I love lighthouse movies in principle — it always feels like they’re going to be excellent, all fog and dark and isolation and tension. And then, if you’re lucky, you get THE PHANTOM LIGHT, or TOWER OF EVIL if you’re slightly less lucky.
But CAPE FORLORN, by E.A. Dupont, (previewed here two days ago) manages to combine the required suspense and close-quarters conflict with a real cinematic vision, inflected through the somewhat clunky technology of 1931 British filmmaking (Dupont managed a simultaneous French version, with Harry Baur, and a German, now lost, with Fritz Kortner and Conrad Veidt, apparently lost). The impressive opening long take is doubtless identical in all three cuts, since it doesn’t feature the main cast nor any dialogue.
Fay Compton exits the mildly sleazy night club environment of the opening, where she may be some kind of bar girl, to marry a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand. Bored to tears on the wretched rock, she tarts herself up nice for hubby Frank Harvey (who wouldn’t have had a chance with her if he hadn’t already written the movie). Fiona was excited by the 30s makeup presented in loving product-shot close-up ~
A bit of research gave her the history of Mouson’s Lilac Cream and even found the ad which Fay is trying to look like.
“You looked better before, love,” was Fiona’s disappointed verdict on the made-over Compton. But when Harvey wipes the muck off her face and throws the kit out the window, Fiona was properly outraged. You can’t do that to a woman’s products! With Fiona cheering her one, Fay runs into the corky arms of Karloffian bit of rough Edmund Willard, but soon throws him over for a sexy stowaway. Well, Ian Hunter was always a bit fleshy for a sexpot, but he’s the best-looking thing with a Y chromosome on this ragged outpost, and a girl has to live. Maybe this film could play on a loop with Borzage’s STRANGE CARGO so that Hunter could get washed away and then washed up, repeatedly.
Soon there’s a highly uncomfortable love quadrangle, with Fay as the centre of attention, and Hunter’s dark past clouding over the already-bleak horizon. Dupont directs the hell out of all this, his camera floating up and down the winding stairs, observing from a lofty, anxious height, while the soundtrack offers a constant throb of surf, or wind, or shrieking gulls. In the year or so since ATLANTIC, the sound crew have learned how to mix, so that now every scene is oppressively loaded with atmos, an approach which would be abandoned as soon as it was begun. So CAPE FORLORN is a mutant of the earl sound cinema, an experiment that “didn’t work” but which, seen with modern eyes, works beautifully, if strangely.
As the movie’s sex fulcrum, Fay Compton is an odd bit of casting, with her soulful yet ovine features, but she was always a sympathetic, sincere performer, and it’s a pleasure to see her in this early role.
E.A. Dupont throws focus like a boss!
Network have released this offbeat masterpiece of DVD, and you should buy it if you like sexual tension and lighthouses and cinema.