Over at the marvellously wide-ranging and thoroughly smart blog Observations On Film Art and “Film Art”, run by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, there’s just been a fascinating postby K.T. It deals with Alberto Cavalcanti’s wartime British propaganda film, WENT THE DAY WELL? which I’ve always found to be a rich and provocative film. Thompson’s post is very welcome because Cavalcanti’s film, like a lot of Ealing Studios’ output, is better known in the UK than abroad, and it deserves to be celebrated more widely. I heartily second Thompson’s suggestion that the Criterion Collection should release the film.
Nevertheless, I felt compelled to add my own two cents, because I think Thompson’s description of the film only touches on part of why it’s so interesting. You should read her excellent summary of it first, which gives a good sense of the film’s charm and excitement. [She has now responded to this post at the foot of her post, so you can read where she agrees and disagrees with the following.]
(Capsule version for the lazy: German fifth columnists infiltrate a proverbially sleepy English village and take it over, but are defeated when the villagers turn on them.)
BUT — WENT THE DAY WELL? is a very peculiar piece of work. Nearly everything in it works on at least two levels, often with contradictory meanings. Thus, the introductory scenes, in which as Thompson rightly says, the villagers “innocently cooperate in typical British fashion, giving directions and offering tea and spare bedrooms,” also serve a straight propaganda purpose, as a warning to audiences not to be so trusting. Nearly all the behaviour we see at the start of the film is marked by casualness, carelessness, and a lack of awareness that there’s a war on. Nevertheless, the villagers are charming and quirky and appealing. The scenes entertain with light comedy, set up the major characters, build tension and dramatic irony based on our foreknowledge of the German plot, and also serve as a wake-up call to the home front.
Once the action starts, with surprising ruthlessness, the film becomes more subversive. According to Cavalcanti, a pacifist, his objective was to show that when war comes to even a place as charming as Bramley End, the people become monsters. Without the slightest change in underlying personality, peace-loving and jocular countryfolk pick up weapons and set about slaughtering their fellow humans.
Of course, since Cavalcanti had been commissioned to make the film to help the war effort, and also as a piece of commercial entertainment, he had to disguise his message. So, as Thompson notes, when the villagers realise the danger they face, “they come through with English pluck and resourcefulness – the women as well as the men,” and yet Cavalcanti allows us to read the action scenes another way.
The cheerful, stiff-upper lip approach of the characters (most of them played by much-loved character actors like Harry Fowler and Thora Hird) can seem pretty callous. “Can’t even hit a sitting Jerry,” Hird scolds herself, after failing to kill an opponent from a distance with her rifle. The suggestion that even within the gentlest country lady or village postmistress there lurks a savage killer is what gives the film an extra twist. Cavalcanti spoke of this intent long after the fact, and there’s no reason to think he was playing up to pacifist critics — the deep ambivalence and disgust at violence is all there in the film, as are the conflicted feelings provoked by the sheer evil of the Nazi threat.
All of the combat is presented in insistently domestic or rustic settings, using household objects like a pepper pot and an axe for firewood as weapons. The sight of hand grenades skittering across the floorboards of an English country manor is an arresting one. And the massacre of the Home Guard (a defensive unit composed of men unfit for normal service, and nicknamed “Dad’s Army” during the war) occurs on a sunlit and leafy country road…
As Thompson explains in detail, Cavalcanti’s career was a strange and complicated one — he directed in France, Britain and Brazil. Like my friend Travis Reeves, he moved from production design (Marcel L’Herbier’s L’INHUMAINE) to sound design (the classic documentary short NIGHT MAIL, in which music by Benjamin Britten and poetry by W.H. Auden are synchronised to the sounds of a chugging steam train.)
By no means all of his work is as interesting as WTDW. Ealing Studios lumbered him with CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE and NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, neither of which he seem to have inspired much enthusiasm in him. But his British post-war noir THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE is rousing stuff, with a sensational shoot-out in an undertaker’s at the climax (“It’s later than you think,” declares a framed homily), culminating in a subjective camera death plunge that anticipates Kubrick’s falling camera from CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
His work in the horror compendium DEAD OF NIGHT is sensational, and everybody should see that film for Ronald Neame and Robert Hamer’s contributions also. The movie is not only a sui generis oddity in the output of Ealing, but represents a number of directors and actors (notably Michael Redgrave in Cavalcanti’s ventriloquist story) at their very best, and ranks high in my top ten of supernatural horror films of all time. A useful idea is illustrated: powerful effects can be created by combining traditional British emotional restraint with SCREAMING HYSTERIA.
Of Cavalcanti’s work outside Britain, RIEN QUE LES HEURES is extremely hard to see, but worth the effort if you can manage it — an amazing “city symphony” portrait of Paris (Cav had worked on Ruttman’s BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A CITY) which seems to throw up a startling cinematic innovation every few seconds. One startling sequence shows a steak delivered to a restaurant table, and then the history of the steak is projected ONTO THE MEAT ITSELF — we see the cow being slaughtered, dismembered and the meat transported to the restaurant and cooked. Then the diner calmly cuts up the “screen” upon which this pocket-sized version of Franju’s LE SANG DES BÊTES has just appeared.
Returning to his native Brazil, Cavalcanti played a central role in setting up the modern Brazilian film industry, but he remained something of a nomad, a man without a home. None of his Brazilian films are currently available. If you are tainted with Portuguese, you can read more HERE, including a piece from my pre-blogging days, translated by foreign hands. Sifting the words through the dead fingers of Altavista Babelfish, I find I had this to say:
“In each country where it worked, Alberto Cavalcanti helped to create popular films that had been artistic triumphs, successes and safe niches in the history of the cinema of the countries. But exactly the international nature of its workmanship has very worked against a full agreement of its brilhantismo.”
I couldn’t agree more.