Skip to main content

Down ‘ere they say the lighthouse is haunted. And what’s more, blokes go mad and kill themselves.

The Phantom Light
(1935)

(SPOILERS) This lighthouse-set comedy thriller represents one of Michael Powell’s early films, made a couple of years before his career “proper” took off with The Edge of the World. He was making “quota-quickies” during this period, cheap and cheerful no-frills productions resulting from the requirement for UK American distributors and British cinema owners to screen a quota of British films. As you’d expect, Powell ensures it all looks pretty good, despite the budget constraints, while the presence of Gordon Harker in the lead role ensures it’s also pretty funny.

The set-up – Harker’s lightkeeper Sam Higgins takes over the North Stack lighthouse amid tales of hauntings and madness and sudden deaths of former keepers – is reminiscent of the kind of fare Will Hay was making at that time, although Harker’s style, in contrast to Hay’s fearful fluster and botheration, is more deadpan cynicism. Harker starred opposite Hay in the same year’s Boys Will Be Boys, but is probably best known for his recurring role as Inspector Hornleigh (opposite whom Alistair Sim played Sergeant Bingham).

Naturally, there are no actual spooky goings on, and it’s a cover for a plot by local wreckers to sink ship the Mary Fern for insurance (the locals – unscrupulous Welsh folk, wouldn’t you know – own shares in the ship). Harker is somewhat relegated from lead status for a spell when an actual hero reveals himself – Powell wanted Roger Livesey, but Ian Hunter is cast as Pearce, the undercover naval officer intent on foiling the plot – but makes a spirited attempt to get that light back on when events escalate.

The picture, based on a play by Evadne Price and Joan Roy Byford (itself adapted from Price’s novel), is at its weakest when Harker is playing second fiddle, since it can’t really stand up to the scrutiny of being played wholly straight, but otherwise, it’s a very satisfying seventy minutes you can see on YouTube. While Powell was dismissive of many of the pictures he worked on during this period, he enjoyed The Phantom Light (“I am a sucker for lighthouses. The lonelier and more inaccessible the better. And I love comedy thrillers. I said ‘yes’ to this one right away and never regretted it. I enjoyed every minute of it. The less said about the plot, the better”).

He also rated Harker (“He had one of those flat, disillusioned Cockney faces, half-fish, half-simian, with an eye like a dead mackerel... He was wonderful in silent films, but even better in talkies. He got his effects with all sorts of strange sounds, and to my delight he could hold a pause as long as any actor I had known. Close-ups were made for him, and we both took full advantage of it”). And with good reason, as his delivery is priceless (dialogue courtesy of Joseph Jefferson Farjeon and Austin Melford; Ralph Smart, later of Danger Man, adapted the play).

Early scenes find Higgins onshore in the village of Tan-Y-Bwlch, making no allowances for the local flavour (“Oy, Taffy. You speak English?” – “Cor, bless my soul. Another white man” he exclaims, on learning he’s speaking to a fellow foreigner), showing his very particular brand of pub etiquette (asking for doubles when offered a drink and ordering singles in return) and spying out the lie of the land (on being told the lighthouse is half a mile out to sea and round the headland he calculates “So if I’ve got a bit of skirt in the village, I can’t wave to her”).

Alice Bright: Life in a small village is very dull, Mr Harker.
Sam Higgins: Not with you there, I’ll lay a pound to a sausage.

Binnie Hale also stars, as stowaway Alice, who ends up on the lighthouse after Higgins refuses to let her come with him (against regulations, and him a keeper of twenty-five years’ service). She proceeds to cut up his clothes to make some shorts (“Now, we’ll draw a veil over my Sunday trousers”) while he mistakenly concludes that Alice and Pearce are ruddy communists (“Ever been to Russia?”) She eventually tells him she’s really a Scotland Yard detective, but such is Hale’s performance, I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to take his seriously (Higgins certainly doesn’t buy it).

Alice Bright: Mr Higgins, I’m going to tell you the truth.
Sam Higgins: What, again?

Powell tells in My Life in Movies, the first volume of his autobiography, that Hartland Point lighthouse in Devon was cast as the light (but that’s all; other lighthouses were also seen in the film and filming was, of course, mostly set bound). Graham Greene’s review, meanwhile, compared The Phantom Light to Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s seminal The Ballad of Flannan Isle, but you could probably compare anything set in a lighthouse with it, including The GoodiesLighthouse Keeping Loonies. A minor work for Powell, perhaps, but one effectively shining a light on the talents of Harker.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979) Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.