Homage to the Uncanny

Dead of Night (1945), a masterpiece of horror

From left: Naunton Wayne, Peggy Bryan, and Basil Radford in <em>Dead of Night</em>, 1945
From left: Naunton Wayne, Peggy Bryan, and Basil Radford in Dead of Night, 1945

Dead of Night (1945), an anthology movie with segments directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer, is one of the glories of British black-and-white filmmaking. The movie includes déjà vu, premonitions, a historical time slip, a sinister mirror, and a ventriloquist’s dummy with a voice of his own. Next to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Dead of Night may be the greatest cinematic tribute to the uncanny, a category Freud analyzed at length in his 1919 essay Das Unheimliche: “The uncanny,” he wrote, “is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.”

The five episodes in Dead of Night are linked by the venerable storytelling device Bocaccio used in The Decameron: as in a parlor game, everyone in an assembled group agrees to tell a scary story. The film begins when architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), summoned for a possible commission, arrives at a vast country mansion, where a tea party seems to be in progress—and immediately feels he has been there before, has met the owner and his guests, and can anticipate what will happen next.

The set-up: The party consists of seemingly normal, law-abiding citizens, yet most of them have endured a personal experience that defies reasonable explanation. When Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), a determinedly rational psychiatrist with a Middle European accent, tries to disabuse the group of their superstitions, the other guests take turns telling their stories in a good-natured effort to refute him.

The first episode, “The Bus-Conductor” (directed by Basil Dearden), is based on E. F. Benson’s 1905 story of the same name, and it is almost poetic in its premonitions. Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird) is a racecar driver who, while in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained in a crash, continually flirts with his nurse. In bed one evening, shortly before he is due to be released, he reads a book and listens to a crooner on the radio. Then the music abruptly stops, and the clock shows an early morning time, even though a second before, it was only nine p.m. The curtain in the open window flutters. Hugh investigates, and there below he sees a hearse, whose liveried driver (Miles Malleson) looks up and says, “Just room for one inside, sir.” The patient shudders, goes back to bed. Was it a vision or a waking dream? The clock and the radio pick up where they left off before the interruption.

Shortly after, Hugh, fully recovered, is released from the hospital. He crosses the street to a bus stop. The liveried driver in the dream now wears a bus conductor’s uniform. When the driver says, “Just room for one inside, sir,” Hugh decides not to board the bus—and it’s a good thing, too, because he sees it crash and turn over, presumably killing all onboard. Hugh goes on to marry the nurse who treated him in the hospital.

Back to the present: the youngest guest, Sally (Sally Ann Howes), begins the second episode, titled “The Christmas Party” (directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, story by Angus MacPhail), in which she attends a holiday gathering at a house where long ago a murder is said to have taken place. In flashbacks, we see Sally playing a game of hide-and-seek, slipping into a room—in another century. There an anguished little boy named Francis Kent sheds tears because his malevolent older sister Constance torments him. Sally offers what comfort she can, and when she rejoins the party, she is stunned to learn of the notorious 1860 murder case, in which Constance Kent, 16, killed her three-year-old brother, Francis.

Next comes “The Haunted Mirror” (directed by Robert Hamer, story by John Baines), in which bride-to-be Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) has given Peter, her fiancé an ornate antique mirror. But when Peter looks into it, he sees a room totally unlike his own. He begins to doubt his sanity—and Joan’s faithfulness—until, well, let’s just say that there are times when smashing a mirror brings good luck.

“The Golfer’s Story” (directed by Charles Crichton, based on “The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost” by H. G. Wells) is in the minor key: a comic anecdote featuring Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, the two of whom delightfully personified the English sportsman in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Here we see them on the links, competing for the hand of a woman whom both are wooing. The winner cheats; the loser becomes a ghost who gets his revenge.

“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” (directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, story by John Baines) is the last, longest, and most celebrated episode. Michael Redgrave plays ventriloquist Maxwell Frere, whose very name—frère means brother in French—tells us we are in the realm of the double. Sure enough, Frere’s dummy, Hugo, is a ferocious back-talker, whose patter ceases to amuse when it seems as if he really is a separate entity from the puppeteer who pulls Hugo’s strings and throws his voice. Redgrave’s superb acting conveys the intensity of horror when one finds that one’s creation has a will of its own—whether you can explain the development in psychiatric or supernatural terms. When Hugo bites Frere’s hand, the transformation of doll into monster is complete. The nearest thing to this remarkable episode is Richard Attenborough’s spooky 1978 movie Magic, with Anthony Hopkins as the puppeteer at war with his puppet. (Seeing the two movies back-to-back would make a brilliant Halloween double-bill.)

“In my end is my beginning,” T. S. Eliot writes in “East Coker,” the second of his Four Quartets, and not the least satisfying thing in Dead of Night is its illustration of Eliot’s assertion. The directors play with familiar motifs: the recurrent dream, the alarm clock that returns us to reality, life in a circular loop. At the end of Dead of Night, Craig wakes from a confusing nightmare and gets into his car to drive to his latest architectural assignment—once again, the country house of his dream, peopled with the very folk he has just dreamed about. Freud’s concepts of the “compulsion to repeat” and the “return of the repressed” may help you to understand these goings-on, but they won’t reduce the pleasure of amazement.

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David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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