Robert Hamer may well have been the best director to work for Ealing. The man who produced Kind Hearts and Coronets cut his teeth on one of the segments in the grandfather of all horror anthologies, Dead of Night. He also made one of the most memorable British noirs in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), featuring Googie Withers. One year before that, he used the same actress in the Victorian noir Pink String and Sealing Wax, the title of which refers to a chemist’s means of packaging his remedies. While I wouldn’t say this is the best of Hamer’s films, it is a solid enough effort hampered by an unfocused script.
Edward Sutton (Mervyn Johns) is a Brighton chemist, a self-made man who has clawed his way up from humble beginnings to attain respectability as a forensic analyst. He remains, however, a thoroughly objectionable prig and domestic tyrant. Returning from court in a thundering good mood, having just seen his testimony send a woman to the gallows, he proceeds to humiliate his lovelorn son, reduce first his younger daughter to tears by informing her (on her birthday no less) that he intends using the guinea pigs she thought were a present in some unmentionable experiments, and then draw a similar reaction from the elder girl by dashing her hopes of a career in music – and all this before lunch has even been served! So it’s no surprise when the eldest son, David (Gordon Jackson), decides to go out and get hammered in the seedier part of town. He finds himself in a pub run by Pearl Bond (Withers) and her brutish, alcoholic husband. It’s this part of the story, which concentrates on Pearl and her complicated and unhappy relationships, that makes up the real substance of the film. The action moves away from the twee and slightly soapy Sutton clan to the far more colorful and vital world of the lower classes. David finds himself attracted to Pearl and the loose living world she inhabits, and slowly, unwittingly, he is drawn into her plans to relieve herself of her increasingly abusive spouse. The real pity is that the script meanders too much and this straying from the point blunts the thrust of the narrative. Far too much time is wasted on the unnecessary subplot concerning the eldest daughter’s efforts to pursue her dream of becoming an opera singer. I guess the idea was to highlight the inflexible nature of Sutton senior, but in doing so much of the tension of the plot drains away and the whole picture suffers.
Googie Withers plays the part of the femme fatale to the hilt and manages to capture the sympathy of the viewer as effortlessly as she captures the affections of the men around her. She puts in a really fine piece of film acting, conveying as much of her thinking and emotion through her eyes and body language as through her words. A very young Gordon Jackson is quite appealing as the poor innocent sap who finds himself in over his head before he knows it. Mervyn Johns is always watchable, although his is pretty much a one-note performance as the rigid and domineering head of the house who sees his authority come under attack. Still and all, his final confrontation with Withers, as he calmly and coldly points out the fate awaiting her, is powerfully delivered and retains a chilling quality. Hamer directs smoothly and handles both the intimate scenes and the sourer and more bitter ones with equal skill. As I said, he’s only let down by the untidy script which should have left out some of the more pointless scenes.
Optimum’s R2 DVD is a fairly good if unspectacular affair. The print used is in reasonable condition but there does seem to be a bit of contrast and brightness boosting here and there. As usual with Optimum this is a barebones disc with no subs and just a chapter menu. All in all, Pink String and Sealing Wax is an enjoyably dark movie with some good acting and professional direction. It’s just a pity the writing couldn’t have been tightened up a bit.
8 thoughts on “Pink String and Sealing Wax”
This sounds intriguing and I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. I thought It Always Rains on Sunday was enjoyable after a slow start, and Googie will always have my attention due to Night and the City.
I’d definitely rank Mackendrick over Hamer, though, as far as Ealing directors.
Mackendrick and Hamer were certainly the big two at Ealing with the former more fondly remembered and celebrated. Hamer’s later films were a bit uneven and his drinking problem can’t have helped any.
From your TCM schedule I see you’ll have the chance to view Dead of Night this week, so you’ll also get a chance to catch a bit more of Hamer’s work – he was behind the Haunted Mirror section, again starring Googie Withers.
Mackendrick for me too. ‘The Man in The White Suit’ and ‘The Maggie’ are pure Ealing, with their characters standing Canute like as Britain’s place in the post-war world is defined. But any man with ‘Kind Hearts’ on his CV isn’t exactly chopped liver.
Nice piece Colin; it’s years since I’ve seen PS&SW; makes me want to watch it again.
“Hamer’s later films were a bit uneven and his drinking problem can’t have helped any.”
It literally destroyed his career – during the shooting of ‘School for Scoundrels’ in 1959, he turned up to work blind drunk, was sacked on the spot (he was on a warning already), and never directed again.
But I think there’s very little doubt about who the best Ealing director was up to about 1951 – Hamer’s work stands head and shoulders above the rest, even the still fledgling Mackendrick. (Much though I love ‘Whisky Galore’, it could have been helmed by most of the other Ealing contract directors with few obvious changes).
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Gad!!! Every time I go back over your pages I find something I missed the pervious times. This is something I really need to see.
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If you can locate a copy easily, do give it a go, Gord. I know I end up saying this a lot, but it honestly ought to be better known.