February 24, 2017


Dead of Night – 1945 | 102 mins | Portmanteau | B&W


Plot Synopsis

Dead of Night

Ealing’s first post-war film was Dead of Night, one of the best films ever made about the supernatural. It was the first ‘portmanteau’ film made at Ealing, wherein a number of different directors were able to contribute an individual story without unbalancing the unity. An architect (Mervyn Johns) arrives at a house party in the country where a number of other guests are assembled. Immediately he feels a sense of deja vu, that he has been through it all before. He realises that a recurrent dream has suddenly come to life, and he knows, but cannot quite remember, that there is an evil climax. His revelation provides a talking point for the gathering, and by one the others relate various supernatural experiences they have heard about, or have actually witnessed, which are then shown in flashback to provide several films-within-a-film.

The first story is a simple haunting. During a Christmas party in an old house, a teenage girl finds a small boy sobbing alone in a room at the top of a hidden, narrow flight of stairs. He tells of unspeakable cruelties that are being enacted and she comforts him. Later there is no trace of him or the room. It seems that she has stepped into the previous century. This sequence was directed by Cavalcanti, and was taken from a story by Angus MacPhail.

The next tale, the first official directing credit for Robert Hamer, came from a chilling story by John V. Baines. It follows the progress of an engaged couple. The girl (Googie Withers) sees an early Victorian mirror in an antique shop and buys it for her fiancé. As he is using it, he suddenly has an impression that the room reflected is not his own dressing-room. The couple marry, but the husband becomes sullen and morose, with bursts of sharp temper. The mirror is now dominating him; in it he sees himself in a large, heavily-furnished Victorian bedroom with a four-poster bed and a fire in the grate, though his wife sees only a normal reflection. He goes to a doctor, who suggests that it is a psychiatric problem, but when the man becomes violent and jealous his wife goes back to the antique dealer to find out the provenance of the mirror, and discovers that it came from a house where in early Victorian times the owner had been confined to his bedroom after an accident. He had then killed his wife and himself before the mirror in frustration and madness. After that, the contents of the house were put away until the present. Returning to her husband with this knowledge, she is attacked by him before she can reveal the mirror’s secret. As he begins to strangle her, she, too, sees the hideous room in the mirror. She is able to smash it, whereupon her husband becomes normal again, unable to recollect what had happened.

This was followed by a short tale of premonition, directed by Basil Dearden from a story by E. F. Benson. Recovering in hospital from a car crash, a man (Anthony Baird) wakes up in the middle of the night to find that it is broad daylight outside. He looks down and sees a horse-drawn hearse. The driver looks up at him, nods towards the coffin and says “Room for one inside.” The man gets back into bed, realises that it is the middle of the night and that he must have been dreaming, and goes back to sleep. When he is discharged from the hospital he waits at a bus stop to go home. A loaded vehicle pulls up and the conductor says to him, “Room for one inside.” It is, of course, the man in the dream. He steps back from the bus stupefied, the conductor shrugs and rings the bell, and the bus goes off without him. Suddenly, it is involved in a collision with a truck, goes out of control and crashes over the parapet of a bridge, falling on to a railway line and presumably killing all aboard.

Light relief follows with a tall golfing story, a version of a tale by H. G. Wells, somewhat modified by Charles Crichton, who also directed the piece. It featured Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as golf chums in love with the same girl (Peggy Bryan). They decide that the only way to solve the problem is to play for her, the loser to commit suicide. Naunton Wayne drowns himself as a result, and Basil Radford marries her. But the spectre of his old friend keeps turning up to ruin the proceedings. It seems that Radford won by cheating and is therefore not entitled to his prize.

The last of the stories, another directed by Cavalcanti, was to become the most celebrated. It concerned a ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) who is becoming possessed by his dummy, which has a repugnant persona. The dummy leads its host to degradation, murder, a prison cell and madness. The possession motif is one that has been revived in the cinema, and Richard Attenborough‘s Magic (1979) even used the idea of an apparently animate dummy inspiring murder.

After the stories have been told, the film reaches its climax and in a bewildering nightmare they all intermingle with bizarre horror erupting to a point at which the man in the centre of the action awakes at home in bed. His wife reminds him that he has to go down to the country about a commission. The film ends with him approaching the same farmhouse, and meeting the same host that we saw at the beginning. It is without doubt one of the most satisfying entertainment’s ever offered by Ealing, brilliantly conceived and wrought by a fusion of creative talent, in the spirit of teamwork and the cross-fertilisation of ideas for which it was renowned. Dead of Night was for years shown outside the UK only in a crudely re-edited version, eliminating the Sally Ann Howes and the “golfing” vignettes.

Extract© George Perry: Forever Ealing.

Production Team

Alberto Cavalcanti: Director
Charles Crichton: Director
Basil Dearden: Director
Robert Hamer: Director
Michael Relph: Art Direction
John Croydon: Associate Producer
Sidney Cole: Associate Producer
Jack Parker: Cinematography
Harold Julius: Cinematography
Douglas Slocombe: Cinematography
Marion Horn: Costume Designer
Bianca Mosca: Costume Designer
Charles Hasse: Editing
Stan Pavey: Lighting
Tom Shenton: Make-Up Artist
Georges Auric: Music
Ernest Irving: Musical Direction/Supervision
Michael Balcon: Producer
Hal Mason: Production Supervisor
John V Baines: Script
Angus MacPhail: Script
EF Benson: Script
HG Wells: Script
Eric Williams: Sound/Sound Designer
Cliff John Robertson: Special Effects
Lionel Banes: Special Effects


Mervyn Johns: Walter Craig
Renee Gadd: Mrs Craig
Roland Culver: Eliot Foley
Mary Merrall: Mrs Foley
Frederick Valk: Dr van Straaten
Barbara Leake: Mrs O\’Hara
Sally Ann Howes: Sally OHara
Robert Wyndham: Dr Albury
Anthony Baird: Hugh
Judy Kelly: Joyce
Miles Malleson: Hearse Driver/Bus Conductor
Googie Withers: Joan
Ralph Michael: Peter
Esme Percy: Antique Dealer
Basil Radford: George
Peggy Bryan: Mary
Michael Redgrave: Maxwell Frere
Hartley Power: Sylvester Kee
Elisabeth Welch: Beulah
Magda Kun: Mitzi
Garry Marsh: Harry Parker
Naunton Wayne: Larry

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