It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947.
Directed by Robert Hamer.
Starring Googie Withers, Edward Chapman, Susan Shaw, Jack Warner, John McCallum, Patricia Plunkett, David Lines, Sydney Tafler and Betty Ann Davies.
An escaped convict tries to hide out at his former lover’s house but she has since married and is far from keen on the idea.
It’s easy to get wistful about 1940s Britain. Just look at the re-emergence of Lindyhop dance classes, or those done-to-death ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ poster variations that everybody suddenly has to have all over their tea-towels and t-shirts. True, Ealing Studios did its fair share of flirting with doe-eyed sentiment, but happily, director Robert Hamer was quite another kind of film-maker, showing a whole new side to the studio’s output.
This film is shifty, in every sense of the word. The pacing is perfect, hopping from one story arc to another, putting one character in the background until, when you’d almost forgotten about them, they step in at just the right moment to change everything. Hamer is playing with our ideas of story structure and coming up trumps; imagine Rashômon (1950) or Pulp Fiction (1994) set in London’s East End and you’re halfway there.
We open with a prison breakout; somewhere in the dirty streets, a gaunt, wild-eyed stranger runs between shadows with nothing so much as a ragged jacket to keep out the cold, as the first spots of rain start to fall. But this isn’t a Hitchcock film. We’re not here to see Tommy Swann (John McCallum) run halfway across the country to prove his innocence. Hamer’s focus is squarely on one neighbourhood in Bethnal Green; a day in the life of Londoners who defy the defintion of ‘ordinary’. You’ll think differently about that word before you’re through with this story.
Speaking of defintions, you couldn’t in all honesty label any one of these characters ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Nothing and nobody is that simple. Not here, not in real life. We have petty crooks Freddie, Whitey and Dicey scraping a living and getting caught every time. We have the Jewish Hyams on the rise; Morry (Sydney Tafler) earning his way honestly and spending it despicably; Lou (John Slater) gambling on his man in the red corner to take a dive in the second round, only to give it all away to fix up the local school without a moment’s hesitation.
Then there are the Sandigates. Rose (Googie Withers), her husband George (Edward Chapman) and his children from a previous marriage, Doris (Patricia Plunkett), Vi (Susan Shaw) and Alfie (David Lines). Rose can barely keep these children in order at the best of times, but a name in the paper haunts and shakes her up worse than the stroppiest of Vi’s teenage tantrums. Tommy Swann, the love of her life, has escaped from Dartmoor. And he’s come to her, looking for shelter.
There a great many more strands and tangents to this story, but the hunt for Tommy Swann is a constant. Punctuated by brief showers of rain, we truly feel as if a day is passing before our eyes in 87 minutes. Haunted by guilt for betraying George’s trust and regret for the life she and Tommy could have had together, Rose slowly breaks down, running out of excuses to keep people out of her bedroom, where the fugitive sleeps in her husband’s bed.
Googie Withers turns in a terrific performance as a woman torn between one life and another. The entire ensemble cast prove truly formidable, holding it together as a whole with consistently understated performances. From honest misunderstandings and tongue-in-cheek blackmail to lingering suspicion and thwarted lust, this cast have it all thrust upon them, and they rise to the challenge beautifully.
Jack Warner (ever an Ealing favourite) must be singled out for his role as Detective Fothergill, the man in charge of bringing Tommy Swann to justice. Perhaps more famous for his friendly Desk Sergeant Dixon of Dock Green (1955-1976), his performance here is calm, collected and cynical. His Fothergill takes a more realistic, sang-froid approach to policing the streets of London, never letting himself get carried away, never showing a trace of doubt in his keen, hawkish features. He steals any scene he happens to wander into with his wry delivery. Even the savvy landlord can’t compete with him on his lunch break:
“Here, there’s a such a thing as a law of libel, you know.”
“There’s such a thing as ham too – but not in this sandwich.”
It Always Rains on Sunday is as much about the little touches, the scene-setting, as it is about the towering performances. A drop of Guinness here, a pre-Rupert Murdoch News of the World broadsheet there and a cup of tea in every other scene help to convince us we’re in the real world. But in the real world we ask questions. Is Rose wrong to hide Tommy from the law? Is Lou Hyams any better or worse than the people he cheats or benefits? Does his daft brother Morry deserve to keep his wife when he flirts with teenage girls at every late night dance?
Think how many films expect you to take their word for it on questions of morality. How many choices made under pressure are excused with a quick speech on right and wrong? Hamer asks hard questions, just like any other good film-maker. Perhaps this film has survived instead of the other melodramas of his day because he doesn’t hand out easy answers.
Hamer’s not telling us how to feel about these tortured ordinary people, he simply shows us, and we spot them for ourselves. Spot the misfit romantic in disguise, the hot-headed loner, or Rudyard Kipling’s definition of a real man, keeping his head when all about are losing theirs.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.