The Phantom Light
This lighthouse-set comedy thriller represents one of Michael Powell’s early films, made a couple of years before his career “proper” took off with The Edge of the World. He was making “quota-quickies” during this period, cheap-and-cheerful no-frills productions resulting from the requirement for UK American distributors and British cinema owners to screen a quota of British films. As you’d expect, Powell ensures it all looks pretty good, despite the budget constraints, while the presence of Gordon Harker in the lead role ensures it’s also pretty funny.
The set-up – Harker’s lightkeeper Sam Higgins takes over the North Stack lighthouse amid tales of hauntings and madness and sudden deaths of former keepers – is reminiscent of the kind of fare Will Hay was making at that time. However, Harker’s style, in contrast to Hay’s fearful fluster and botheration, is more deadpan cynicism. Harker starred opposite Hay in the same year’s Boys Will Be Boys, but is probably best known for his recurring role as Inspector Hornleigh (opposite whom Alistair Sim played Sergeant Bingham).
Naturally, there are no actual spooky goings on, and it’s a cover for a plot by local wreckers to sink ship the Mary Fern for insurance (the locals – unscrupulous Welsh folk, wouldn’t you know – own shares in the ship). Harker is somewhat relegated from lead status for a spell when an actual hero reveals himself – Powell wanted Roger Livesey, but Ian Hunter is cast as Pearce, the undercover naval officer intent on foiling the plot – but he makes a spirited attempt to get that light back on when events escalate.
The picture, based on a play by Evadne Price and Joan Roy Byford (itself adapted from Price’s novel), is at its weakest when Harker is playing second fiddle; it can’t really stand up to the scrutiny of being played wholly straight. Otherwise, though, this akes for a very satisfying seventy minutes you can see on YouTube. While Powell was dismissive of many of the pictures he worked on during this period, he enjoyed The Phantom Light (“I am a sucker for lighthouses. The lonelier and more inaccessible the better. And I love comedy thrillers. I said ‘yes’ to this one right away and never regretted it. I enjoyed every minute of it. The less said about the plot, the better”).
He also rated Harker (“He had one of those flat, disillusioned Cockney faces, half-fish, half-simian, with an eye like a dead mackerel… He was wonderful in silent films, but even better in talkies. He got his effects with all sorts of strange sounds, and to my delight he could hold a pause as long as any actor I had known. Close-ups were made for him, and we both took full advantage of it”). And with good reason, as his delivery is priceless (dialogue courtesy of Joseph Jefferson Farjeon and Austin Melford; Ralph Smart, later of Danger Man, adapted the play).
Early scenes find Higgins onshore in the village of Tan-Y-Bwlch, making no allowances for the local flavour (“Oy, Taffy. You speak English?” – “Cor, bless my soul. Another white man” he exclaims, on learning he’s speaking to a fellow foreigner). He shows his very particular brand of pub etiquette (asking for doubles when offered a drink and ordering singles in return). Similarly so on spying out the lie of the land: on being told the lighthouse is half a mile out to sea and round the headland he calculates “So if I’ve got a bit of skirt in the village, I can’t wave to her”.
Alice Bright: Life in a small village is very dull, Mr Harker.
Sam Higgins: Not with you there, I’ll lay a pound to a sausage.
Binnie Hale also stars, as stowaway Alice, who ends up on the lighthouse after Higgins refuses to let her come with him (against regulations, and him a keeper of twenty-five years’ service). She proceeds to cut up his clothes to make some shorts (“Now, we’ll draw a veil over my Sunday trousers”) while he mistakenly concludes that Alice and Pearce are ruddy communists (“Ever been to Russia?”) She eventually tells him she’s really a Scotland Yard detective, but such is Hale’s performance, I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to take his seriously (Higgins certainly doesn’t buy it).
Alice Bright: Mr Higgins, I’m going to tell you the truth.
Sam Higgins: What, again?
In My Life in Movies, the first volume of his autobiography, Powell tells that Hartland Point lighthouse in Devon was cast as the light (but that’s all; other lighthouses were also seen in the film and filming was, of course, mostly set bound). Graham Greene’s review, meanwhile, compared The Phantom Light to Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s seminal The Ballad of Flannan Isle, but you could probably compare anything set in a lighthouse with it, including The Goodies’ Lighthouse Keeping Loonies. A minor work for Powell, perhaps, but one effectively shining a light on the talents of Harker.