Thursday, 1 December 2016

In Good Hands: Cape Forlorn (EA Dupont, 1930) and Double Confession (Ken Annakin, 1950)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2014)

It’s always welcome, cinematically speaking, to know that you are in good hands. Here I’m referring to those unassuming films which you come to without any great expectations, but which soon make you sit up in your seat and take notice, confident that you will be well served by what follows. The film that gave rise to these thoughts is Ken Annakin’s classy little seaside crime mystery from 1950, Double Confession, which, in a couple of rotations of a fairground wheel that serves as backing for the credits, convinces you that something good is on the way. The first shot, looking up at the wheel and held for 40 seconds, allowing it to follow its own stately pace, is assured and confident; while the second shows the wheel from the other side, now silhouetted against the sky as the music also heads into darker territory. Seeing Geoffrey Unsworth’s name listed as Director of Photography just a short while later comes as no surprise, even at only one minute in. There are various subcutaneous messages in the shots to mull over later, for example the two shots, one light, one dark and their relation to the title and the main characters, and the turning of a wheel of fate, but for now, the main thing is the air of confidence that the film imparts, and which is only reinforced by the shots – men’s shadows caught in the train smoke on the railway platform, the richly inky darkness of the night-time cliffs, whose outline down to the cove is an inverse to the big wheel which opened the film, the sharp creases in William Hartnell’s trousers – which follow soon after.

A strong and pertinent opening also characterises the main film I want to look at today, which is EA Dupont’s Cape Forlorn, from 1931.

Now, when a film carries a title such as Cape Forlorn, it’s fair to assume a less than upbeat trajectory to proceedings, and so it proves. For a description, let me quote card number 9 in the 3rd series of Wills’s Cigarettes ‘Cinema Stars’, issued in 1931, on which is written: “Cape Forlorn is a grim story of a man whom a storm flings into the life of three people virtually imprisoned in a lighthouse; the Captain, his wife, brought from a gay life at a seaport to the utter loneliness of the lighthouse, and the captain’s mate, infatuated with the woman. The man senses the undercurrent of tense emotion, and is himself drawn into it when he falls in love with the woman and she with him. The story moves slowly and tragically to the finale.”

If the story is that of fated melodrama, whose very ingredients predestine a bad ending, the visual design through which this is told is exemplary. With its emphasis on visual counterpoints to the characters’ situations, the film has one foot in the silent era, and indeed, its art director was Alfred Junge, who had cut his teeth at Berlin’s UFA studios in the 1920s before coming to Britain along with the film’s director, EA Dupont. Later of course, Junge found high acclaim with the work he did on films such as Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus.

As with Double Confession, from the very start, Cape Forlorn makes you sit up and take notice. It opens with a bravura two-minute tracking shot which begins, provocatively, by following the slow wag of a woman’s skirt as, to the sound of a Hawaiian guitar and the breaking of waves, the camera weaves between outside tables and palms before making its way into and along a busy night-time bar, where people gather for many more reasons than the probable outcomes of the evening. Embracing couples, sailors, dancers and chancers mingle in a fug of smoke and alcohol. And in a circular glide that pre-empts the shape of the lighthouse in which the main action is going to take place, the camera leads us around to a hula dancer gyrating beneath a large statue of grass-skirted legs, before we cut to two women at a table. It’s a tremendous start – more ambitious but equally as effective as another celebrated travelling bar shot that occurs in Dupont’s 1929 silent film, Piccadilly.

As for the two women in Cape Forlorn, Eileen is soon to head off to live with an older man in a lighthouse on a rocky New Zealand outcrop. Her companion is not convinced by the wisdom of this, and says, in a voice soused in end of the night huskiness, ‘do you think you can give this up? You’re crazy’. Eileen’s reasons for leaving are in fact left intriguingly obscure, but one suspects, given the film’s opening, that it is connected with, let’s say, warding off a fall into the unwanted base practicalities which come with the necessity of earning a living in such a locale. ‘At least he’s giving me a home,’ she says.

And soon enough, her photograph of the lighthouse becomes the real thing, and we are there, although we aren’t allowed even a brief honeymoon before the damp and the confinement and the continual surge and crash of waves do their work. ‘On a clear day you can see the mainland,’ says her new husband, the lighthouse captain Bill Kell – played by Frank Harvey, author of the play from which the film was adapted – as he shows his wife around her new home. ‘Just to show you how far away you are,’ mutters Cass down below to Parsons the general dogsbody, played by Donald Calthrop, who, despite playing the fool, adds an indefinable air of deviousness and shiftiness to the film. Most might recognise him now as the blackmailing heel in Hitchcock’s Blackmail.

‘Anything wrong my dear?’ are the first words we hear after this exchange. ‘Oh, nothing, only we haven’t seen the sun for weeks,’ replies Eileen. ‘That’s nothing, wait till we get a spell of fog,’ chips in Cass, who later prowls around the lighthouse – stalking is only just too strong a word – catching Eileen in different rooms, conversing with her at ankle height with her on a ladder, stroking her drying stockings in the kitchen, as he tries to tempt her with talk of a new life in Sydney. His physical presence is certainly more appealing than that of her husband, whose affection seems to be limited to pats on the back of the head or a playful tug of the ear. Nor is his bedtime manner or conversation up to the mark. ‘Another day gone. Three more years and we shall have a place of our own,’ he says as the rain lashes against the window and and the waves crash.

In her negligee, Eileen dangles her legs provocatively – and fruitlessly, unless she really was wanting a friendly pat on the head – over the edge of the bed. ‘Here, get my other watch out of the locker,’ says Bill, adding, with no sense of irony at all, ‘this one’s losing time’. As she does so, Eileen spies a few treasures of her own and prepares a surprise for Bill, a surprise we see in extreme close-up as she tips her lashes with mascara and brushes the light through her hair. Alas, her efforts do not go down well. All made up, she stands coquettishly before him, but he acts as if he has never seen a woman before, let alone one in make-up. Her poise slips and her face turns to nervousness as behind her the shadow of the window turns to a threatening spike of darkness with the arc of the lamp, its light washed away in a sweep of rain. Her scent and make-up are thrown to the sea before Bill grabs a towel and cruelly and crudely smudges the make-up across her face. The slap is unseen and unheard but nevertheless implied. Later, Eileen tiptoes down to see Cass. There follows a stormy night and a shipwrecked man. The next morning clears with the shriek and cackle of gulls around the lighthouse, acclaiming the next act of the play.

There’s plenty to satisfy here. As noted above, the dialogue trembles with implications throughout. ‘I’m going fishing, Mr Kingsley, would you like to come with me?’ says Eileen to the shipwrecked man who has taken her fancy, the scene ending with trapped fish shown gasping in a net, another little comment on proceedings from the natural world. Later, there is a marvellously startling moment as Cass, looking uncannily like a demented Roy Hudd, peers out from his window as he lathers his face and chortles and cackles with the gulls at the would-be lovers beneath, his laughter running into the very next scene, hours later.

It’s the design and art direction that really catches the eye though, whether the reflected light rippling on the arch of a window as Eileen polishes knives in the kitchen or the continual surge and break of the sea against the rocks, and the wind whistling through and around the tower. It’s in characters creeping around around the winding light-slicked lighthouse steps as lightning flashes briefly marble the inside walls and it’s in Cass and Kingsley confronting each other, the light sharding the window bars once more, and then illuminating the gun under the clam shell, its chambers filled with bullets. It’s in a brilliantly-judged shot from outside a lighthouse window, through which we see Cass panting in his death throes as he fixes his eyes on Eileen, his face set somewhere between Burt Lancaster’s and Grock the Clown’s, before the camera pulls Eileen and the rain on the window into sharp focus, leaving Cass a background blur. And it’s in Kell interviewing Kingsley as a Maori carving looks on from the wall behind and a fishing net is spread like the wings of a black bird, which when the shot opens out resembles a ragged black avenging harpy.

It all ends with a locked door, Eileen back in the bar telling her hopes to an empty chair and a whirling, giddy camera surrendering to the lure of the night.

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