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

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.