniel”, a way of cursing without doing so. Rather more ghoulish, though. That’s one Ealing I haven’t seen – Ealings outside of the comedies and the one exception Dead of Night are pretty rare here.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    I remember loving this film when I saw it years ago on TV. It reminded me of Carne in his more dour Poetic Realist moments – notably LE JOUR SE LEVE.

    Isn’t the fabulous Googie Withers still alive and living in Australia?

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    Tragic alcoholic. Major, major talent.

    The “Haunted Mirror” episode of DEAD OF NIGHT (45) has decidedly ambisexual overtones. Or is it undertones?

    THE SPIDER AND THE FLY (49): stylish romp. The Portman-Rolfe relationship is fraught with aggressive desires.

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    Hilarity often ensues as British and American people come to realize what the word “fanny” means to each culture.

  7. Googie and her husband John McCallum, her co-star in this film, are both still with us, it seems. Although Googie’s last film was Shine, we can still count her career as an unusually long and fabulous one.

    You know Hamer was shipped over to Spain to rewrite David Niven’s scenes in 55 Days at Peking? As if putting him in a room with Nick Ray and expecting work to get done could ever be a good idea. Alas, by that point, Hamer was quite incapable of working under any circumstances.

    I’ve been meaning to get around to The Spider and the Fly.

    Yes, Pink String and Sealing Wax has a similarly dour feeling, although I never felt it had as much authentic sense of life, partly due to being more stagebound. But the stifling atmosphere is nonetheless vivid.

  8. david wingrove Says:

    Wasn’t Robert Hamer expelled from either Oxford or Cambridge as par of a homosexual scandal? I seem to remember reading something like that in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film.

    If so, that migh account for the ‘ambisexual overtones’ in his work. In its stylishly camp subversion of Victorian (a)morality, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS may be the most purely Wildean film ever made. Far more so than Lewin’s PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY or Asquith’s IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, both of which are directly adapted from Wilde.

    I’ve never seen any of Hamer’s films from the 50s, apart from THE SCAPEGOAT, which was a huge disappointment – particularly considering the talents involved (Daphne du Maurier, Gore Vidal, Bette Davis, Alec Guinness0. If any film had the makings of a camp classic but wholly failed to deliver, it’s that one.

  9. With Pink String and Sealing Wax, it’s creating this real sense of class conflict only on a very believably everyday level. The father is a hard man because he knew what it meant to be poor where his children have the luxury of never having to face it and that’s there in the performance. And it doesn’t need a criminal escaping from jail to jump start the story. It just unfurls and when the criminal element kicks in, it feels totally natural. The softness of the studio lighting is also part of the reason why it’s so beautiful. It’s a truly humble film but it’s absolutely great. And besides that it’s Googie Withers best performance. She seems to be in the Anna Magnani mould of playing strong working glass women though her character and acting style is considerably more restrained.

    I’ve also seen Kind Hearts and Coronets(which succeeds in making serial killing fun and light in a way no other film has), aside from that and his episode for Dead of Night and the two Googie Withers movies, I haven’t seen anything else. He also did a G. K. Chesterton adaptation with Alec Guinness called The Detective which I hear is quite good. Hamer seems to be among the great run of British film-makers who do well but who do few. Even David Lean made very few films compared to the long careers minor hacks like Norman Taurog meted out for themselves at Hollywood.

  10. Yes Hamer was gay, and deeply unhappy about it. That said Kind Hearts and Coronets is a camp masterpiece.

    The thought of Hamer and Nick Ray working together — even occupying the same space for an afternoon — is terrifying.

  11. British cinema proceeds in spasms and crises, making long careers almost impossible. The collapse of Ealing and then Hammer, the change in fashion wrought by the British new wave, and perpetual funding difficulties have meant that very few filmmakers have had the chance to grow old doing what they love.

    Father Brown / The Detective is OK, but lacks the elements of the bizarre that distinguish Chesterton. I recorded a thriller called The Long Memory a while back which looks promising. The Scapegoat is indeed disappointing, partly it seems due to re-editing both by the studio and Guinness, who disliked Bette so much he tried to all but remove her from the film.

  12. Can’t find any reference to a sex scandal in Thomson or Roud, but there are telltale references in this excellent portrait: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/476694/index.html

  13. Jack Warner made a career playing coppers. He played George Dixon in Basil Dearden’s The Blue Lamp. He then had a long stint as Dixon of Dock Green.

  14. David Boxwell Says:

    Seth Holt was Hamer’s brother-in-law!

    THE SCAPEGOAT (59) is a thorough disaster. But Alec Guinness, himself a conflicted homosexual, was a constant in Hamer’s career after 1949.

  15. Interesting to re-imagine the sometimes stuffy Ealing as, in Edward Fox’s memorable phrase, “a hotbed of berties.” What with Guinness, Dennis Price, Cavalcanti and Hamer, it seems like quite a gay place!

  16. Tony Williams Says:

    IT ONLY RAINS ON SUNDAY is a key example of British film noir and the reference to French poetic realism is also very relevant. We also remember that before he became George Dixon Jack Warner did play villains as in Ealing’s AGAINST THE WIND, HUE AND CRY and Gainsborough’s MY BROTHER’S KEEPER. “Evening, all” to those of you in the UK.

  17. Tony Williams Says:

    David C. Then, not without nuance, was it referred to as Mr. Balcon’s academy for young gentlemen!

  18. Heh!

    It’s a shame noir didn’t take off in Britain in a bigger way, although there are a good few examples of it. I’m amazed Balcon allowed OAROS, which doesn’t seem to depict Britain in the warm light he usually favoured.

  19. >”group stories seem to have died
    > as a form of cinema these days.”

    See Robert Altman, although I must admit that the thought of Altman directing an Ealing-style film is a bit startling.

  20. I’m not sure exactly when Mackendrick’s quote dates from — On Film-Making is based on his lecture notes, so it could be from before Nashville.

    Altman greatly admired Rear Window, with its telescopic view into different lives, but his version of that approach is very different. Likewise, if he saw Bells Go Down or It Always Rains on Sunday or Passport to Pimlico, the structural influence would have been filtered through his more acerbic sensibility…

  21. MacKendricks’s “On Film-Making” is ESSENTIAL reading. It’s high point is a detailed examination of the scritps of Sweet Smell of Success — the first draft written by Ernest Lehman, and the second by Clifford Odets. He shows how odets took a very good script and made it really great by narrowing the forcus of the action to a fine point and supplying all the great language that is embedded on our collective brain pans forever.

    “Come here, Sidney. I want to chastise you!”

  22. “Everybody in a script must have money in his pocket and a back to his head,” said Odets. Meaning they have to THINK and be equipped with strategies and plans, something Sweet Smell illustrates to perfection.

  23. A favorite of mine as well, IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY was one of a handful of Brit noirs I acquired earlier this decade, along with THE OCTOBER MAN, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT and THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE. Googie was a strong selling point for me, having seen her in NIGHT AND THE CITY prior to this Ealing film. Amazing that her and husband McCallum are still with us, they seemed well-suited to one another in the film, he manly, she voluptuous (and that full, pouty lower lip of hers). I appreciate Arthur’s mention of Altman’s being impressed by British films of the Forties, some of my favorite films of all time are gathered under that umbrella.

  24. The 40s were an amazing period of activity. The Archers reigned supreme of course but the work done by Hamer, Dickinson, Carol Reed, Launder & Gilliat, early David Lean is highly impressive. Then of course as David C. says it all got clamped down by an incompetent film management.

    Altman’s Gosford Park is kind of Ealing-esque in the examination of an institute, in this case the structure of servants of English aristocracts. People talk about La Regle du Jeu and there’s also a hommage to Tati in Stephen Fry’s performance as the detective but it also has traces of Hamer’s ensemble films and also Reed’s The Fallen Idol which is about the world of servants explored via a murder case.

    Woody Allen recently said in relation to his move to England that he always wondered how the skies looked so grey in the Ealing films

  25. David W, there’s a reference to Hamer’s university days in Matthew Sweet’s ‘Shepperton Babylon’ where he’s described as a “brilliant young Cambridge intellectual whose university career was interrupted by rustication for his involvement in a homosexual scandal, and whose working life was cut short by his destructive devotion to alcohol.” (P166)

  26. And I did find a reference to him being “sent down from Cambridge” which I gather is a bad thing. Rustication sounds quite pleasant though! I picture a holiday on a farm.

    Britain was still industrial and a bit smoggy in Ealing’s heyday, plus it’s generally cloudy and then you have a smart fellow like Douglas Slocombe who can slap a graded filter on to darken the sky as required. Plus, aren’t all black-&-white skies grey? Except in The Haunting, where they are just that: black & white.

  27. david wingrove Says:

    Matthew Sweet! Yes, that must be it! Many thanks!

  28. I only just got around to watching the trailer … that POV shot from the truck at “2:22” is certainly dynamic and unlike anything I’d associate with Ealing. (Not, of course, that I don’t love Ealing, but …) Or have I simply been watching the wrong Ealing films? It makes me think of the motorcycles at the start of “Blimp.”

    And what other Ealing film contains girl-on-girl dress-ripping? The bit here makes me think of Lilli Palmer in “A Girl Must Live.” (Thank you, David, for drawing that to my attention.)

  29. Dead of Night dishes up some memorable dynamism, but this is probably the strongest Ealing film for those exploitation moments. Hamer managed to get a good deal of sex into Kind Hearts by using good manners, knowing that anything overt would simply make Balcon uncomfortable and he’d ban it on impulse. But I don’t know how he got away with this movie.

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