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The Forgotten: Phantom Philm

David Cairns


A squat black ruin lours from a massy clifftop. Ridiculously fake wind effects whoop and whoosh beneath the throbbing music as a lone jalopy rattles along a narrow path between jagged promontories. WHIP PAN! An old-fashioned stills camera topples from the heights, and lodges, unseen, upon the bonnet of the jouncing vehicle.
The main titles tell us what we already have gleaned—this is to be "a Mystery Narrative." And it's going to be fun!


The 1927 Cinematograph Films Act was designed to ensure that a specified percentage of films shown on British screens would be British productions. The industry's response was to churn out low-budget productions—soon known as "quota quickies"—purely to satisfy the demands of the act. Many of them were backed by American studios and used American talent, honouring the letter of the law but blatantly betraying its intent.
The quickies had a bad name for years, and rumours circulated of films being shown "to the usherettes" in otherwise empty theatres, but in reality there was an upside. Amongst all the dross, a few excellent pictures were made, actually seeing to gain energy from the haste of production, and excercising imagination in the face of poverty. And the quota quickies launched a new generation of directors, actors and technicians, including the great Michael Powell, whose comic thriller The Phantom Light would make a perfect double feature with Bernard Vorhaus's 1933 romp The Ghost Camera.

That stray camera has fallen into the hands of our hero, who develops the film looking for clues as to the rightful owner. What he finds is evidence of murder. When the camera and negative are stolen, He must use the other snaps, left behind by the burglar, as clues in a sort of photographic treasure hunt, in order to get to the bottom of the mystery. The pre-echoes of Antonioni's Blow-Up are intriguing, although perhaps Louis Feuillade's Erreur tragique got there first (in that one, a man sees what he thinks is his wife and another man strolling by in the background of a Gaumont comedy, and becomes homicidally jealous). The winding narrative takes in flashbacks (filmed in subjective camera), a Hitchcockian "wrong man" drama, comic relief in the music hall tradition, romance, reversals, red herrings, and a mess of zany optical transitions courtesy of a young editor named David Lean.
Bernard Vorhaus was an American screenwriter who came to England in search of directing opportunities. He found them! His work at the helm of thirteen features, most of them just over an hour long and shot in two weeks, earned him the nickname "Mad" Vorhaus, and got him head-hunted by Republic Pictures, who took him back to Hollywood and gave him B-pictures to make. Of these, The Amazing Mr. X is a stand-out, lit by the great noir cameraman John Alton as a symphony of glowing lampshades. Vorhaus, who had been shot at by Nazis while filming in the Alps, was blacklisted in the 50s for his "premature anti-fascism" (Edward Dmytryk gave his name to HUAC) and returned to Britain. His son, David Vorhaus appears to be the electronic composer whose pioneering work can be heard at the black mass scene in Dracula AD 1972 ("Dig the music, you cats!").
Already, in The Ghost Camera, his second film, Vorhaus can be seen fighting against the restraints of quota production, which tended to favour talkie theatrical adaptations confined to the sound stage for maximum controllability. Instead, this cheeky thriller races along from location to location, powered by cheek and impudence and unlikely star quality.

Henry Kendall, star of Hitchcock's atypical comedy Rich and Strange, plays our hero, John Gray, a bespectacled pedant and proto-nerd in the vein of Cary Grant's later turn in Bringing Up Baby. But whereas Hollywood cast a dreamboat and styled him as an egghead, Britain goes for authenticity, since Kendall is above all a character actor, whose beaky nose and nasal voice compliment the impression created by his owl-like round spectacles. Also on hand is a foetal John Mills, and most excitingly, Ida Lupino as a woman of intrigue. Golly!
Lupino had been put in films the year before by Allan Dwan, who'd been imported to the UK to supply Hollywood know-how. Dwan's know-how had her forcibly restyled as a blonde, and that's the look she's still suffering under here. It's ill-judged. It makes me want to dig up Dwan's body and perform some kind of revenge from beyond the grave on him, but then I remember all the good he's done and I relent. And there's still much to enjoy in the sight of the prehensile Lupino, her wonderfully bulbous head glowing under the arc lights, her cockney accent much to the fore. If she's still the ingénue from a music-hall family, rather than the Hollywood star and auteur she'd later become, the unformed Lupino is nevertheless a delight.

For decades the quota films have been despised and downgraded. Hundreds were made, but scores have been lost. When they started turning up in people's attics, Michael Powell bemoaned their survival. "I'm not sure my reputation can survive another rediscovery," he said. But these little films sometimes have an amateurish charm and roughness which raises them out of the stultifying British tradition of quality, and The Ghost Camera is midget gem of semi-vernacular cinema.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


Bernard VorhausThe ForgottenDavid LeanAllan Dwan
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