Charles Barr suggests that many of Ealing's war films can be usefully grouped together as representing particular themes or interests: he places Next of Kin (a regular shortening of the title, although the on-screen credit keeps the definite article The Next of Kin) alongside The Foremen Went to France (1942) and Went the Day Well? (1943) as films that deal with 'battles of wits' which 'enforces resource and alertness, and penalises complacency and amateurism.' (Barr 1980, 33) While the Tommy Trinder film has yet to make an appearance in this challenge, it is useful to consider the relationship of The Next of Kin to Went the Day Well? and Ealing's other war films.
The theme of The Next of Kin can be summed up by many of the wartime posters that make up important background elements of its mise-en-scene: "Careless Talk Costs Lives" or "Telling a friend may mean telling The Enemy." This is effectively a dramatisation of those sentiments and the general sense of "loose lips sink ships" that was present during the Second World War. The film began as a production for the military, to educate and remind soldiers of this issue - producer Michael Balcon and director Thorold Dickinson saw it as a chance to convey that message to a wider public, and expanded the initial budget (and running time) to produce this final version.
Caught between propaganda and drama, the film struggles to find a suitable balance: and one of the most obvious differences with Went the Day Well? is that there are few characters in The Next of Kin that are developed enough to care about. In the later film, the well-drawn characters create interest and drama (and shock, when they are often killed); here, one of the ironies of the film is that the most interesting characters are the German spies, not the British soldiers who inadvertently reveal information on troop movements and plans.
Mervyn Johns as Davis (or 'Number 23'), remains a fascinating chameleonic figure, easily moving between the different British classes on display, able to make friends, yet also retaining a slightly whiny, put-upon figure whenever he meets up with his German handler, Barratt (Stephen Murray). The standout sequence is one between him and an ATS driver (Thora Hird) where, in the space of two scenes, he has charmed her by helping fix a tyre, been invited into the bosom of a military dance, and discovered vital information via a pompous male sergeant. Well-played by Hird and Johns, it shows his character's skill and demonstrates how Davis remains the most multi-faceted character within the film.
The only other characters who make an impact are Miss Clare (Phyllis Stanley), a drug-addicted performer who tours around army camps, and her dresser, Ma / Mrs Webster (Mary Clare). Ma is revealed early on as a German spy, using Clare's cocaine addiction to force her to pump young squaddies for information to relay back to Berlin. (The film does not, however, suggest that it is simply young women who can entice military secrets out of men, as the example of Johns' character shows)
Equally compelling is bookshop owner Barratt who blackmails his Dutch refugee employee Beppie (Nora Pilbeam) by threatening that the Gestapo will take her Rotterdam-based parents into protective custody unless she gets information from her soldier boyfriend. The fact that these characters are the source of most of the actual dramatic elements of the film is most notable when Beppie kills Barratt, and is then killed by Davis: without those figures to focus on, the film abandons character-based drama in favour of the action footage of largely faceless battalions landing at the port of Norville, and their battles with the (pre-warned) German troops. While this is well-shot and tense in places, there is very little at stake in terms of individuals - again, the comparison with the final fight sequence in Went the Day Well? favours the later film, because there is more engagement with the characters.
So where are the British characters in all this? They are largely forgettable vanilla privates, majors and lieutenants, who tend to merge together, pawns in the spies' webs and schemes. The main British character, security officer Richards (Reginald Tate), has to handle the brunt of the propaganda, often spouting slogans and warnings rather than anything that would endear us to him as a character.
You could argue that this was the point of the film, that normal, uneventful British types were being duped into giving away pieces of information by talented, colourful, German spies, and that everyone should be wary. The opening titles exclaim "This is the story of how YOU unwittingly worked for the Enemy" - and it is possible the association with the Directorate of Army Kinematography reduced the ability of Ealing to effectively dramatise or introduce stronger British characters (something the studio was noted for, and which is visible in earlier films like Saloon Bar).
As noted above, the reliance on British soldiers as a mass - obeying orders, rushing a beach, training together - does work to overwhelm the few individuals we see. The British soldiers are successful in their mission, but the revelation of secret plans means more men are killed - and 'the next of kin casualties have been informed' - allowing the film to (rather ponderously) reiterate to its central message at the end.
Visually, there are elements of later Ealing concerns (the location work is strong, the cast is diverse and interesting), there are nice comic touches (Johns, in the bookshop, leafs through a book titled I Am A Nazi Agent), while the film's emphasis on sexuality does tend towards the limited view of women seen in some Ealing films: Clare's exotic dancer, Beppie's shop worker, Ma's German spy and Hird's female van driver.
While Clare and Hird are unwilling dupes, there is no sense that the film presents women as the only source of secret information, it leaks just as easily in conversations between men: as seen in the appealing final sequence where those recurring upper class twit characters of 1930s/40s British films (played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) chat about a munitions factory. Yet as the camera reveals in a sly pan to the right, sat next to them (and lighting their cigarettes) is Davis, revelling in the detail they are giving. If there is any doubt that his character dominates the film, this final return and centrality appears to confirm it.
Next time, back to the earliest Ealing film on the list with The Gaunt Stranger (1938)...
Follow Dr Keith M. Johnston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keithmjohnston