The movie is The Phantom Light. The benefit of Classic British Thrillers is that it gives us two Powell quota quickies. We can see some of the elements that later made Powell one of the great film directors and, with his partner Emeric Pressburger, co-creators in the Forties of some of the greatest British films ever made.
Phantom Light, The (1935):
Michael Powell made about 15 quota quickies in seven years during the Thirties. These quota quickies meant two things: First, a lot of second-rate British movies were made. Second, a lot of British filmmakers, like Michael Powell, learned their craft making these things.
Poor Sam Higgins (Gordon Harker, a fine, funny character actor who specialized in blokes). He arrives in the tiny Welsh coastal village of Tan-y-bwlch to take charge of the North Stack lighthouse. He gets more than he wanted. Harker learns from the villagers that two previous light keepers disappeared and the man he's going to replace at the lighthouse is still out there, gone barmy. Sam also hears about the ships that have gone up on the rocks...when the light goes out...and a phantom light on the cliffs goes on.
By the time Sam gets out to the lighthouse it's pitch black with heavy fog. The mad man he replaced has had to stay put because he's too sick to be moved. It's not long before there are more people in the lighthouse than Sam wants, and not all of them he knows about.
The Phantom Light is funny, dark and dangerous, with a wonderful performance by Gordon Harker, all working class shrewdness and exasperation. The movie is stuffed full of the things Michael Powell loved in a movie...a wild countryside with beautifully photographed cliffs, rocky shores and heavy waves; the mysteries of mechanisms; extra time spent with quirkiness; lilting speech; and characters he makes amusing without looking down on them. If you admire Powell & Pressburger's mature films, you might enjoy having this example of Powell's earlier steps. Said Powell much later, "'I said `yes' to this one right away, and never regretted it. I enjoyed every minute." I did, too.
Red Ensign (1934):
There are some good elements to this Powell quota quickie, but on the whole it's just a bit of earnest flag waving.
We're in the middle of an utterly serious patriotic paean to British shipbuilding and British determination. David Barr (Leslie Banks) is the managing director, board member and ship designer of Burns MacKinnon, builder of British ships. We're also the middle of the Depression, with British ships idled and rusting away, the great British shipbuilding companies barely alive and thousands of men out of work. Barr is positive he's designed a new kind of freighter, so fast and efficient it will not only put Burns MacKinnon back on its feet, it will be the salvation of British shipping. He is willing to go to just about any lengths to face down his timid board and deal with dangerous competitors. Barr is single-minded, dead serious, humorless and articulate...the kind of man you might want to lead a charge but also the kind of man you'd hate to have lead your church. He makes one mistake and it seems he may lose everything. But he doesn't. His ship is launched. British shipping has hope. The Red Ensign, flown on all British shipping, will fly the seas with pride again.
Powell gives us some masterful scenes where the work of the shipyards is featured.
Upturned Glass, The (1947):
This one was directed by Lawrence Huntington, co-produced by the star, James Mason, and co-written and also starred Mason's wife at the time, Pamela Kellino. It's a psychological study of murder and starts promisingly with a clever set-up. It then leads us on with flashbacks and moody, first person narration. Unfortunately, it ends with the clear impression that the writers created a clever plot but forgot to make the lead sympathetic.
We're in a medical school lecture hall and students are crowding in to hear a tall, dark man who looks like James Mason give a lecture on The Psychology of Crime. "Now we come to that much more interesting phenomenon," he tells the students, "the sane criminal...the man who is prepared to pursue his own ethical convictions to the point of murder." He proposes to tell the story of a preeminent surgeon, so dedicated he has no friends and little social life, a cool customer, indeed. The lecturer gives this man a fictitious name, Michael Joyce. And as he speaks, the flashback starts...
...with Michael Joyce examining the young daughter of a woman whose husband we never meet. Michael Joyce looks just like the lecturer. Is the lecturer telling us his own story? It would be a neat twist if he were. In this tale of irony and obsession, Joyce saves the eyesight of the child and he and the mother, equally lonely, start a relationship that can only lead to her divorcing her husband. Instead, it leads to murder, one of which is carefully planned. "This was a murder conceived in perfect sanity and faultlessly carried out," the lecturer tells his students. But now we realize this all might be a flashback...or a clever man's flash-forward...or perhaps nothing more than a lecture. Pamela Kellino gives a remarkable portrait of a woman who is smart, coquettish, selfish and thoroughly unlikable. She nearly steals the picture from Mason.