Sunday, June 06, 2010


A unique and interesting film, though more engrossing intellectually than as a moviegoing experience. Michael Redgrave is a lighthouse keeper on Lake Michigan; his work record is perfect, he doesn't cash his paychecks, and he is resisting going on a month-long leave mandated by management. We discover that he has taken this solitary job as a way of escaping the world; a few years ago, he was a British journalist who was trying to warn an apathetic public and an appeasing government about the dark storms of fascism he saw gathering over Europe. His editor censored his pieces, so he turned to writing books and giving lectures, but the "it won't happen here" mood overwhelmed him and he took this job in America as a way of withdrawing from the horrors he predicted. The lighthouse is near the spot where a ship full of immigrants sank in 1849, with all hands lost. When Redgrave's old friend (James Mason) visits and asks what he does with his time, Redgrave says he found a passenger log for the ship and has been reconstructing their lives in his mind. When Mason leaves, we see the six "characters" interacting around him in storylines he's imagined. Eventually, however, the ship's captain (Finlay Currie) scolds the writer for his mild imaginings and, like Marley's Ghost does with Scrooge in "A Chistmas Carol," Currie takes Redgrave on a ghostly visit to the actual past lives of the immigrants: a working-class man with more children than he can support, a feminist who broke her engagement in order to lead women's rights marches (and who spent time in prison because of the accompanying riots), and the family of a Viennese doctor whose experiments with a new anesthesia have lost him his license. The link Currie points out: all of them went to America to escape their problems, just as Redgrave did. When Redgrave says that they all gave up too soon, they point out to him that he has given up too soon as well. The movie ends with Redgrave alone on the beach, apparently deciding to get back in the fray after all.

Many critics call this a ghost story fantasy, and I guess it does wind up being that, but it's really a WWII anti-isolationist propaganda film, seemingly aimed at American audiences since the British had, by 1942, been fighting Germany for three years and would not seem to need such a philosophical anti-fascist kick in the pants. (The fact that it wasn't released in the U.S. until 1944 would have made its lesson a moot point here as well.) The ghostly element is ambiguous since the characters don't start out as ghosts, but as figments of Redgrave's imagination. In fact, one could interpret almost the entire movie as taking place inside Redgrave's head. But much of the movie does have a moody look, if not exactly ghostly, and in looking backward to "A Christmas Carol" and forward to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, it fits squarely into the genre of story about a person whose life in changed by what seems to be supernatural intervention. Based on a play, much of this feels setbound, though the film is opened up with the visits to the immigrants' homes, and there's a fast-paced montage flashback sequence which shows us Redgrave's backstory which climaxes with Redgrave sitting in a theater watching a newsreel warning about the fascists, then watching the reactions of the audience members who variously sleep or neck or stuff popcorn into their mouths until the Popeye cartoon comes on. Redgrave is excellent, and quite striking looking; Mason is good in a fairly small role; among the "ghosts," the standout is Barbara Mullen as the feminist. The content, tone, and look of this film are all quite different from other movies of the era, though in some ways, it does wind up feeling like a long Twilight Zone episode. Still, I would heartily recommend this film for buffs of WWII propaganda films or fantasies. And, once again, thank you, Turner Classic, for showing this, and thanks to Tivoplex (under "columns" at Box Office Prophets) for alerting me to it. [TCM]

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