Saturday, July 19, 2014

In short: The Phantom Light (1935)

Experienced lighthouse keeper Sam Higgins (Gordon Harker) is set to replace a colleague in a lighthouse off the coast of a small village in Wales. Once arrived he learns his new lighthouse is supposed to be haunted, a suggestion that would be rather easier to laugh off if members of the lighthouse crew didn’t have the tendency to disappear, and if the boat that’ll take Higgins to his post weren’t bound to take a lighthouse crew member who has gone crazy (with bug-eyes and all the other traditional signs) back to land.

Curiously, not everyone wants to evade the lighthouse and in fact a girl named Alice Bright (Binnie Hale, who will show off her legs during the second half of the film in a way I didn’t expect from a film made in the non-code, yet censorship-prone British cinema of the time, which only goes to show what I know) hailing from some sort of psychical research society, as well as reporter Jim Pearce (Ian Hunter) are doing their – independent – best to get Higgins to take them onto the lighthouse. That sort of thing is against all regulations of course, and Higgins declines.

Yet, also of course, Alice and Jim are still going to end up on the lighthouse, the crazy keeper will have to stay the night for medical reasons, and mysterious things will start to happen.

Before he teamed up with his other half Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell made his first directing experiences doing all kinds of genre films. The Phantom Light is one of these films, and while it’s really just an amusing, fluffy little thriller of the sort that just doesn’t look all that thrilling anymore eighty years later, you can already see quite a bit of the director Powell would become.

The director takes much more visual care than strictly necessary for the material, with often creative framing of scenes, demonstrates a finely developed sense of pacing, and shows off some moments of highly effective editing. Particularly in the early film, Powell also creates the bucolic small town United Kingdom that would appear in some of his later films quite a bit, mixing clichés, some postcard worthy landscapes, and humour that never seems mean-spirited to create a sense of place out of thin air. Even if the created place is just a figment of the imagination, it becomes a reality of its own that helps paste over the silliness of much of The Phantom Light’s plot by grounding it in a reality that feels like more than just a bunch of sets. Powell also demonstrates a sense for telling details that can’t have been easy to achieve on a budget, making the clichés his film consists of the decisively bit more real.

Of course, this is still a basically very silly movie with pretty silly characters doing rather silly things but Powell’s light-handed presentation of it all is so good-natured and charming only the greatest churl could complain about it.

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