The high point of the TCM Festival for me this year was the restored print of Ealing ‘s WWII propaganda piece Went the Day Well? It’s an unjustly obscure title by an unjustly obscure director (Alberto Cavalcanti, who would have run the MOI’s film unit had he not been a gay Brazilian) that far transcends its duty as a lesson on vigilance. In fact, it bears comparison with the Archers’ A Canterbury Tale for its evocation of something intangibly, inherently English in the countryside. But much more exciting.
- Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
- Script: John Deighton, Angus McPhail, Diana Morgan, from a story by Graham Greene
- Producer: Michael Balcon
- Camera: Wilkie Cooper
- Cast: Leslie Banks, Valerie Taylor, Basil Sydney, Marie Lohr, David Farrar, Mervyn Johns, Muriel George, Thora Hird
We are introduced by the church warder of a sleepy English village to a gravestone marked with German names, a result of the “Battle of Brawley Inn”. British soldiers had arrived to be billeted in the village, swiftly revealed to be Nazis in disguise, sent ahead of a planned invasion. The villagers resist.
Although designed as a warning to be vigilant for spies, fifth columnists and undercover Jerries, there is no labouring of the propagandist elements here. Instead, it is a very tight thriller with a background of finely sketched characterisations, and a true sense of something fundamentally decent being violated. We may laugh today at the clipped accents and manners of the various neatly-drawn village types, and it’s partly the fact that the Germans don’t display those good manners that leads to their being discovered; but the careful, efficient acting and the film’s construction and direction easily override anything old-fashionedly off-putting. Unity of time ramps up the tension (Sunday morning arrives perfectly in the middle of a scene). Unity of place likewise: we are introduced to parts of the village and to its occupants with excellent efficiency, from the plucky poacher’s lad to to the timid girl on the phone exchange. Each of their roles in the resistance grows organically out of their normal role in village life. Starting with a number of different strands and people concurrently, Cavalcanti ramps up the tension by flipping with gnat-tight efficiency from one to another and then, by playing the undercover hand early on, allows us to fear immediately for the characters for whom we already feel concern.
The tension lets up for never a moment, from start to finish, be the lady of the manor discoursing over dinner with her disguised guests, or the good-hearted policeman being stalked in a rain-drenched cemetery by the insidious fifth columnist. Cavalcanti and DP Cooper use to great advantage the chiaroscuro of the church in which the villagers are held captive, and a thunderstorm is always a good idea. But aside from the films’s tense onward rush of events, its other great asset are the bursts of violence, startlingly realistic, explicitly implicit, sickeningly abrupt and often silent, and quite ready to dispense with sympathetic characters. The villagers are subjected to numerous strokes of believably bad luck in trying to get news out for help, but none of them is the sort to give up; spinsters and old shop-keepers will be roused to cunning and violent resistance in order to defend the decency of England (it’s the women who suss out the situation first, and they get to show their mettle just as much as the men). To be sure, there’s little humanity in the depiction of the Germans – a thoroughly rotten lot – and things get a bit visually muddled when the real Tommies turn up. But that’s nothing compared to the great economy of characterisation and “get on with it” attitude in the unsettlingly realistic face of sudden death, filmed with dynamic style and unflagging pace as a perfect evocation of the bucolic idyll of sleepy English country life. It is something of a masterpiece.