The Long Memory (UK 1953)

Philip (John Mills) and the refugee woman Ilse (Eva Bergh)

Phillip (John Mills) and the refugee woman Ilse (Eva Bergh)

The early 1950s has often been dismissed by critics as a weak period in British cinema, when British producers churned out war films and comedies that were popular but not very interesting. In reality this was a stable production period in which British films competed very well with a diminished Hollywood for a big share of over 1 billion cinema admissions annually in the UK. There were also some excellent films that are certainly worth re-visiting. The Long Memory is one of the best and over the last few years plenty of viewers seem to have found it (many on a DVD box set of John Mills performances). The first point of interest is its director Robert Hamer, the genius at Ealing whose later career was damaged by alcohol. Hamer left Ealing after making three well-received films, Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), It Always Rains on Sundays (1947) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). He’d also directed a segment to the portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945) and made uncredited contributions to San Demetrio, London (1943) and The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947). Charles Barr (in Ealing Studios, Movie, 1977) picks out Hamer (and Alexander Mackendrick) as the Ealing directors who showed most ‘personal continuity’ and exemplified the best of ‘mature Ealing’. It’s fairly typical that in a Guardian piece in 2004, Kevin Jackson ignores The Long Memory completely and focuses primarily on Kind Hearts and Coronets. Keith is a big fan of that fine film and writes about it on this blog, but I prefer the other Ealing films and The Long Memory.

Fay (Elizabeth Sellars), Phillip (John Mills) and Fay's father

Fay (Elizabeth Sellars), Phillip (John Mills) and Fay’s father Captain Driver (Fred Johnson)

Why Hamer left Ealing isn’t clear to me but the consensus seems to be that he had a conflict with studio head Michael Balcon and decided to strike out as a director for hire with various producers. The Long Memory is the third of his features in this freelance career. Although made for two small independents, Europa Films and British Filmmakers, it had the backing of Rank and was an ‘A’ release on the Odeon circuit in 1953 with a starry cast led by John Mills. Mills plays Phillip, a ‘wronged man’ first seen on the day of his release from prison, arriving back in London and then heading down the Thames to find a home in an abandoned barge near to Gravesend. He is followed by a plain clothes police officer. A flashback then reveals that he once had a girlfriend, Fay (Elizabeth Sellars) whose father was an old ship’s captain mixed up in smuggling. Phillip got caught up with the smuggling operation and following a fracas he was arrested and convicted of a crime he didn’t really commit. After 12 years inside he discovers that Fay is now married to a police Superintendent (played by John McCallum, one of Hamer’s actors from Ealing). Why did she betray him? Who else might Phillip want to seek out for revenge?

The landscape of the Thames estuary is used to create a bleak environment

The landscape of the Thames estuary is used to create a bleak environment

The Long Memory is notable for both its contemporary concerns – the arrival of refugees in the UK, the importance of smuggling and the black market in a period of austerity (rationing was still in force in 1952) – and its distinctive visual style. Oddly, its narrative doesn’t seem to acknowledge the war directly – Phillip would have been sent to prison in 1940. The film is strikingly shot, making use of the stark landscape of the estuary mudflats and the whole river environment as far up as Tower Bridge. The landscape is similar to the Romney Marsh wetlands of Kent and East Sussex on the South Coast which featured in The Loves of Joanna Godden. Douglas Slocombe, who shot that film, was still working at Ealing in 1952 and Hamer communicated his ideas to Harry Waxman, another distinguished British cinematographer whose previous titles included Brighton Rock (1947) and who would later shoot The Wicker Man (1973). Waxman covered much of the action in long shot on the mudflats and in beautifully orchestrated chase sequences. At other times the film takes on a noir atmosphere – the story, from a novel by Howard Clewes, a well-known ‘action’ novelist of the period, shares elements with several other British films of the post-war era. The ‘wronged man’, the black market and the revenge narrative were also the basis for They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), a classic British noir directed by Cavalcanti, Hamer’s mentor in his GPO Film Unit and early Ealing days. Basil Dearden, Hamer’s directing colleague at Ealing, made The Ship That Died of Shame in 1955 about a trio of ex-Navy men who run a smuggling boat until their confidence gets the better of them and in an actual Ealing film, Pool of London (1950), there are similar chase scenes through night-time London, as there are as well in the classic Jules Dassin film Night and the City (1950). British noir was strong for several years from 1947 through to the late 1950s (though it wasn’t described as such at the time) and Hamer certainly knew what he was doing. In a marvellous sequence, Phillip, the Mills character, watches a house in Gravesend throughout the night – and is in turn watched by the police. From inside the house, a frightened man peers through the letterbox to see Phillip framed half in the shadows but clearly visible.

The noirish mise en scène readily available on location among the warehouses of the Port of London

The noirish mise en scène readily available on location among the warehouses of the Port of London

Hamer began his career as an editor and in the second half of The Long Memory his editor Gordon Hales puts together an exciting chase sequence with parallel actions in different locations involving different couples whose lives are intersecting. This may be a relatively conventional crime thriller but it is presented with real flair and I wish I could see it on a big screen. Part of the pleasure is in recognising the array of British character actors – Geoffrey Keen as a principled investigative journalist on a Sunday tabloid, Peter Jones as a younger journalist with much to learn, John Slater as a rather dim-witted heavy, Thora Hird as his wife, Vida Hope, Laurence Naismith and more.

The Long Memory is fine as it is but it’s worth noting that the off relationship between Fay and Bob Lowther the police Superintendent seems to signal a growing interest in the domestic melodramas of the families of police officers in later police procedurals in the 1950s, both in the UK and the US. In the clip below the journalist and the police Superintendent discuss Phillip Davidson’s possible actions – does the journalist know that the woman he suggests is in danger is in fact the Superintendent’s wife? The clip includes some interesting location work (I love the sound of the steam train towards the end of the clip).

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2 comments

  1. John Hall

    I saw this on Film4 last year. The only thing that perhaps let it down was that’ John Mills was hardly the intimidating presence the film made him out to be. Very enjoyable nonetheless.

    • Roy Stafford

      Yes, I’m not a great John Mills fan and this doesn’t at first seem like good casting. On reflection though, his persona of ‘ordinary decency’ fits the ‘wronged man’ scenario well. What the film doesn’t do is suggest how he got into the smuggling racket in the first place since he doesn’t seem the type to be easily led by Elizabeth Sellars. I think the intimidation you speak of comes as much from the mise en scène as from the character.

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