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 Bethnal 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).
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…