My Learned Friend (d. Basil Dearden/Will Hay, 1943) offers a fascinating insight into the direction Will Hay might have taken if ill health had not contrived to make this Ealing picture his last. The tone is much darker than his previous films, and the humour, much of it revolving around a sequence of grisly murders, foreshadows the blackest of Ealing's postwar comedies. Small surprise, therefore, to note that My Learned Friend was co-written by John Dighton, who later contributed to the classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (d. Robert Hamer, 1949).
Claude Hulbert, Hay's new side-kick, had appeared with him on stage, and the two veterans work well together, the former's 'silly ass' persona allowing Hay to mould a more cunning and resourceful character than his audience was accustomed to. This partially explains why My Learned Friend is his most mature effort since his early film career appearing in Pinero adaptations, although some of the newly injected cynicism seems jarringly out of place. When 'Safety' Wilson snarls he will "slice him [Grimshaw] this way and that 'til you can use him for a crossword puzzle... I'll use his liver for a necktie", the threat appears utterly incongruous in Hay's madcap but essentially cosy universe.
Although he was credited as co-director, producer Michael Balcon later stated that Hay confined himself to offering suggestions for his own routines, and certainly the proceedings foreshadow co-director Basil Dearden's later work on films such as The League of Gentlemen (1960) and Dead of Night (d. Alberto Cavalcanti/Charles Crichton/Dearden/Robert Hamer, 1945), for which he again teamed up with Angus MacPhail, who co-scripted My Learned Friend.
Hay's adept comic performance, the strong supporting cast and the pacey, witty script combine to make the film his best Ealing comedy. Despite being diagnosed with cancer during pre-production, his timing remained exquisite, expertly coaxing laughs from the bleakest onscreen situation.
At the close of the film (later 'borrowed' in Don Sharp's 1978 version of The 39 Steps, but itself indebted to US silent comedian Harold Lloyd), he is left hanging from the clock tower erroneously described as Big Ben. In a way, this final scene is fitting, as it represents Will Hay forever caught in time: a comic great of the 1930s and '40s, gloriously trapped in suspended animation courtesy of some of British cinema's most enduring movies.