A BRITISH NOIR? IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (Robert Hamer, 1947)
In February 2017 the National Film Theatre (NFT) has been screening Robert Hamer’s 1947 classic It Always Rains On Sunday – a dark and complex domestic thriller from Ealing Studios, from a time before it became overwhelmingly associated with ‘Ealing Comedies’. (The first ‘Ealing Comedy’, Hue and Cry, was in fact produced in the same year).
It Always Rains On Sunday stars Googie Withers in perhaps her finest role. In a bleak portrayal of post-war East End working class life, she plays Rose, a woman with a past, forced to choose between a decent but unexciting husband and family, and a glamorous but dangerous old flame who turns up out of the blue, on the run from the law. I won’t say more: if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a morally-compromised treat.
The film has a noirish flavour, and it’s perfectly possible that director Robert Hamer and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe had seen films such as Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice which were coming out of the USA: crime dramas with a cynical line on sex and romance and a starkly expressionist look. But if this is noir, then it is very British noir. American films such as Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice are set on the west coast, in a spatial expanse of suburbs, highways, motels and mobility, where the option of escape, of moving on, is ever-present. It Always Rains On Sunday is very different, set in working class London, a world of narrow streets, and poky over-crowded Victorian terraces, where every move is monitored by family members or nosy neighbours. There is an overwhelmingly claustrophobic feeling to Hamer’s film, a sense of being hemmed in, entrapped.
The cast and crew on It Always Rains is well-represented in the British Entertainment History Project collection. Firstly, there’s an audio interview with Googie Withers, along with her actor husband John McCallum. Its available to listen to directly from the website (http://historyproject.org.uk/interview/googie-withers-john-mccallum).
Secondly, there is an interview with the cinematographer Doug Slocombe. Slocombe was in his mid-30s when he shot It Always Rains, but he was already a veteran of some hair-raising filmmaking adventures. He started out as a stills photographer in the 1930s, but was persuaded to do some clandestine anti-Nazi filming in Germany and Poland in 1939, and found himself in Warsaw when the Germans invaded. He just about managed to slip out and get back to Britain, where he did wartime documentary and propaganda work with the Ministry of Information, before he was persuaded by the Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti to move over to Ealing. His best-known projects there include Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob, and post-Ealing triumphs included The Italian Job, The Lion in Winter, and Stephen Spielberg’s insanely successful ‘Indiana Jones’ films in the 1980s. The BEHP interview is audio only, available on the website (http://historyproject.org.uk/interview/douglas-slocombe).
The interviews with Charles Crichton and Sidney Cole are also worth a visit. Neither of them worked on It Always Rains, but Crichton was an Ealing-based editor and director who knew Robert Hamer, and the film’s producers Michael Balcon and Henry Cornelius, and refers to them in his interview. Unfortunately it has not been digitised and uploaded to the website (we’re currently working through a large back-list and haven’t got to him yet), but a transcript is available (http://historyproject.org.uk/content/0072).
Sidney Cole was an editor and producer at Ealing, who went on to have a long career in TV producing series such as Danger Man (which I personally remember with enormous affection). In the 1930s he was one of the founding members of the film technicians’ union the ACT (later ACTT, then BECTU, and now the BECTU Sector of Prospect). Cole refers to Robert Hamer in his interview, which like the Crichton interview is not yet directly available online, but there is a transcript (http://historyproject.org.uk/interview/sidney-cole).
What of Robert Hamer himself, the director of It Always Rains On Sunday? He started out in the 1930s as a documentary editor working at the GPO Film Unit with John Grierson and Cavalcanti. From there Hamer moved to Ealing with Cavalcanti, working initially as an editor, and then as a director. His talent was undeniable: he directed the classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, and his last film was the brilliant comedy of manners School for Scoundrels: if you haven’t seen the tennis scene where Terry-Thomas humiliates Ian Carmichael, you haven’t lived. But Hamer was a tortured soul. He was gay at a time when it was a crime, and he struggled with alcoholism and poor health. He died at the age of 52.
Finally, although Alberto Cavalcanti didn’t work on It Always Rains On Sunday, he too is part of its story in that he personally recruited three of its key creators to Ealing Studios: the director Robert Hamer, the cinematographer Doug Slocombe, and the producer Henry Cornelius. Cavalcanti is probably best known for his film Went The Day Well?, made during the War in 1942, which ‘looks back’ at the War from a fictional-future, post-war vantage point (and I’m delighted to say that the NFT will be screening it in April 2017). But this was only one episode in a career which combined documentary filmmaking, feature films, and political activism. After leaving Ealing, Cavalcanti returned to his native Brazil to carry on making films, but was hounded out by the country’s right-wing government which branded him as a Communist. In his last years he made his home in France.
For more on It Always Rains On Sunday and the people who made it, go to BFI ScreenOnline at http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/486809/