December 9, 2016

Faces in the Dark (1960)

Those old bugbears of film history- orthodoxy, general consensus and received wisdom- tell us it’s difficult to fully engage with a film in which you feel little or no sympathy for the central character. Unless, of course, you’re the type who delights in watching the bleakest, most uncompromising, scarifying films on purpose to show how much of a hardened cineaste you really are. In which case, don’t worry- I was like that in my early 20s. You’ll get over it.

Such beliefs are there to be challenged, usually by films that the holders of such views have never heard of, and FACES IN THE DARK- a little known but by no means deservedly obscure British thriller from the start of the 60s (meaning, of course, it’s still aesthetically firmly lodged in the 50s) is one such film, largely because John Gregson’s character Richard Hammond is a fundamentally unlikeable man. A hardened business mogul with little or no time for his wife, brother or friends, exuding all the outward warmth of a stalactite, and blatantly refusing to take the advice of his business partner over a project that seems doomed to failure, he’s such a far cry from the affable Gregson of Genevieve, Tomorrow At Ten, Three Cases Of Murder and the much later Fright that it’s hard to believe you’re watching the same bloke. Indeed, his “serious” moustache makes him seem even more dissimilar to the actor who once “hawled like a brooligan” with Kenneth More, with only his trademark mop of curly, slicked-back barnet giving him away.

You actually dislike Hammond so much in the opening five minutes (during a wonderfully executed scene in which allegedly long-suffering wife Mai Zetterling completely fails to gain his attention for longer then 10 seconds at a time, and is therefore unable to tell him she’s leaving him for precisely that reason) that his subsequent blinding at the hands of some faulty electronic equipment whilst trying to design “the perfect lightbulb”- thus setting the tone for the rest of the film- seems more like a case of “serves you right”, and has you wondering if you’re meant to be rooting for someone else. But no, it’s him, and though you might not believe it to begin with, root for him you do- particularly in the penultimate/final scene. Anyone who’s ever been taken somewhere against their will, had silence used against them as a weapon, been unacknowledged (one of the worst insults ever, although only fair in this case considering his character’s treatment of everyone else) or even just had a fear of that happening, can appreciate what he’s going through. The upshot being that you do engage with the film. Orthodoxy be buggered.

Maybe the actor’s familiarity, (usually cast as the good guy) draws you to him. But even if you’d never seen him before, you’d still choose Richard over everyone else, as all the principal players seem like people you wouldn’t want to necessarily spend your time with, and he’s by far and away the least offensive. Even driver Clem (Tony Wright, looking uncannily like Michael Caine) and Richard’s brother Max (John Ireland) have an air of staid, stuffy miserablism about them, and they’re supposedly the ones with the frivolous artistic temperament!! Ireland, cast as the “black sheep of the family” who longs only to be taken seriously by his millionaire sibling but is regarded as a womanising loser who “hasn’t done a day’s honest work in his life” and finds himself reduced to coming to big bruv for handouts, should be sympathetic, but he’s so glum that a shadow almost seems to fall every time he walks onscreen. Only Nanette Newman, in the role of the standard “pretty maid” Janet, actually manages to crack the occasional smile and look as if she might have enjoyed herself once- but we’ll come to that in a minute. Obviously, the brave new world glimpsed in Marilyn and The Black Rider hadn’t quite permeated the austerity of all England’s villages- if, without giving away too much, that is where we actually are. Judging by the disparity in accents between Gregson and Ireland, which is never explained, maybe even the cast don’t know.

I mean, was it inconceivable in 1960, that in a country that had already had rock’n’roll and a trad jazz boom, someone, just someone, might have owned a record player? Even if all they listened to was classical music (strictly for squares, daddyo), it would have been a start. True, some jazz appears later on a car radio, but only as a plot device, before an inevitable encounter with what appears to be good old Black Park Lake, in which “the cassette plays…pop tones”… some 20 years before the event. Very prescient, but nevertheless, it’s still hard to believe, considering this was the era that would shortly give us Live It Up, The Golden Disc, It’s Trad Dad, Beat Girl and Rock You Sinners, a time where the likes of Cliff, Tommy Steele, Terry Dene and Beryl Bryden were stars, and where milk bars filled the land with rock-n’roll- that in films not directly connected with the subject, you hardly ever saw even a Dansette. And whereas America had brought Elvis, Tab Hunter and Fabian to our silver screens, there was practically no legitimisation of popular music culture (at least among characters not personally acquainted with it) in British cinema until sometime after 1961, when the likes of These Are The Damned, Painted Smile, The Yellow Teddybears, Don’t Talk To Strange Men etc at least acknowledged grudging acceptance of new developments. Therefore, watching Faces In The Dark, Wright’s blonde bad-boy quiff aside, and others of its kind (of which there were many) is like catching a sneak glimpse of a world where, to quote Rowan Atkinson, “the renaissance was just something that happened to other people” and everyone eats dinner in silence. They don’t even own a television. Then again, maybe that’s the point.

The look of the film, however, is almost perfect- it visually captures the bucolic no-man’s-land of English suspense perfectly, its shiny monochrome photography (courtesy of who else but Ken Hodges) creating a world you immediately want to seek out via means of a 6-zone travelcard. OK, the dialogue could have done with, if not trimming, having its non- suspenseful exposition (which is actually quite repetitive even by these standards) reduced in favour of more mystery and intrigue, and we could do with a few less lingering shots of the house and garden, especially considering it’s meant to be a film about a blind man. Yet certain moments both visual and aural, involving a church bell, a gravestone and a cat, are very effective indeed, and it’s probably the first ever (only?) film, at least to my knowledge, to make pine trees seem scary- even scarier from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know if they’re really there. Many films dwell on fear of the unknown, but Faces’ strongest suit is that it goes one step further, into a world where you know nothing. I mean, imagine waking up and not even knowing what COUNTRY you’re in anymore, or being surrounded by people who either refuse to, or can’t, understand what you’re saying (a theme explored further in And Soon The Darkness in 1970) Imagine not knowing if other people close to you were alive or dead. The turmoil inside Hammond’s brain must be a nightmare like no other.

Unfortunately, because of the stiff direction of John Eady (not exactly a legendary name, even among British B-picture enthusiasts) who chooses for some reason to shoot from everyone else’s point of view except Gregson’s until 50 minutes in, we don’t actually get to experience much of it, therefore leaving us to take most of it for granted and robbing an engaging, and potentially exciting, film of potential classic status. It’s even more unfortunate when you consider that writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac were the men responsible for scripting Les Diaboliques and Vertigo, two of the most influential film noir titles ever. But guess what? I’m not going to say, even though it’s tempting, “imagine what Clouzot or Hitchcock could have done with this cast and script”, because someone in this business has to start accepting the foibles of British pictures as read rather than always comparing them unfavourably with their foreign counterparts, and if it’s fallen to me, then so be it.

And anyway, the plus points are both numerous and manifold. Musically, the effective use of sparse electronics- echoing the sound of the device which robbed Richard of his sight- is groundbreaking and original, occurring sporadically between periods of silence, creating several moments of genuine unease, disquiet and terror, and almost definitely influencing the likes of Paddy Kingsland, Delia Derbyshire and Ron Geesin in the process. Talking of terror, could Faces be classified broadly as a horror film? Almost. The late night chase sequences and the French hospital scenes would have scared me shitless had I seen them as a child: I had a particular fear of anything to do with people being chased in the dark, and I know other people feel the same way. But that alone doesn’t make it full-on horror, even if listed as a “borderline” title in several reference guides, largely because its rarity makes it hard to confirm its status, and much of its 91-minute running time is far too staid, talky and dialogue based. On the other hand, you could apply that description to any film made in this country back then, and personally, I wouldn’t change it for the world: for one thing, it allowed plots to build up and breathe. Plus, thrillers of this era tended to follow one of three possible plots: either someone’s conspiring against you, someone’s trying to drive you “maaad”, or someone’s conspiring to drive you maaad, whereas here we get all three at once, giving the moviegoer of 1960 value for his money, and ensuring that, 50 years on, over-analytical buffs (like myself) still have several layers to play with. And can you name another film that begins with someone attempting to harness the power of perfect light, and ends with them shrouded in complete darkness?

On a slightly baser note, time should also be taken to mention the delights of Nanette Newman in a maid’s outfit- seriously, she’s about as erotic as brunettes got in British cinema at that point, and in an age of obvious blonde bombshells like Diana Dors, Liz Fraser and Sandra Dorne, Pamela Green in the quickly-banned Peeping Tom and American import Jane Mansfield in Too Hot To Handle, it’s nice to see the fair Nanette, subsequent doyen of Poverty Row thrillers, flying a solitary flag for lovers of dark-haired maidens everywhere. Even Gillian Hills and Shirley Anne Field, Beat Girls to a man, didn’t quite match her pouting phwoarr factor, although it sounds strange to say it now, given her latter-day fame as the hardy perennial of respectable women’s advertising campaigns.

Almost as unexpected is the oiliness of Michael Denison, who nearly matches Aubrey Morris for sheer slime here. Who would have thunk it, from the man whose name was soon to be synonymous with a litany of QCs, captains and admirals? Just goes to show what a good actor he was- although to be honest, everybody’s good in this, despite Gregson’s convincing portrayal (he really does seem as befuddled as man recently robbed of his sight would be) stealing the show. The enigmatic Zetterling is a powerful female lead: granted, the film still shows a stodginess in its attitudes towards women, but it’s not necessarily wrong, merely cynical, and considering how films of this period tended to depict them either as the dependant, the carer, or the scarlet hussy, it’s a measure of the actress’s skill that she manages to play all three roles within one character. Not bad going, then, for someone who learnt to speak English phonetically, and it’s a shame that after 1969 she was so underused, at least in British cinema. Do you sympathise with her character or not? Without giving too much away, her fate is a particularly unpleasant one. But maybe she deserved it. Or maybe she didn’t. Much is left unexplained.

This uncertainty, coupled with a complete lack of any resolution (IS everything in Richard’s mind? Is it real? Where is he?) is very forward-thinking for 1960, when most mainstream audiences- at whom the film was almost certainly aimed- still wanted their plots a little more cut and dried. So did the producers, apparently- who made futile attempts to get the writers to change their “dark” ending, one of the bleakest seen in a British film at that time. “Up in the air” is no doubt how my Mum would have described it, and verily, she’s right- but willingness to experiment (on the part of the writers at least) would be the benchmark of the subsequent decade, which gave us everything from Alan Silitoe through Alfie to Amicus, and this film predates all of those, so for that reason alone if nothing else, it should be commended. Ireland’s “sudden” removal from the plot halfway through is a little harder to fathom (and personally, I’m not sure if it works) but apparently he had other acting commitments.

Was it influential? Possibly. It had quite a ‘name’ cast, and received a fairly wide release, hitting the screens in November 1960, meaning that it caught the wave of excitement generated by Psycho some four months previously, without being in any way based on it. Within a year, Hammer would begin a decade-long series of psychological thrillers largely based on Hitchcock’s biggest success and the more cultish Les Diaboliques, but it might not be too ridiculous to suggest that home-grown low-budget productions such as this- not to mention with two bona fide established suspense writers at the helm- provided the dry run. Undeniably, its biggest impact seems to have been on Terence Young’s classic 1967 thriller-chiller Wait until Dark, with Audrey Hepburn as the hapless blind woman terrorised by a gang of drug smugglers, and it’s this lineage to which several film guides allude. By proxy, therefore, it also influenced the Brian Clemens-scripted 1971 horror Blind Terror, with Mia Farrow in a similar role, thus structurally shaping (if you believe in “domino theories” of filmmaking) all four seasons of Thriller.

A shame, then, given this auspicious beginning that it seems to have been shown so infrequently on telly- my own copy comes from a BBC2 broadcast shown in the early 90s at 5am!!!! The sport must have been on. Still, I suppose there’s very little violence, nothing too scary (unless, like me, you find avenues of trees quite unsettlingly beautiful) and no explicit language, so maybe a morning screening isn’t too far-fetched: it just means very few saw it, apart from possibly (given their usual viewing and broadcasting schedules, and somewhat ironically considering the subject matter) several deaf people…

Nevertheless, it’s not too late to return the film to a wider audience- it definitely deserves a Gothique Film Society screening, and would make an ideal venture for Odeon, Nucleus or maybe even Flipside- although whether they would even try, or for that matter who owns it, is uncertain. Sadly, Faces doesn’t even seem to be as well remembered nowadays as the Butchers films (Pit Of Darkness, Tomorrow At Ten etc) in which its cast members would soon appear, so maybe it isn’t high on people’s priority lists. Would I, though, “given the job of pushing the knob”, prioritise releasing this over, say, Smokescreen, The Very Edge or Gilbert Harding Speaks Of Murder? I can’t say. I wouldn’t have chosen to write about it if I didn’t like it: there’s no sales agenda or tie-in here, merely personal interest. But as I’ve already stated, it’s not a classic, merely an interesting and inspirational film which more people should see- and there are hundreds of those.

Perhaps the best way to sum things up is to leave the reader with a sample line of strangely perceptive, profound and haunting dialogue- “it is said that only blind men and cats can truly see in the dark”. I don’t know who originally said that before the film, or if anyone even did, but with one-liners like that you don’t need explanations or a happy ending. I’m having it put on a t-shirt as soon as possible.

DARIUS DREWE SHIMON



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About Drewe Shimon

Drewe Shimon has written 61 post in this blog.