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Dead of Night (1945)


Main image of Dead of Night (1945)
35mm, black and white, 104 mins
DirectorsAlberto Cavalcanti, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ProducerMichael Balcon
ScreenplayJohn Baines, Angus Macphail
Additional DialogueT.E.B.Clarke
PhotographyStan Pavey, Douglas Slocombe
MusicGeorges Auric

Cast: Mervyn Johns (Walter Craig); Michael Redgrave (Maxwell Frere); Googie Withers (Joan Cortland); Ralph Michael (Peter Cortland); Frederick Valk (Dr. Van Straaten)

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Visiting a country house, architect Walter Craig realises that it and his fellow guests are familiar from a recurring nightmare. As the guests share their own tales of the supernatural, Craig is filled with a growing dread.

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Ealing Studios' Dead of Night (1945) is one of just a handful of 'true' horror films of British cinema's first half-century, and certainly the most important film in that genre until the beginning of Hammer's horror cycle a decade later. Released in September 1945, just a month after the formal end of the War, it marks a break from the documentary-influenced realism which had dominated wartime films, particularly Ealing's.

The film was a truly collaborative venture, including many of the figures who dominated Ealing's output during and after the War. Directors Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer, writer T.E.B. Clarke and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe represent the popular Ealing comedies; writer Angus McPhail was active at Ealing as early as 1939; Basil Dearden would pioneer the postwar 'social problem' film; veteran Alberto Cavalcanti had already made his mark with Went the Day Well? (1943) and was a hugely influential figure at Ealing, despite directing only one further film there. Another studio mainstay, director Charles Frend, was forced to pull out early in the production due to other commitments. The cast included Ealing regulars Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.

Dead of Night stands up well despite the passing years. The linking narrative, directed by Dearden, holds the film together effectively, building up the sense of dread towards the suitably delirious conclusion. The five supernatural tales may be uneven, but Cavalcanti's story - a talented ventriloquist is driven to attempted murder by his apparently conscious dummy - is eerie and gripping, and features a powerful performance by Michael Redgrave as the troubled and finally unhinged ventriloquist. Even better is the story by first-time director Hamer, in which an antique mirror with a dark history exposes the cracks in the relationship of smug middle-class couple Peter (Michael) and Joan (Withers).

The film sets up a classic horror genre opposition between science and the supernatural, and makes it clear from the outset which side it is on. Psychiatrist Dr van Straaten (Frederick Valk) is quickly isolated; his attempts to offer a rationalist interpretation of his fellow guests' stories are dismissed and, finally, he pays for his scepticism with his life.

Despite its success, Dead of Night was a dead-end for Ealing, which never really dabbled in horror again; the genre largely went back underground until the Hammer era.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. The mirror (3:21)
2. Dummy in the cell (2:40)
3. The nightmare (1:48)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Halfway House, The (1944)
Auric, Georges (1899-1983)
Banes, Lionel (1904-1996)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)
Cole, Sidney (1908-1998)
Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)
Culver, Roland (1900-1984)
Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)
Hamer, Robert (1911-63)
Johns, Mervyn (1899-1992)
Jones, Peter (1920-2000)
MacPhail, Angus (1903-1962)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Radford, Basil (1897-1952)
Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)
Relph, Michael (1915-2004)
Slocombe, Douglas (1913-)
Welch, Elisabeth (1908-2003)
Withers, Googie (1917-2011)
Horror Before Hammer