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Daybreak (1948)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Daybreak (1948)
35mm, 81 min, black & white
DirectorCompton Bennett
Released ThroughGeneral Film Distributors
ScreenplayMuriel Box
 Sydney Box
CinematographyReginald H. Wyer
MusicBenjamin Frankel

Cast: Ann Todd (Frankie); Eric Portman (Eddie Tribe); Maxwell Reed (Olaf); Edward Rigby (Bill Shackle); Bill Owen (Ron)

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A mysterious barber hides a secret identity that eventually leads to tragedy.

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An intriguing addition to the cycle of late-1940s British film noir, Daybreak lacks the reputation of Brighton Rock (d. John Boulting, 1948), but is equally menacing and utterly compelling. Made in 1946 but shelved for two years due to censorship difficulties, the film was conceived as a vehicle for Ann Todd in the wake of her success in The Seventh Veil (d. Compton Bennett, 1945). Its delayed release stymied any plans to repeat the previous film's box office takings, but the film's mood suggests wider ambitions anyway. This is an altogether darker film with a fantastic central premise unpalatable to the immediate postwar, forward-looking audience.

Like the film's main character, Daybreak has a double identity. On the surface, melodrama and thriller genre conventions push the unlikely story along - within the first reel we have two deaths, attempted murder, child abuse and a marriage proposal. But it is the style of the filmmaking that strikes beneath the inflated plotlines. Producer/screenwriters Muriel and Sydney Box and director Compton Bennett excel in creating a shadowy Britain populated by lost figures trying to pull their lives together. Despite a malevolent villain, this is adult drama, dealing with the fragility of human relationships. In this sense, the Bennett and Box team made a casting coup with Eric Portman. As Eddie Tribe/Mendover, Portman evokes the trauma ingrained in a generation of returning soldiers attempting to separate their domestic present from their brutal past. His bleak portrayal of a man struggling to accept his homicidal actions is tender and sincere.

In 1946, Portman was at the peak of his career, gaining plaudits for his respectable British officers in rousing war movies but developing a rich sideline in social misfits. By the time of Daybreak's release Portman's notoriety for these warped loners was established. His mastery of this public persona - his ability to evoke the hidden menace beneath his forthright cheer and the cliché of Northern hard talk - raises Eddie alongside A Canterbury Tale's (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1944) Thomas Colpeper as one of Portman's greatest creations. He steals the show from a strong Ann Todd, who's adulterous Frankie can't quite match Eddie's inner turmoil. This reversal - shifting focus from the unknown femme fetales of American or French film noir to the neurotic male lead - is perhaps Daybreak's greatest achievement. It certainly is a clue to the indefinable difference we find in British noir.

Dylan Cave

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Video Clips
1. Last job (2:21)
2. Unwelcome attention (3:19)
3. Struggle (3:00)
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