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The Great Ealing Film Challenge 48: The Halfway House (1944)

Posted: 29/02/2012 00:00

Halfway through The Halfway House was, technically, halfway through my Ealing marathon (47.5 films out of 95) so this blog entry feels suitably celebratory. Six months on from the start of this mad idea, I am keeping to my schedule - approximately two films a week - and still have a stack of known and unknown films ahead of me: from the pleasures of Passport to Pimlico (1949) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) to the undiscovered lands of Meet Mr Lucifer (1953) and I Believe in You (1951).

For now, though, let's look at another of Ealing's supernatural productions...

In production terms, The Halfway House is tucked neatly between They Came to a City (1944) and Dead of Night (1945), and it contains elements that can be seen in those other supernaturally-inclined films (the crossover may be due to the presence of writers Angus Macphail, Diana Morgan and T.E.B. Clarke on all three): a secluded, mystical or uncanny location (here, a haunted country inn that is unstuck in time after its destruction in a German air raid), a broad combination of characters from different classes, and with different stories to tell, and an uncertain resolution that balances hope and fear for the future.

Given the focus on the inn through the opening credits (where its sign hands under the titles), and in dialogue from different characters, the film withholds any sense of the physical space until 30 minutes in. The revelation of the inn comes when recently released soldier-turned-criminal Captain Fortescu (Guy Middleton) and black marketer William Oakley (Alfred Drayton) scan the Welsh landscape with binoculars - an image of a wooded area shimmers as though in a heat haze, and the inn is uncovered, nestled between the trees. This visual trickery makes no attempt to hide the inn's mystical nature from the audience, although the characters are more stubborn, resistant to the idea that it is an otherworldly space (the presence of calendars from 1942, newspapers from exactly a year before, and radio broadcasts begin to convince them).

Fortescu and Oakley are joined by classical conductor David Davies (Esmond Knight), who has three months to live (and who thought the inn had been destroyed in an air raid a year ago, in 1942); Jill French (Valeria White), her soon-to-be-ex-husband Richard French (Richard Bird), and their daughter Joanna (Sally Ann Howes); Alice (Francoise Rosay) and Harry Meadows (Tom Walls), mourning the death of their son; and young lovers Margaret (Philippa Hiatt) and Terence (Pat McGrath), a neutral Irishman. They all arrive at the inn - as the disparate group arrive at the strange gateway in They Came to a City - with their individuals problems, opinions and uncertainties about the future. Unlike that film, this group has guides: the innkeeper Rhys (played by Ealing stalwart Mervyn Johns) and his daughter Gwyneth (played by his real life daughter, Glynis Johns).

The scene is set, then, for a subtle (and often not-so-subtle) piece of dramatic propaganda. In the liminal space of the inn, set outside of the real world (in both time and space), the characters will come to realise the supernatural nature of their hosts and location, and reassess the future path of their lives (as Rhys puts it, this is 'a pause in time, a pause to stand still and to look at yourself and your difficulties... a few hours to change your minds'). The resolution of these different stories is rooted very much in 1940s mainstream social beliefs and ideology, albeit with a wartime flourish: the estranged family are brought back together, the crooks see the error of their ways, with Fortescu intent on reenlisting (Oakley is a more uncertain case, as noted below), Irishman Terence realises the error of being neutral in a war against the kind of evil people who would bomb a rural idyll such as the inn; Davies accepts his fate, reenergised about what he can accomplish before he dies; and Alice and Harry share their emotions over their son's death, and attempt to move on.

Regular readers will know that I've become fascinated by Mervyn Johns' performances across a range of Ealing films: devious and jumpy in The Next of Kin (1942), comically unhinged in My Learned Friend (1943), blank slate-turned-murderous in Dead of Night (1945) and stuffily patriarchal in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), he has a compelling screen presence (despite often seeming unassuming and understated). Johns is the heart of this film as well, despite more showy turns from Middleton, McGrath and Howes (who gives a stronger performance here than in Dead of Night, but is still shrill and mannered), a calm and appealing spirit guide, whose soft tones, suggestions and knowing looks set his guests back on their 'correct' paths.

The standout scene for Johns is at the dinner, when he tells the story of how the inn was bombed and burned out by incendiaries. Calmly, with little emotion in his voice, he tells his audience of hearing guns in the distance, sirens wailing, the sound of a plane coming closer and closer... 'then all is quiet' before the bombs fall, the house burns and flames reach up to the sky. It is a compelling moment, made more impressive by a slow camera move away from Johns, passing down the length of the long dining table, before lingering at the end, as though the camera (and, by association, the viewer) is the missing guest at this strange gathering. And then, as Johns voice fades, the sound track creates the necessary jump, as distant gunfire is heard. Beautifully written, performed, and filmed, it is one of the highlights of a film full of strong visual moments (the characters lost in the landscape as they try to find the inn, Rhys' habit of shimmering into existence in an empty room, Gwyneth's lack of shadow, Rhys' lack of a reflection - there is strong effects work throughout, both in optical tricks and model work).

The ending offers what, on first glance, appears to be a positive resolution: all these stories are concluded, and most characters have renewed purpose (Rhys states that Oakley has finally discovered something to fear, which will turn his world 'into a living hell' - yet Oakley's sudden decision to turn himself into the authorities, and what length of prison sentence he'll get, is largely unconvincing) Yet this remains a film that ends by killing off two of its most appealing and interesting characters (Rhys and Gwyneth) in a visually and viscerally shocking way, bombs exploding and incendiary napalm destroying the inn, and them. The scene echoes Rhys' earlier description but to this is added another uncertainty: are Rhys and Gwyneth condemned to repeat this night forever? Joanna notes that the 1943 characters 'can't die last year because we've been alive this year', but the uncertain status of the hosts (who did die in 1942) means that the last image of them, standing stock still amid the firebombing, may be their eternal fate.

I really can't recommend The Halfway House enough: unlike the more overt Ealing war films (which this resembles in many ways, not least the disparate group coming together and working together), this is subtler propaganda, and its overarching supernatural atmosphere is well-done. Apart from that, however, it offers strong character portraits, great visual flourishes, and another solid turn from Johns, confirming my sense of him as Ealing's most valuable player at this stage of its life.

Next time, we go fifteen rounds with The Square Ring (1953)

 

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