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

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.