Went the Day Well? (1942)

When it’s on: Monday, 16 April 2012 (2.50 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Over the years, Ealing Studios has carved out a niche as that most British of production companies, producing a number of postwar comedies that were broadly reflective of the national psyche whilst retaining a sense of wit that is winning to this day. Personally, I prefer some of the darker entries in their catalogue, especially a couple of releases in the mid-1940s – Dead of Night and It Always Rains on Sunday – that depicted the uncertain mood of the country at the end of World War Two. The murky morality of these films jars with the chipper tone of the classic Ealing Comedy and provides a nice historical counterpoint to the rise of film noir in the States.

Went the Day Well? was directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, who was also responsible for the terrifying Ventriloquist’s Dummy sequence in Dead of Night. The Brazilian-born Cavalcanti moved to Britain in 1933 after spending the early part of his career in France and worked for Ealing throughout the war. Disdainful of the projected image of the English as stiff upper-lipped, jolly and indomitable, he picked up Graham Greene’s story as an exploration of how this veneer may crack when placed under extreme pressure.

Sure enough the film, which is ostensibly a propaganda piece about denizens of a sleepy village fighting back after it is taken over by the Nazis, takes on a darker twist when viewed now. Cavalcanti lets the typically English attitude of the  community dominate the film’s early scenes, plays with and teases the people’s slow realisation of what’s going on, and even sees a couple of early efforts at defiance be foiled by accidents (the broken eggs) and sheer bad luck.

It’s only when David Farrar’s silkily evil Nazi officer tells the villagers that some of their children will be killed as punishment for an escape attempt that the narrative turns dark. The people take action. Previously harmless villagers find ways to murder their captors, often horribly and with little sense of remorse, in the process steadily turning into monsters. It’s a really interesting idea, the depths human beings will sink to in order to survive. Britain didn’t suffer the direct invasions of other countries during the war, yet the film offers an uncomfortable glimpse into the shattering of ways of life at such times.

Went the Day Well? is beautifully put together and paced expertly to make the last half-hour an exercise in pure tension that, by contemporary standards, gets quite visceral. It’s also worth nothing the story is told in flashback, by villager Mervyn Johns (who would go on to play Walter Craig, the sufferer of Dead of Night’s recurring nightmare), who is passing the account on to us after the war has finished. But of course when the film was made, the war was far from over and the events depicted in it still felt as though they could possibly happen. Its assumption that victory for the allies was inevitable is a fascinating one, suggested for morale purposes and backed by the involvement of the USA by 1942, but I wonder if the Nazis posited such ideas in their own films of the time.

Went the Day Well?: ****

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