Robert James Hamer was born on 31 March 1911 in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. After being sent down from Cambridge, he began his career in films as a cutting room assistant for Gaumont-British studios in 1934. A year later he joined London Films at Denham, where Alexander Korda had attracted a number of European filmmakers to England, including Erich Pommer, the producer of German films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (d. Robert Wiene, 1920) and Metropolis (d. Fritz Lang, 1926). When Pommer formed a production company with Charles Laughton, Mayflower Pictures, he asked Hamer to join him and gave him the opportunity to edit Vessel of Wrath (d. Erich Pommer, 1938) and Jamaica Inn (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1939).
As war approached, Pommer and Laughton left for Hollywood and Mayflower's operations were suspended. Hamer joined the GPO Film Unit under Alberto Cavalcanti, and when Cavalcanti moved to Ealing Studios he recruited Hamer to edit the George Formby vehicle, Turned Out Nice Again (d. Marcel Varnel, 1941), and war films Ships With Wings (d. Sergei Nolbandov, 1941) and The Foreman Went to France (d. Charles Frend, 1942). Hamer was then promoted to associate producer (in effect producer, though this was a credit which studio head Michael Balcon reserved for himself) on My Learned Friend (d. Basil Dearden/Will Hay, 1943), San Demetrio London (d. Charles Frend, 1943) and Fiddlers Three (d. Harry Watt, 1944). He also gained some experience in directing, shooting sequences of San Demetrio London when Charles Frend fell ill, and re-shooting some of the musical parts of Fiddlers Three. Cavalcanti then gave him the chance to direct one of the episodes of the omnibus horror film, Dead of Night (1945). His contribution, 'The Haunted Mirror', 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. The allure of a glamorous, sexually-charged other world which seduces the hitherto bland and respectable hero of 'The Haunted Mirror' was also apparent in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1946), Hamer's first feature film. It was based on a stageplay by Roland Pertwee and is comparable to Gainsborough costume films such as The Man in Grey (d. Leslie Arliss, 1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (d. Anthony Asquith, 1944); but in the Gainsborough films passionate love is allowed full rein. In Pink String and Sealing Wax, young David Sutton (Gordon Jackson) is dazzled by a sexy unscrupulous barmaid but retrieved for respectable domesticity when she is driven to murder and suicide.
Hamer used Googie Withers, who had played the main female roles in 'The Haunted Mirror' and Pink String and Sealing Wax, as the protagonist in his next film, It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). Although it was adapted from a picaresque low-life novel by Arthur La Bern, and set in the East End community of Bethnal Green, the film shows Hamer's admiration for the French poetic realist films of the 1930s. The proliferation of cheery sub-plots distract too much from the central story of a woman stuck in a dull marriage whose sharp, flashy lover from the past reappears as an escaped convict desperate for food and shelter, but the film is nonetheless a major achievement and was a critical and popular success.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), an ironic comedy based on an obscure novel with an unacceptable title (Israel Rank by Roy Horniman) and with the gimmick of Alec Guinness playing all the members of an aristocratic family who have to be eliminated by the dispossessed hero (Dennis Price) if he is to succeed to a Dukedom, was a less than obvious follow-up. Indeed its reputation as a masterpiece of British cinema only began to coalesce after its ecstatic reception in the United States and France, and Hamer was never to properly benefit from its success. The wit and sophistication of Kind Hearts and Coronets, its innovatory use of voice-over, its refreshingly frank attitudes towards sex and murder have kept it fresh and popular, but it has tended to overshadow Hamer's career. As he told one interviewer:
"It's flattering to make a picture which becomes a classic within ten years; it's not so flattering, however, when people get the impression it's the only picture you've ever made.... That picture has become a sort of yardstick for everything else I've done. Friends, especially friends, look at my other films and say 'good, brilliant, superb' but not, of course, so 'good, brilliant, superb' as Kind Hearts and Coronets." (Films and Filming)
He had expected to return to the demi-monde of petty crime to make a film set in Soho written by reformed burglar Mark Benney, but a critical outcry against films dealing with spivs and the sordid underbelly of British society led to it being shelved. His project to make a film about the Thompson-Bywaters case, with Margaret Lockwood playing Edith Thompson, who had been hanged in 1923, was considered too daring. Hamer was also enthusiastic about adapting Richard Mason's novel, The Shadow and the Peak, and shooting it on location in the West Indies, but Balcon was wary of anything so expensive and erotic. He agreed to release Hamer to make a film for his old company, Mayflower, now run by Aubrey Baring and Maxwell Setton.
The Spider and the Fly (1950), set in France in the period leading up to the First World War, is the bleakest of all Hamer's films, a powerful melodrama exploring the triangular relationship between a policeman (Eric Portman), a master thief (Guy Rolfe) and the woman they both love (Nadia Gray). Hamer makes no concessions to the cheery optimism with which most Ealing films end and he found it difficult to adjust to the ethos of the studio when he returned to make His Excellency (1951), with Eric Portman as a working-class trade union leader appointed governor of a British colony with a large naval base (most likely Malta). It was a task for which he had little interest and the film is unconvincing and carelessly plotted. After it was finished he found it impossible to agree with Balcon on a mutually acceptable project and left Ealing for good.
Hamer's first film on leaving Ealing was The Long Memory (1952), produced by Hugh Stewart, who had co-edited St Martin's Lane (d. Tim Whelan, 1938) with him. Critics compared it to Marcel Carné's Quai des Brumes (France, 1938) and there is a similar mood of haunted pessimism. John Mills plays a convict released after serving twelve years in prison for a murder he did not commit and determined on vengeance against those responsible. Visually it is an extraordinary film, which makes exciting use of the desolate landscape around the Thames estuary and ends with the wounded hero chased from Tower Bridge to the mudflats around Gravesend by the man he is supposed to have murdered. The ending is less gloomy than that of The Spider and the Fly - the embittered man is redeemed by the love of a wartime refugee who has suffered even more than he has - but the film is equally uncompromising in its treatment of human suffering and injustice.
Hamer's next film Father Brown (1954), made with backing from the American company, Columbia, and starring Alec Guinness as G. K. Chesterton's detective-priest, was well-received by critics and public alike, but he squandered his restored reputation on To Paris With Love (1955), a frivolous Technicolor comedy of the type that have given British cinema of the 1950s a bad name. Hamer makes the most of a turning point when the ageing widower played by Alec Guinness realises that he is too old to start a new life with the vivacious young French woman (Odile Versois) whose attentions he has been so flattered by; but there is precious little else to recommend the film. As if to comment on the silliness of the projects offered him by the film industry, Hamer directed an adaptation of Turgenev's A Month in the Country (1955) for the television company Rediffusion. An intimate drama in which bored, unhappy people yearn for but are never able to achieve happiness in love, it seemed to mirror Hamer's own outlook on life and he evokes superb performances from Margaret Leighton, Michael Gough, Laurence Harvey and Geoffrey Keen.
Hamer's own life seems to have taken a turn for the worse around this time. He had married the actress Joan Holt (whose brother Seth Holt worked as an editor and director at Ealing) in the mid-1930s. After the marriage broke up in the 1950s, he began a relationship with Pamela Wilcox - daughter of producer/director Herbert Wilcox - with whom he lived until six weeks before his death. Her autobiography, Between Hell and Charing Cross, offers a fascinating insight into Hamer's lifestyle - and his alcoholism, into which she was eventually drawn. Hamer's close friend, the Ealing scriptwriter Diana Morgan, thought that "probably he would have been happier to live as a homosexual" (Quoted in Drazin, p. 73).
It was not until 1958 that Hamer returned to the cinema. Despite their disagreements at Ealing, Balcon and Hamer maintained amicable relations and it was at Balcon's suggestion that he was taken on to direct an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's The Scapegoat. This was a big-budget production backed by MGM and its story of a bored Englishman tricked into assuming the life of his aristocratic French doppelganger (with Guinness in both parts), seemed ideal for Hamer. Unfortunately there were disagreements over the script between Guinness, du Maurier, Hamer and Gore Vidal, and the resulting film is a disappointment. Though it begins well, it becomes increasingly haphazard and disjointed, and Hamer seems not to know what to do with his three leading actresses: Bette Davis, Irene Worth and Pamela Brown. However, he stuck to his vow not to drink while he was directing the film, and his own cut of the film, which was jettisoned by MGM, might well have been more interesting. As Michael Balcon complained to the distributor Walter Reade:
I have to admit that the MGM editing is brilliant in some respects as a technical exercise, but they have eliminated an important sub-plot and they have also succeeded in removing certain essential overtones which were implicit in the original story and in our version of the film. (Letter, 13 August 1959, in Robert Hamer Special Collection)
Hamer's frustration at the mangling of a film which would have restored his reputation seems to have destroyed any desire he had to reform his life. On his next and last film, School for Scoundrels (1960), drink got the better of him and he was replaced by Cyril Frankel after collapsing on the set. It would be unfair to attribute only the good sequences to Hamer, but it is appropriate that the first half of the film, where the hero played by Ian Carmichael is an incompetent failure at life, is much more satisfying and convincing than the second half, where, with the help of a course in 'lifemanship', he learns how to manipulate the world to his advantage. This was something Hamer himself conspicuously failed to do. He was declared bankrupt in November 1961, and although he completed and sold a script (an adaptation of C.E. Vulliamy's novel Don Among the Dead Men made as A Jolly Bad Fellow by Don Chaffey in 1963) and worked for a few weeks re-writing David Niven's dialogue for 55 Days in Peking (US, d. Nicholas Ray, 1963), he was unable to overcome his addiction to alcohol and died of pneumonia on 4 December 1963 at St Thomas's Hospital in London. His contribution to British cinema is a significant one, most obviously for the wit and charm of Kind Hearts and Coronets and Father Brown, but equally for the impressive poetic realism of It Always Rains on Sunday and The Long Memory, which showed he had the emotional range, the humanity and the visual imagination to have been one of the world's great filmmakers.
Robert Hamer Special Collection held in the BFI Library
Michael Balcon, Michael Balcon Presents... A Lifetime in Films (London: Hutchinson, 1969)
Charles Barr, Ealing Studios (Devon: Cameron & Tayleur/London: David & Charles, 1977)
Mark Benney (Henry Ernest Degras), Almost a Gentleman (London: Peter Davies, 1966)
'Biography of Robert Hamer', Ealing Studios publicity statement, December 1947, on BFI Library microfiche for Robert Hamer.
Charles Drazin, The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s (London: Andre Deutsch, 1998)
Charles Drazin, 'Robert Hamer', London Magazine, June/July 1995, pp 87-100
Philip Kemp, 'The Long Shadow: Robert Hamer after Ealing', Film Comment, May-June 1995, pp. 71-78. Revised and re-printed in Ian MacKillop and Neil Sinyard (eds), British Cinema of the 1950s: A Celebration (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003)
Freda Bruce Lockhart, 'Interview with Hamer', Sight and Sound, Oct-Dec 1951, pp. 74-5
John Vincent, 'Hamer's Potted Lifemanship', Films and Filming, July 1959, p. 27
Pamela Wilcox, Between Hell and Charing Cross (London: Allen & Unwin, 1977)
Robert Murphy, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors