(The) Next of Kin (UK 1942)

A grim-faced Nova Pilbeam as a Dutch refugee with her boyfriend from the brigade

This is a film that I’ve known about for years but never before managed to see. Now, thanks to Talking Pictures TV and their season of films compiled by the Imperial War Museum, I have – and it is certainly worth seeing. This is propaganda with real bite and I’m sure many audiences might have been quite shocked in 1942. Who knows how many lives it might have saved?

Originally intended as a military training film emphasising the danger of  service personnel speaking carelessly about any aspects of their work, the commission was eventually developed by Ealing Studios (which increased the budget substantially) and an array of well known faces. Ealing’s work paid off and the film was a great success, both as propaganda and as a rather alarming form of entertainment. (But Ealing only covered its costs – the War Office took the profits.) It was a clear step forward from earlier propaganda efforts and morale-building war combat films, both in its production qualities and its approach to finding ways to achieve its objectives.

The startling title card which challenged the audience to think about their actions

The plot involves an attack on a German U-boat base in a small French port which intelligence from a French military agent has discovered is only lightly guarded. An infantry brigade with appropriate training is identified and sent to a training area to practice the skills necessary for a night-time landing and the subsequent demolition of port facilities. A security officer is assigned to the brigade, but German intelligence soon begins to pick up clues that an attack is in preparation. A set of parallel narratives develops in which German spies attempt to discover the target and British intelligence attempts to stop them. In the final section of what is a comparatively long film for the time (102 minutes), the raid goes ahead but the Germans discover enough information through ‘careless talk’ and the ingenuity of German agents to identify ‘Norville’ as the target and to reinforce the local garrison. The final action sequence is very impressive. A well-planned and executed raid succeeds in its prime objective but loses many, many men killed, injured and presumably captured. The film’s title (it seems to exist with and without the ‘The’) is referred to in a voiceover that tells us “Next of kin will be informed”. The final scene sees the comedy pairing of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in their familiar roles as bumbling middle-class English ‘chaps’ on a train talking ‘carelessly’ and being overheard by the film’s chief villain played by an unlikely Ealing favourite. As Charles Barr in his Ealing book suggests, instead of defusing the horror of the loss of life in the raid, this properly brings home how dangerous frivolous talk can be.

Familiar Ealing faces, Mervyn Johns and Thora Hird – but should they be talking to each other?

Next of Kin was written by familiar Ealing figures Angus MacPhail and John Dighton alongside contributions from director Thorold Dickinson and Basil Bartlett as military advisor. The key figure here is Dickinson, at the time heading the Army Kinematograph Service Film Unit, who really deserves an entire post to himself. If you want to know more about him I recommend Geoff Brown’s entry on Screenonline. Dickinson is another of the left-wing Oxbridge intellectuals who became interested in film in the late 1920s. Unlike Humphrey Jennings and others he didn’t focus on documentary but engaged in commercial cinema. I was struck by one scene in particular in the early part of the film when the soldiers in question all visit a local theatre to watch an extraordinary ‘classical striptease’ in which a dancer (Phyllis Stanley) gracefully descends a gothic staircase discarding layers of a diaphanous dress. Dickinson, DoP Ernest Palmer and art designer Tom Morahan use shadow and an enormous (and suggestive) silhouette of a static female figure to create a highly expressionist presentation. This looks as if it might have come from a later Michael Powell film with the set much too big to be accommodated on the stage of the theatre. The dancer is just one of the German agents, all depicted as shrewd and skilled, who wheedle information out of the soldiers. At the head of this post is an image of Nova Pilbeam, the fearless young woman from Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (UK 1937) who is playing a Dutch refugee, forced to spy because the Nazis hold her parents. The dancer is a cocaine addict who is easily manipulated but others are ‘good Nazis’. None are the stiff Prussian types or buffoons of the earlier propaganda films. Although some of these spies are caught, others are successful.

Dickinson went on to make one of the most distinctive British films of the post-war period, Men of Two Worlds (1946), a Technicolor drama shot in East Africa for Two Cities focusing on the dilemmas faced by an educated African caught between the village culture of his people and the world of the coloniser. Like Dickinson’s later film for Ealing, Secret People (1952) about refugees in London in the 1930s and a plot to kill a dictator, Men of Two Worlds fell awkwardly between the ideals of Dickinson and his co-writer Joyce Cary (on both films) and the commercial imperatives of the time. I remember finding both films to be worth seeing. Dickinson finally became the UK’s first Professor of Film at the Slade School in 1967.

But in 1942, Next of Kin worked and it paved the way for an even more hard-fitting propaganda film by another unusual figure at Ealing – Went the Day Well?, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and released in December 1942. During 1942 there was a raid on the French coast when 5,000 Canadian and 1,000 British troops landed at Dieppe. I don’t know of any claims that this was ‘leaked’ but the Germans were aware, possibly via French agents, that some kind of attack was planned. The raid was in many ways a complete disaster and many of the men, especially the Canadians, were killed, injured or captured. A great deal then seemed to be learned before D-Day in 1944 about how to prepare for a landing – and how to keep the target secret.

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