BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: It Always Rains on Sunday / Blu-Ray Review

The re-release of Robert Hamer's It Always Rains on Sunday is very welcome indeed. StudioCanal and the BFI have lavished some attention on the film, remastering and repairing from two nitrate fine grain positives for its outing during the BFI's Ealing: Light and Dark retrospective and for its high-definition release on Blu-ray and DVD.

Most importantly, the re-release champions the work of director Hamer who left behind a small but very distinguished body of work after a career and life tragically marred by alcoholism. His career in cinema began in 1934, working as a cutting room assistant for Gaumont-British before joining Alexander Korda's London Films at Denham. He worked on a number of films for Erich Pommer, who had formed a production compnay with actor Charles Laughton, and edited Vessel of Wrath (1938) and Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939).

He then joined the GPO Film Unit, working with Alberto Cavalcanti, and developed skills as a documentarian that would eventually be evidenced in his work as a director. After Calvalcanti moved to Ealing, he was recruited by him in 1940 to work as an editor on a number of war films and the George Formby picture Turned Out Nice Again (1941). The studio's boss, Michael Balcon, saw potential in Hamer and promoted him to associate producer and he oversaw the production of the Will Hay comedy My Learned Friend in 1943. As Gavin Collinson notes of the film, 'the humour, much of it revolving around a sequence of grisly murders, foreshadows the blackest of Ealing's postwar comedies' and its co-writer John Dighton would collaborate with Hamer on perhaps his best known film, the spiky, bleakly satirical classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). (1) 

Hamer's first experience of directing was standing in for Charles Frend for some sequences on San Demetrio London (1943) when the director fell ill and he was also involved in reshooting some sequences for Fiddlers Three (1944) before Calvancanti offered him his debut proper with one of the stories, 'The Haunted Mirror', in his portmanteau supernatural film Dead of Night (1945).

Admired by Luis Buñuel and Jacques Prévert, the sequence tells the tale of an antique mirror that, using a glamorous other world, reflects back the underlying tensions in the relationship between Peter and Joan Cortland (Ralph Michael and Googie Withers). It 'has come to be seen as a clever allegory of sexual repression, and the disturbing presence of mirrors was to become a recurring motif in Hamer's films'. (2)

His first feature film, based on Roland Pertwee's stage play, was Pink String and Sealing Wax (1946), a melodrama that wouldn't seem out of place amongst Gainsborough's output, and he developed further his motifs about repression, fantasy, deceit and class division in the story of headstrong adolescent David Sutton (Gordon Jackson), who rebels against a repressive father when he is seduced by a street wise barmaid Pearl (Withers, again).

Hamer made further use of the complex, multiple narratives of Dead of Night and Pink String and Ceiling Wax and eloquently refined them for It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) where Withers brilliantly plays the central character of Rose Sandigate, a frustrated housewife who dominates her humdrum domestic life until an escaped convict, a former lover, Tommy Swann (John McCallum) takes refuge in the air raid shelter at the bottom of her garden. What's very important to note is that Hamer seems to have regularly fought a corner for women working in film at Ealing, a studio often criticised for its very male view point of the world, and Withers is a strong presence in many of his films.

In It Always Rains on Sunday, Hamer not only focuses on Rose's importance in the narrative but also uses sub-plots about her daughters Vi (Susan Shaw, another talent cut short by alcoholism) and Doris (Patricia Plunkett) as a reflection of her domestic role, her reignited desire and the relationship between women and male criminality. As Christine Geraghty notes of the film 'it is the woman who moves between fixed male positions [and her] capacity to change, to reflect on choices, to change their minds... and reinforces the sense that, during a time of social upheaval, the stability of post-war society depends on women's choices'. (3)
'the war's given you a free run'
This is particularly illustrated by the three 'love triangles' in the film. Rose has married an older man, George (Edward Chapman), and is sinking into the conformity of the housewife's routine before Tommy enters her life again and rekindles all of the damped down desires of her youth; Vi is seduced by Morry Hyams (Sydney Tafler), a married musician and the owner of a music shop and Doris is momentarily pulled off course by Morry's charismatic spiv brother Lou (John Slater) before returning to the side of her intended, Ted Edwards (a very young Nigel Stock).

This East End 'La Ronde' examines women's aspirations, choices and roles in the post-war period, particularly the expectation that married women who had enjoyed working and contributing to the war effort would now simply sink back into traditional roles within the home. It's powerfully expressed in George's admonishment to his daughter Vi, after her fight with Rose, about her drunken late nights, that 'the war's given you a free run' but she should now do as he says.

The sense of their freedom is echoed in the way the film uses flash backs to show Rose's previous employment as a bar maid and her first encounter with Tommy and in Vi's recollection of her night out with Morry. They show former promises of marriage and fidelity that are never kept, that are disrupted either by criminality or, in Vi's case, Morry's street wise wife Sadie Hyams. Sadie is one of the strongest characters in the film, eventually rejecting the philandering Morry and delivering a warning sermon to Vi about the kind of man she's involved with.

Hamer again uses desire as a device to delineate between fantasy and reality. Vi believes Morry will help her fulfil her pretensions to be a singer to escape the family home. Tommy's seduction of Rose is also tied in with her femininity. When Rose discovers that Tommy is on the run from Dartmoor, Hamer uses his flash back to glamourise and sexualise Rose, even briefly using a romantic score to illustrate this. He uses soft focus filters on a close up of Googie Withers, a platinum blonde incarnation briefly replacing the later severe look of the tired, repressed housewife.

He then shows the two lovers languishing and fantasising on a hill top and Tommy declaring his love with a ring, his 'present for a bad girl' suggesting stolen goods, before Hamer truncates the fantasy with Tommy's arrest. He returns us to the present day with its squalid, cramped rain lashed terraces and her singular retort of 'haddock' to her husband's enquiry about breakfast. Vi's dream of becoming a singer and Rose's flashback are both triggered by reflections in mirrors, another familiar Hamer device. The ring is emblematic of Rose continuing to extend the fantasy. Later, when they meet in her bedroom Tommy doesn't even recall the ring.

Much of this captures those simmering tensions that existed in post-war working class communities when freedoms that women enjoyed during the war, both sexual and financial, were once again expected to be shaped by male hierarchies, by men returning to their wives after the war. Hamer's film articulates women's frustrations and 'the problematic split between their social role and individual needs' but it never quite suggests what the real alternative is beyond conformity, divorce, suicide or becoming a spinster. (4)
'broken and demoralised by war'
There are some wonderful anti-authoritarian attitudes from other women in the film. Hermione Baddeley is briefly seen as the owner of a dosshouse. When the police, in the form of Jack Warner's Detective Sergeant Fothergill, enquire about Tommy's whereabouts, her attitude to the police is to quote the law at them and return to bed while scratching her bum. The dosshouse visually aligns itself with the depictions of men in the film. Men are often seen either as creatures existing on the fringes of society - homeless and criminal - or they are symbols of conformity and restriction.

Rose's husband is dependable and solid but predictable in his routines, expecting a roast on Sunday and finding pleasure in the small victories of a darts match. Change is not on his agenda. He is placed in contrast with the other triumvirate in the film, of the petty criminals Dicey Perkins, Whitey and Freddy (Alfie Bass, Jimmy Hanley and John Carol) who are tangentially associated with Tommy and, as the film unfolds, they are seen initially as rather ineffectual, attempting to offload stolen rollerskates, and then as thugs when one of them attacks their fence Mr Neesley in the film's climax.

The criminal, the spiv and the thug give a 'recognisable shape to the fears about wartime dislocation and the growth of crime and violence which had spilled over into the 'austerity' period'. Hamer's dysfunctional men are either well dressed wide boys like Lou Hyams, who fixes boxing matches, or down at heel petty criminals, 'broken and demoralised by war'.

Hamer underlines the latter both in Tommy's manipulation of Rose's affections, that ends in him resorting to violence to manage his escape from her house, and the senseless attack on Neesley, the image of the pathetic victim's false teeth landing in a puddle evoking the audience's sympathies and ambivalence. (5) These figures are placed in contrast to George, pipe smoking and paper reading through the film until the redemptive ending when he realises that life with Rose is more emotionally complicated than Sunday roasts and darts matches.

That George is shielded from certain realities is symbolised right at the start of the film when Rose is caught in the chill from the broken window of the kitchen door. The chill is a precursor to the encounter with Tommy in the air raid shelter, the ill wind of criminality re-entering her life, and the blackout material that she asks George to use to temporarily repair the window is an acknowledgement that during the war certain freedoms for women took place under cover of darkness or during an air raid. Like the mirrors used in the mise en scène, that broken window is a two way mirror, suggesting past indiscretion and the repression operating within the present.

Rain is constantly pouring in the film, a veritable tide that suggests a stifling and constraining collectivist experience for all the characters and the inevitable reassertion of routine, defining the calm and storm of interpersonal relationships. It's as constant as Hamer's insistent use of shots showing Rose looking out of the window, her back and shoulders an emblem of this tension. Withers' performance, all uptight physicality that briefly relaxes when she brings Tommy into the house and recreates the sexual freedom of that hill top fantasy, is tuned into the vicissitudes of the weather and Rose's subterfuge. Flowers also demarcate thwarted love, infidelity and deception - the daffodils that Doris brings home after her spat with a jealous Ted, that are thrown in Morry's face by his exasperated wife Sadie when she discovers his affair with Vi, and the limp blooms that Rose's son rescues from an overturned market barrow outside Neesley's house.

The climax of the film is the ultimate expression of these themes with Tommy's hijacking of car and bicycle, his journey back and forth as a geographical expression of criminality's rejection of conformity, of being on the straight and narrow. It is beautifully captured in the superbly shot and edited chase in the railway yard, a high contrast dance between the railway lines and steam engines that reflects back on Tommy's entrance into the film, where he is seen scrambling down an embankment onto a rail line. Hamer contrasts this thrilling sequence, of Tommy and Detective Sergeant Fothergill leaping across goods trains, with the silent tragedy of Rose opening the gas oven and turning on the gas and Sadie's rejection of Morry.

A wonderful film, It Always Rains on Sunday captures post-war uncertainties with impressive detail. The dosshouses and rooms to let are gripped by post-war privations and Rose's house is a cluttered, claustrophobic space, her kitchen cramped with utensils, drying washing and tin baths. There is a sense of community in the tracking shots through bustling markets, of outdoor boxing matches and smoke filled dance halls and pubs. They provide the backdrop to the conflict and divided loyalties within one family and Rose's brief transgression before she is returned to her place within male dominated order. Withers, exceptional in the film, sums up the frustrated future for Rose and Tommy as it's 'too late, ten years too late'.

(1) Gavin Collinson, 'My Learned Friend' BFI Screenonline
(2) Robert Murphy, 'Directors in British and Irish Cinema'
(3) Christine Geraghty 'Post War Choices and Feminine Possibilities', in Heroines without Heroes: Reconstructing Female and National Identities in European Cinema, 1945-1951
(4) Ibid
(5) Andrew Spicer, 'Typical Men - The Representation of Masculinity in Popular British Cinema'

About the transfer
Remastered by the BFI, this is an almost spotless high definition transfer save for a few white speckles and the odd tramline. Contrast tends to be quite grey at the start of the film but improves significantly throughout and is particularly robust in the film's climax when Douglas Slocombe's black and white photography revels in the looming shows and rain soaked streets of night time Bethnal Green. Detail is often very good, benefiting faces, costumes, interior sets and locations but the picture often veers into softness, especially in the first half of the film. It goes without saying that the climax in the railway goods yard is jam packed with detail too and is the highlight as far as the quality of the transfer is concerned. For a film of its age, it is very presentable in high definition.

Special features

Coming In From The Rain: Revisiting It Always Rains on Sunday (16:36)
Brief but welcome examination of the film with Terence Davies, Sean O'Connor, Ian Christie and Iain Sinclair. Each recall their encounters with this Ealing classic and discuss its themes and gritty vision of post-war Britain and working class communities.
Locations: With Richard Dacre (6:23)
Dacre gives us an informative tour of the locations and provides detail about Arthur La Bern's novel, the actors and the film's plot and characters.
Stills Gallery
Good if limited collection of behind the scenes stills showing Hamer and the crew at work. Shame there are no actual film stills and posters included.
Unrestored trailer (the distorted sound is the major casualty here) with Valentine Dyall on vocal duties by the sound of it.

It Always Rains on Sunday 
Ealing Film Studios Production 1947
StudioCanal Blu Ray & DVD / Released 12 November 2012 / OPTBD2399 / Cert PG / 87 minutes / Black and white
BD Specs: Region B / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / Video Codec: AVC / Single Layer: BD25 / 1080P / English Language
DVD Specs: Region 2 / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / English Language

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2 Responses to “BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: It Always Rains on Sunday / Blu-Ray Review”
  1. nigel sarrassa-dyer says:

    Thanks for this. I wrote a Masters dissertation on Hamer in 1993 (it is in the BFI library). Much of it focused on IAROS-but this review is far more perceptive (and enthusiastic)than anything I have written. I have the previous version fron an Ealing boxset, but feel I must now get this one as well

  2. Thank you Nigel for your lovely comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the review. I must try and track down your dissertation and have a read. IAROS is a very under rated film and I'm very glad to see its re-release and Hamer's work getting further recognition.

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