Things I Read Off the Screen in “On the Night of the Fire”

This week’s Forgotten, over at The Daily Notebook, examines Brian Desmond Hurst’s melancholy slice of British proto-noir ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE. Edinburgh Filmhouse screened an excellent print of this last month as part of their From the Archive series, and Fiona and I were much impressed, and delighted to see the rare movie on a big screen in 35mm.


The film is also full of advertising and signage, something I have a weird kink for — it’s frequently evocative and suggestive and strange, I find, whether on a dressed set, where every little thing has been placed just so, or out in the messy world where hoardings and signs assail the eye from all angles.

Taken out of context, such written material seems like a fragmented synopsis or a cut-up poem calling the movie into existence. Some silent films exist only through the censor’s record of the intertitles, floating sentences clutching at a vanished narrative.


Mr. Pilleger, the blackmailing haberdasher, has a suggestive name, and seeing it written is useful so it doesn’t come across as TOO descriptive of his rapacious personality. And signage completes the illusion of a real street, when what we’re looking at is a studio mock-up.

What would be the best film to examine in the light of its printed matter? FAHRENHEIT 451, perhaps?

Text establishes class, the great God of British society and cinema, either through evoking the industrial landscape, or the uneducated background of the authors ~

Later American noirs were less verbose — in fact, US films seemed to have less lettering in them altogether. A striking neon sign or a tattered poster, a dead end sign or a street name, were usually all you’d get. ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE burbles with the long-forgotten brand names of products lost to antiquity. What was JULYSIA? A hair cream, apparently. Who was TOM LONG and what was his product? And here  —

At lower centre, a poster for BORACIC LINT, a medical dressing which was also cockney rhyming slang for “skint”, meaning flat broke. Which seems fitting, in a film all about the destructive power of money…

This has been an entry in For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. Read more about it here and here. Donate to save a classic film noir by clicking here ~

8 Responses to “Things I Read Off the Screen in “On the Night of the Fire””

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    My own BDH obsession: DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT (41). The first time I ever saw faves Sally Gray and Anton Walbrook. And the “Warsaw Concerto”!

    Wynyard in OTNOTF (on my film bucket list now), looks like Richardson’s younger brother in that pic.

  2. I just grabbed Dangerous Moonlight because it looks delirious. This was only my second Hurst — I’d love to see his Poe adaptation. He REALLY deserves rediscovery. OTNOTF is exactly like watching a 40s noir only in Britain and with the slightly greater hokeyness of some 30s genre cinema. And I use the term “hokeyness” with affection and approval.

  3. Such a marvelous film, on so many counts. So glad you’re giving it the exposure it deserves. I was knocked out by it when I watched it the first time recently. I’ve only seen Ralph Richardson in a few things, but this performance is right up there with his Baines in FALLEN IDOL.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    Cecil Beaton’s frocks hang off Sally Gray’s cheekbones while the Nazis rain down rockets. Walbrook plays the piano in his well-appointed maisonette in the midst of the Blitz, cool and imperturbable, in Savile Row suits even sharper than those he wore in RED SHOES. We could all learn this lesson post 9/11: if you are under enemy attack, keep calm and carry on–with STYLE!

    Cueing up BDH’s BEHIND THE MASK (58) to watch tonight–Vanessa Redgrave is made up to look 40, when she was barely 21. (Her fillum debut).

  5. That sounds TERRIFIC. When a friend studied cinematography at the National Film School, Walter Lassally taught a special class on how to hide the bags under Vanessa Redgrave’s eyes. Just the thing aspiring photographers needed to know.

  6. Just read that Hurst and John Ford were very good friends, “cousins”, and it was Ford who taught him the craft. I also would like to see his Tell-Tale Heart , as it was banned for being too horrific. Hmm.

  7. […] – David Cairns’s “reading” of Desmond Hurst’s On the Night of the Fire […]

  8. […] got two from the fabulous David Cairns over at Shadowplay: the British proto-noir On the Night of the Fire and another women in prison film that’s sure to please, Caged Thursday, February […]

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