The output of Ealing Studios tended to be dominated by the house style imposed by its head, Michael Balcon. Occasionally, one or two of its directors broke away from Balcon’s ethos to produce work with a more personal, individual quality. This is certainly true of Robert Hamer, a tragic figure in the history of British cinema whose career ended early due to alcoholism, but who left a small, deeply impressive body of work behind him.
Hamer was born on 31 March 1911 in Kidderminster, son of the actor Gerald Hamer. He was sent down from Cambridge, but subsequently went into the film industry as an assistant editor with Gaumont-British in 1934. From there he moved to Korda’s London Films and then on to Mayflower, the company formed by German producer Erich Pommer and British actor Charles Laughton, where he edited Jamaica Inn (1939), Alfred Hitchcock’s last British picture before departing for Hollywood. After a brief stint with the GPO Film Unit, he was recruited by Ealing where he was employed initially as an editor and then as an associate producer. He made his debut as a director with the ‘Haunted Mirror’ section for the portmanteau horror film Dead of Night (1945). It is one of the most disturbing stories in the film, taking a well-worn theme and investing it with a sense of the danger lying underneath the surface of bourgeois life. His first feature, Pink String and Sealing Wax (1946), again featured Googie Withers as the barmaid trying to lead poor Gordon Jackson astray. The film manages a similar atmosphere to ‘The Haunted Mirror’, portraying a claustrophobic world of Victorian conformity almost undone by unbridled desire.
Set in London’s working-class East End and centring on the story of a bored wife who gives shelter to her former lover (now an escaped convict), It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) might be expected to be a standard piece of Ealing social realism, but Hamer takes it in a different direction. With Googie Withers again in the lead, the film is visually striking with more attention paid to creating a gloomy mood than in naturalistic observation. It scored a considerable commercial and critical success. Hamer’s undisputed masterpiece, voted sixth in a BFI poll of the best British films, is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). With its witty, literate script and suitably disdainful performance from Dennis Price as Louis, the poor relation of the grand D’Ascoyne family who murders his way towards the family inheritance, the film adopts a uniquely taciturn attitude towards its dark subject matter. Alec Guinness is suitably outlandish playing all eight victims (one of them female) and the film still seems remarkably modern in both its critique of class and its liberated attitude towards sex. After a number of possible projects had been rejected by Balcon, he made The Spider and the Fly (1950) back at the revamped Mayflower. The pessimistic undercurrent in Hamer’s work is most obvious here, with its story of a three-sided relationship (often a feature of his films) set against the backdrop of France just before the outbreak of the First World War. He returned to Ealing for one final film, the disappointingly stagey comedy His Excellency (1951) which, as with his previous film, stars Eric Portman. Unable to gain Balcon’s approval for any further projects, he made The Long Memory (1952) for producer Hugh Stewart. John Mills is slightly unlikely as the ex-convict seeking revenge after serving time for a crime he didn’t commit, but Hamer invests the film with his now familiar fatalism and makes striking use of the setting on a barge and of the dreary mudflats at Gravesend for the final chase. Hamer’s melancholy is even apparent in the understated Father Brown (1954), adapted from GK Chesterton’s short stories. Alec Guinness is the priest turned detective, but the film is as concerned with the moral salvation of his arch-enemy, played sympathetically by Peter Finch, as it is in Chesterton’s hero.
Struggling to find suitable film projects in the mid-1950s – To Paris with Love (1955) is an insubstantial comedy again with Alec Guinness – he turned instead to television making A Month in the Country (1955), a touching adaptation of Turgenev for the independent company Rediffusion. The last cinema film he completed was The Scapegoat (1958), an intermittently fascinating adaptation from Daphne du Maurier with Guinness this time playing a holidaymaker tricked into taking on another’s man’s identity. The film’s potential was certainly hampered by post-production cutting by its American backers, as well as by disputes Hamer had with the author and his star. The break-up of his second marriage and his own confused sexuality may have contributed to his descent into chronic alcoholism; he had to be replaced while shooting School for Scoundrels (1959). There is still much to admire in the film’s comic take on the cruelties of the British class system and the performances by Ian Carmichael, Alastair Sim and Terry-Thomas are perfectly judged. He didn’t direct again, although he completed a couple of assignments as a scriptwriter before succumbing to his addiction. He died on 4 December 1963 at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. It was a tragic end to a career that should have delivered so much more. Nonetheless, the small group of films he directed indicates a film-maker of real substance, typified by his visual panache as well as by a mordantly humorous view of British manners and methods. Even without knowing his life story, there is a detectable strain of melancholy in his work which invests even his comedies with an underlying depth of emotion and pathos.
British Film Directors: A Critical Guide – Robert Shail
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