If It's Sunday, Bring an Umbrella

I'm starting to prepare for my fall class at JASA, which will be a collection of a dozen underrated British films ranging from Picadilly (1929) to Raining Stones (1993). Consequently, I've been looking at the twelve films I chose and getting a vivid reminder that, Francois Truffaut notwithstanding, there are great British films, albeit not as many as one would wish. Somehow with the Ashes being contested right now (and England getting well and truly waxed by the Aussies at Lord's this week), it seems appropriate to have just seen Robert Hamer's splendid 1947 noir It Always Rains on Sunday.

Tommy and Rose in Happier Days

Like most films noirs, it's a bleak number in which nobody gets what they want and everyone gets what's coming to them. Although the central plot is almost ridiculously straightforward -- Tommy Swan (John McCallum) breaks out of prison and heads for London's Jewish-dominated East End, home of his old girlfriend Rose (Googie Withers) -- but this is an ensemble piece in which Hamer moves deftly and gracefully among a half-dozen storylines and twice as many significant characters. In a sense, It Always Rains is really a film about a soon-to-disappear neighborhood, Bethnal Green when it echoed to the sound of Yiddish and the streets were filled with peddlers, a working-class neighborhood reminiscent of New York's Lower East Side. (Like the Lower East Side, the East End merely exchanged one striving ethnic group for another with the Latino population moving onto the bottom rungs of the Manhattan socioeconomic ladder and the South Asian and West Indian poor as their London counterparts.)

Urban Claustrophobia in the Rain

One might not think of Ealing as a studio for film noir, but the mix of eccentric locals and salt-of-the-earth working poor is as typical of the studio as any of their comedies, which usually boast the same blend. When you note that the screenwriters include Hamer (whose next film would be Kind Hearts and Coronets), Henry Cornelius (Genevieve) and frequent Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail (who also worked on Ealing vehicles for comics Will Hay and Tommy Trinder), then the frequently playful tone makes more sense. MacPhail, in particular, was a favorite of Ealing honcho Michael Balcon (perhaps not coincidentally, himself a Jew), and Ealing has always felt to me like a family operation writ large, sort of a super-sized version of a John Ford set with everyone falling easily into familiar and familial roles.

It certainly worked that way for McCallum and Withers, who married after the film was completed and remained happily hitched until his death in 2010 at 91. There is an unmistakable chemistry between them, edgy, even a little barbed, but utterly sexual, and it gives the film almost as much drive as Hamer's liquid direction.

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