I seem to be on a bit of a Robert Hamer kick at the moment. Having recently enjoyed Pink String and Sealing Wax, I decided to give The Long Memory (1952) a spin. While the former is a Gothic/Victorian noir which may stretch the definition for purists, the latter is the real deal. It has the contemporary setting, stark photography and relentlessly downbeat moodiness that should satisfy all who have a penchant for dark cinema. The story is classic noir wherein an innocent man is persecuted for a crime he has not committed and subsequently finds himself consumed by his thirst for revenge on those responsible for his plight.
Phillip Davidson (John Mills) has just been released from prison, having served twelve years for murder. An early flashback establishes that he had been wrongfully convicted, and that the false testimony of his then fiancee (Elizabeth Sellars) played a significant part in securing that conviction. In a neat twist, it also transpires that the treacherous fiancee has, in the intervening years, married the policeman originally in charge of Davidson’s case (John McCallum). Aware of the fact that Davidson still bears a grudge, the authorities track him Kent where he takes up residence in an abandoned barge along the desolate Thames estuary. As Davidson grimly sets about the task of seeking out his former tormentors the action alternates between his search and the slow unravelling of the idyllic domesticity of the policeman’s life. Running parallel to this is the development of a relationship between Davidson and a refugee girl (Eva Bergh) working as a waitress in a dingy cafe. This plot thread is not mere romantic padding but an essential element that clearly demonstrates just how deep Davidson’s scars run. By the end of the movie the quest for revenge has transformed into more of a journey towards spiritual redemption.
The acting is out of the top drawer all round with the only weak link in the chain being Elizabeth Sellars. Her performance comes across as even more wooden given the emotional depth shown by almost everyone else around her. John Mills does a fine understated turn in the lead role. The scenes he plays in the old barge with Eva Bergh have such a touching and heartrending quality. These are two people who have spent so long living within themselves that the effort of reaching out to another is close to physically painful. John McCallum is also fine as the decent cop who gradually comes to realise that the woman he married is not all she seems, and who must resign himself to the fact that his career cannot continue if he’s to come out of it all with any sense of honour intact. There’s plenty of good support from a selection of familiar British character actors; special mention going to Michael Martin Harvey as Mills’ slightly kooky neighbour.
Where Pink String and Sealing Wax suffered from an undisciplined and unfocused script, The Long Memory can boast tighter writing and pacing. Hamer moves his camera around effectively and makes maximum use of the barren Kent coastline. He also controls the flow of the story very well, and cuts tellingly between the gradual flowering of the Mills/Bergh relationship and the simultaneous disintegration of Sellars and McCallum’s. All of this is backed up by the excellent cinematography of Harry Waxman who manages to throw in some welcome deep focus shots.
The Long Memory is currently only available on DVD as part of the John Mills Centenary Collection II from ITV DVD in R2. The set is a bit pricey but it does offer a good selection of Mills films and is worth checking out. This movie comes on its own disc and, while not perfect, gets a pretty good transfer. There’s optional subs, production notes and a gallery included. I hadn’t seen this film for a number of years and had forgotten what an underrated little gem it is. I give it a big thumbs up and recommend it wholeheartedly.
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.