British Drama

The Stars Look Down

The last remaining British coal mine recently closed, bringing a way of life to an end. My Welsh ancestors were among those who worked in this industry, giving movies about life in the pit a special power for me. The movie about British mining towns that Americans are most likely to recall is the John Ford classic How Green Was My Valley, but there’s a film of this sort I appreciate even more: The Stars Look Down.

Fans of my recommended film Night Train to Munich will be justifiably excited to watch The Stars Look Down, which was made immediately before it by the same director (Sir Carol Reed) and stars (Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood). But the two films otherwise could not be more different. The Stars Look Down is a working class drama with fewer light moments and a more downbeat final act than Night Train to Munich, making it a much more weighty work.

The plot: In a grim Northern English town, miners toil in Scupper Flats, seeking to extract the coal from the earth without breaking through to the millions of tons of water that threatens their existence. The Fenwicks are like any other family in town, except that their elder son Davey (Redgrave) has earnt a scholarship. Davey hopes that a proper education will enable him to become an effective political advocate for exploited miners. But he is diverted from his plans by his love of a local lass named Jenny (Lockwood), whose desire to immediately escape the miserable trappings of working class life lead Davey to sacrifice his educational opportunities. Meanwhile, his erstwhile friend and Jenny’s former beau Joe Gowlan (Emlyn Williams) also tries to make his way in the world, but does so by betraying his roots, with disastrous consequences.

Redgrave and Lockwood are both terrific here, playing characters a million miles from the light-hearted lovers of Night Train to Munch (and before that, the charming couple in peril in another of my recommendations, The Lady Vanishes). I was particularly impressed by Atwood’s willingness to break away from being everyone’s sweetheart and instead play a petty, grasping human being who is at the same time sympathetic (after all, she is only what poverty made her). Emlyn Williams, remembered mainly as an author, gives one of his best performances, starting out as somewhat comic and then devolving into unmitigated avarice. Under Reed’s direction, the supporting performances are also strong, most affectingly Nancy Price’s portrayal of Davey’s hard-bitten mother.

A.J. Cronin adapted his own novel to co-write the script with J.B. Williams, and it’s appropriately unromantic about how cruel working class people can be to each other and how ambivalent they sometimes are about one of their own rising to a different class. The only weakness of the script is the opening and closing voiceover narration, something that worked very well in Reed’s best film, The Third Man, but seems heavy-handed here. But it’s an easily ignored flaw in an otherwise dramatic and powerful script.

Last but not least, the special effects and camerawork in the mining scenes are extraordinarily vivid. Reed knew how to draw the audience into the lives of his characters, even when their fear of the horrors of the pit would make them want to pull away. The result is a meaty working class drama with shattering emotional impact.

p.s. One person who experienced that impact was my one-time Reality Based Community co-blogger Michael O’Hare’s mother, the sculptor Berta Margoulies (1907-1996). Her 1942 piece, Mine Disaster, in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, was directly inspired by The Stars Look Down.

Image Courtesy of the Whitney Museum
Action/Adventure British

Night Train to Munich

I love The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale of suspense and romance. If you share my affection, you’d do well to watch a quasi-sequel made without The Master, who had by then decamped to Hollywood: 1940’s Night Train to Munich.

Released two years after The Lady Vanishes, the film features the same female lead (Margaret Lockwood), the same scriptwriters (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat), the same setting (a European train journey taken on the brink of war), and even two of the same supporting characters (Charters and Caldicott). The director this time around, Carol Reed, was clearly to some extent aping Hitchcock’s style, but Reed’s distinctive touches are in evidence throughout.

Relative to The Lady Vanishes, the major disadvantage of Night Train to Munich is that it doesn’t give the talented Lockwood enough to do beyond looking lovely and in peril. On the other hand, that omission gives more screen time to Rex Harrison, in a remarkable example of off-beat casting working shockingly well. Sir Rex, who would later be credible as Dr. Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, carries off a Nazi uniform with panache. The ease with which he infiltrates Nazi headquarters through sheer bravado is one of the film’s many funny observations about bureaucracies: Everyone thinks that someone else must have authorized this unknown German officer’s mission, so they don’t question him for fear of angering a superior somewhere else in the organization.

Night Train to Munich | Trailers From Hell

The world had gotten much darker between the making of the two films, and Night Train to Munich reflects that by having more suspense and less humor than The Lady Vanishes. The film opens grimly with the people of Prague being terrorized by the arrival of German storm troopers. Professor Bomasch (James Harcourt), whose scientific expertise can aid the war effort, must flee the Nazis without his daughter (Lockwood), who is subsequently interned in a concentration camp. She is befriended there by a handsome, idealistic Czech national (Paul Henried, then called Paul von Hernried, in a strong performance that almost surely led to him being cast later as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca). The two flee to London and reunite with Professor Bomasch, but he and his daughter are almost immediately kidnapped back again to Germany! Enter a brave, resourceful spy (Rex Harrison!!!) who goes undercover in Germany to rescue the Professor and the lovely daughter whom he clearly fancies.

The film took advantage of Charters and Caldicott’s (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) reputation as comic, out of touch Englishmen. Initially, they are played for laughs, but in a key scene they are humiliated by a German officer and realize that the time for joking is past and they must become engaged in the fight. They then perform bravely in the struggle against the Germans, who have clearly underestimated them. All of this was no doubt a stirring message for British audiences in 1940.

After a series of Hitchcock-level plot contrivances, the film concludes with a nail-biting closing act in which our heroes try to escape using a cable car across a Swiss gorge. What the climax lacks in realism (those 15 shot pistols only run out of bullets when it would be maximally agonizing to do so) it more than makes up for in thrills. I also loved the final shot of the key bad guy (whose identity I will not reveal) which is sympathetically done. It’s a moment that shows how Reed’s artistic sensibility was different than Hitchcock’s, and establishes that despite being to some extent an homage to Hitch, this superb movie is at the same time very much Reed’s own.

Although not quite in the same class as The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich is an exciting and enjoyable film. If you have the stamina for a double feature, it’s tremendous fun to watch it back to back with the movie that inspired it.