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The Great Ealing Film Challenge 25: The Gaunt Stranger (1938)

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This, the first film (chronologically) on the master list of 95 Ealing films covered on this challenge (although some people have already helpfully pointed out other options, most notably a series of short films made during the war years), fails to really suggest the range of genres, characters and concerns that fuel most descriptions of 'Ealing Studios' from the war years on. Not a bad film by any standards, it (like Saloon Bar (1940) before it) is a solid piece of genre filmmaking, engaging enough but rarely doing much to stand out from other similar films of the period.

In one sense, The Gaunt Stranger completely fails to live up to its title, not being about a stranger or anyone that could be described as 'gaunt.' To be fair, the U.S. title for the film, The Phantom Strikes, is equally misleading, given it features no phantoms or, indeed, a character called 'The Phantom.' The film, the first that producer Michael Balcon would make at Ealing Studios (initially through a company called CADAP - Co-operative Association of Producers and Distributors - of which Balcon was a major figure), is an adaptation (by well-known British writer Sidney Gilliat) of an Edgar Wallace story, 'The Ringer.' (a story Balcon and director Forde had previously adapted in 1931) The plot concerns a mysterious master of disguise (the 'Ringer,' Henry Arthur Milton): assumed dead for two years, it is revealed he has returned to London to kill Maurice Meister, a local crook who murdered his sister, Gwen Milton years before.

An amusing reverse murder-mystery unfolds, as the crime is announced two days before it is committed, everyone knows the Ringer will do it, but no one knows who the Ringer is. The police, represented by Detective Inspector Wembury (Patrick Barr), police surgeon Dr Lomond (Alexander Knox), and Inspector Bliss (John Longdon), team up with petty thief Sam Hackett (Sonnie Hale, the putative star of the film), to try and protect the intended victim Maurice Meister (Wilfred Lawson). Also thrown into the mix are the Ringer's wife Cora Ann Milton (Louise Henry), recently arrived in the country; Meister's secretary Mary Lenley (Patricia Roc); and her criminal brother Johnny (Peter Croft).

The film resembles Saloon Bar in other ways than the focus on a murder investigation, not least the attempt to introduce comic elements into an otherwise straight-forward detective story: Hale is the main comedian here, playing the little man reluctantly dragged out of prison by Wembury ('I've come down in the world, I'm helping the police'), and constantly trying to escape his predicament. Yet much of the routine falls flat, at least in part because the film doesn't seem that interested in his character (he disappears for large stretches at a time, or is used for exposition purposes), and because the narrative is constantly trying to keep the audience guessing as to who might be the Ringer in disguise.

Stylistically, director Forde adds a few subtle touches, notably the opening credits (a shadowy street scene, suddenly illuminated by a policeman's lamp, which casts around the screen, lighting up the film's credit slides, arranged as a series of bill posters on the brick walls) and a repeated visual motif where the camera pans slowly right-to-left (and cross-fades between images) across Meister's largely empty rooms; this happens three times, first to establish the space (and scale) of Meister's house (as he plays piano); second, to show Hale's movement through several of the rooms (in his assumed role as butler); and third, near the end, to show the emptiness of the house on the night of Meister's murder, as a superimposed pendulum ticks away the remaining minutes of his life, building the tension.

Necessarily busy in order to keep viewers guessing, the film suggests other narrative interests that it rarely pursues: the characters of John and Mary Lenley, for example, are ciphers, largely there to add to the list of potential murderers, or suggest unexplored narrative options: it appears important that Meister and Wembury have relationships with both Lenleys (John worked for Meister's criminal business and Wembury arrested him; both men are romantically interested in Mary), but this (like so much else) proves a red herring. The denouement of who the Ringer is (no spoilers here) is enjoyable, but the film's real surprise is the post-revelation sequence where the Ringer, rushed to hospital having taken a suicide pill, escapes from the ambulance and, with wife Cora Ann in tow, flies away in a plane.

The murderer not only gets away with his plan, he gets the girl, and suffers no punishment for the crime whatsoever. While there is some justification for this - Meister is a crook that the police have been unable to catch or convict, the Ringer is avenging his sister's death - the fact remains that the ostensible bad guy of the film beats all the supposed representatives of law and order, and flies off into the sunset with his wife. It turns out that, all along, the film was rooting for the Ringer. Given the later morality on display in Ealing films such as Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) or The Long Arm (1956), this resolution felt surprisingly modern and open-ended.

Next time: back to the war onboard San Demetrio, London (1943)...