Anxiety I

film 1 of 4

Dead of Night

Draft Review by Dean Duncan May 21, 2015

A most admirable episode film, or portmanteau project, pulling in the best of what we associate with British Studio product: excellent art direction and set design, ensemble playing that subsumes individualistic impulse to collective ends, quietly ironic humour with an undercurrent of eccentricity (in this case increasingly troubling), people who smoke excessively; in or after all this, Dead of Night then tosses a whole bunch of stones that would really continue to ripple across the surface of the horror genre, & beyond;

The pacing here is very good, starting with an andante introduction/exposition in which Mervyn Johns’ blinking architect comes upon this country house full of strangers that he nevertheless remembers, in great & troubling detail; they start to fill each other in, & share some spooky stories as they do so;

First comes Basil Dearden’s brief racer’s tale with its something’s-wrong feel (and its prefigurations of the first dream from Wild Strawberries); subsequent installments of the structuring story all add their incremental bits of information, some character dimension, a consistent tale-telling or yarn-spinning vibe, while all the while planting seeds for a quite deliciously dire conclusion;

Alberto Cavalcanti’s sunny Christmas party is populated by an appealingly awkward multitude of haw-haw English youths, has fluidity—velocity—& a rich visual texture, a peaceful interlude in a nightmare attic that opens onto a surprisingly vicious account of pitiable murder; “I’m not afraid!  I’m not afraid!”

Next comes Robert Hamer’s nicely understated tale of the malevolent mirror, its means limited to a macabre story told in a cluttered antique shop, & the reflection of an unsettlingly firelit room where, we are told, something dreadful once happened; its effect a real sympathy for a man who seems to be possessed, as well as understanding & admiration for a wife that’s willing to stay & be murdered;

Back to the structuring story now, where some of Johns’ recollections start to come true, & rather distressingly; in this there’s an increasing threat to the attempted rational laying out of this particular unwinding story, not to mention of rationality & convention (one story, one director, w’ superfluities cut away) generally;

Charles Crichton’s golf tale come at just the right time; it’s droll & increasingly outrageous (& nicely naughty too), the contrast being such that we’re relieved at the same time that the other episodes become more convincing, increasingly oppressive;

Contrary to critical custom, I must say that I find Alberto Cavalcanti’s celebrated ventriloquist finale to be the least effective of these episodes, or at least that it’s not quite as perfect as I find that people so often say it is; I don’t think that Michael Redgrave’s dummy routine comes off at all, & the part of the American witness is performed most awkwardly;

The ventriloquist episode is not fully effective, but it’s still effective enough: the takeover of the ventriloquist by the dummy is quite convincing, while what it represents—suggesting how shaky the vaunted autonomy of individuals, not to mention the murderous capacities of nice looking young men—prefigures Hitchcock’s Psycho and Powell’s Peeping Tom & the entire modern horror film by a whole 15 years;

In addition to five fine stories & their intriguing linkage, the stage has been set for this inexorable climax, in which, as envisioned, those glasses are broken and those lights go out; the killing of this pontificating psychiatrist is not only the final blow against the notion that the world makes sense & that we or God or something is in control, but also the presumption that some upstart theory or Viennese Freudian can make any more sense of the chaos than the old verities did;

(And/or it could all be a little whack at all of the facile solutions provided by movie psychoanalysts [Spellbound?], or even by their real life counterparts…)

The actual climax, with its really disconcerting flood of tilt shots, frame croppings, dramatic camera moves, shock cuts & Cavalcantian sound effects, is an utter tour de force; the last nightmare image of a suddenly man-sized dummy coming after our architect, locked within his cell, provides an end worthy of all the great-or-merely-middling that had gone before; the coda finds Mervyn Johns’ blinking architect rolling to a stop in front of this country house, which is exactly how the whole thing started; it is an amusing relief which immediately becomes unsettling again, as we begin to feel just a tiny bit trapped in this circle too …