|Do you know, you've broken my glasses?
|Against Me!, "Haunting, Haunted, Haunts"|
Tonight's movie comes courtesy of Eleanor Farjeon: Joseph Jefferson, one of the younger of her equally creative brothers, wrote the original short story developed by RKO and Julius Hagen's Real Art Productions into The Ghost Camera (1933). How could I resist a title like that? I discovered that it belonged to a well-regarded quota quickie directed by Bernard Vorhaus, just over an hour long and in the public domain. I called up the least fuzzy version on YouTube and had a wonderful time.
Despite the title, The Ghost Camera is not a supernatural story but a charming light mystery, rather like the more comedic of Hitchcock's romantic thrillers or a cozy Agatha Christie. I had never before seen its star Henry Kendall, but he is a national treasure as the nebbishy chemist who comes into accidental possession of the eponymous camera and its last snap of some vague violent act between two figures, which he has just enough time to realize might be the evidence of a murder before some person unknown breaks-and-enters his darkroom and absconds with both the camera and its half-developed, spectral negative. The only potential clues remain in the other, overlooked photographs, which appear to show quite ordinary subjects like a girl standing in the doorway of a house, a train viewed from across its track, a ruined castle viewed from a moving angle, the picturesque signage of an inn with the unhelpfully generic name of the "Red Lion." Tracing each of these images, putting them into their correct narrative order like frames cut from a film, our hero will recapitulate the progress of a witness to murder—or a murderer themselves—but the tone is not so much Antonioni and Blow-Up (1966) as it's like watching a member of the Drones Club try to take up amateur detecting. Seriously, Kendall as he enters the picture is a damn near dead ringer for Richard Garnett's Gussie Fink-Nottle, down to the gawky stoop and the unfortunate spit curl; his diction is clearer, though just as lugubrious—a kind of fretful drawl, suitable to statements like "Man is an irrational animal, Sims, persisting to hope for what his reason has proven nonexistent." (He's talking to his assistant about going on vacation.) He could be early Campion if he were thinner and fairer, distractedly twiddling with his hat and pushing his glasses up his nose in sheepish speechlessness. When an attractive girl tells him with more than a hint of interest that he's funny, he responds with serious self-examination: "I don't think I've ever been considered particularly humorous. I should think I err rather on the side of solemnity—almost morbidity." As with Garnett, I suspect the actor was basically good-looking—the stills from Counsel's Opinion (1933) look like it—but he disguises it well with horn-rims, bowtie, and a wonderfully embarrassing little snort of a laugh with which he breaks up some of his more sententious observations. The highest compliment his assistant can pay him is "He's much better than he sounds."
The plot itself is speedy and straightforward enough that any further discussion risks giving the rest of it away, which would actually do the movie a disservice; nonetheless, its major interest remains its cast and its cinematography. In the role of the prime suspect, a jeweler's employee already under suspicion of diamond theft, we get John Mills in his second appearance on film, so young that he's recognizable only by his voice and nascent cheekbones and the way his hair falls down over one eye; Ida Lupino as his sister is even younger and less familiar-looking in her fourth feature outing, a blonde waif with a very British accent she never allowed near any of her American noirs. She and Kendall have a screwball chemistry, panicking into one another's arms after a threatening incident at an inn in the middle of the night and utterly failing to notice that she's in her slip and he's in his boxers and socks until the innkeeper knocks them up and they flee into opposing corners of the same blanket, winding themselves into a sort of conjoined toga. (She will fall asleep on his shoulder, apologizing for being "terribly tiring" while he reassures her with one of the great understated deliveries of our time, "On the contrary, I find it excessively stimulating.") Cinematographer Ernest Palmer is not to be confused with his American counterpart of the same name, but his work behind the camera, combined with the editing of an equally young David Lean, is gonzo. We've got whip pans, fast zooms, handheld camera, kaleidoscopic wipes between scenes and sudden drops into subjective camera like a flashback depicted strictly from the narrator's perspective or an anxious, reeling montage when an accused man enters the courtroom. When the word "murder" is uttered for the first time onscreen, it is promptly spelled out by a quick-cut succession of newspapermen—"M for mother, U for uncle, R for red"—culminating in the gasp of a telephone operator who brings the whole word together just in time for the newsreader to pick the rest of the sentence up. The trial itself is elided into dissolving shots of the courtroom artist whose sketch of the prisoner in the dock elaborates, at the announcement of the verdict, into the portrait of a convict in jail. I would love to be able to draw some formal, thematic link between the camerawork which keeps drawing attention to itself and the significance of the camera in the plot, as if reminding the audience to take all apparent objectivity with a grain of silver halide, but mostly I think it's just the film having fun with its genre, as it does when Kendall correctly predicts the adorability of Lupino from the simple reasoning that "the heroine of a mystery drama is always a ravishing creature."
I recognize that some very specific forces produced the British quota quickies that did not apply to their American B-movie counterparts, but I like them for a lot of the same reasons: character actors, invention on a shoestring, the latitude to play weirder than the prestige pictures. The Ghost Camera even has location shooting—the ruins are Corfe Castle in Dorset, standing in for the fictitious "Norman Arches, a few miles from Merefield, Surrey"—though I would call it lagniappe rather than the main attraction. That would be Mills at twenty-five, Lupino at fifteen, and Henry Kendall whom you may pry from my silly-ass fingers only if you pass me some actual Wodehouse first. Farjeon's screenwriting credits just give me further incentive to check out Michael Powell's The Phantom Light (1935). Vorhaus' resume frustratingly includes the Hollywood blacklist, but if most of his work was comparable to The Ghost Camera, he left a decent legacy regardless. If nothing else, it is the only movie I have ever seen use slide whistles to signify suspense. Admittedly I can see why that didn't catch on. This snapshot brought to you by my sharp-eyed backers at Patreon.