This somewhat peculiar grab bag of three British films originally released by Gaumont sister studio Gainsborough Pictures is going to appeal to a lot of cinephiles simply for one of the names associated with two of the three films: Michael Powell. Powell, who with Emeric Pressburger basically reinvented the British film with a series of landmark productions culminating in his famous "composed film" triumphs like Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman, is represented here by two fairly early works, Red Ensign from 1934 and The Phantom Light from 1935. Neither of these can truly be called "thrillers" in the classic sense, especially Ensign, which can either be taken literally as a melodrama revolving around shipbuilding or, more liberally and figuratively perhaps, as a metaphor for the British film industry in crisis. Light is more ostensibly thriller-esque with a plot revolving around a supposedly haunted lighthouse, but it actually comes off as a sort of precursor to Powell's charming I Know Where I'm Going mixed with Robert Ardrey's classic play, later filmed, "Thunder Rock" (which I got the distinct impression was at least partially inspired by the Powell film, which predates it by five or so years, even if "Rock" takes the haunted lighthouse motif into a purely political realm that is missing from Powell's film). The one real thriller in this set, and a very interesting one indeed, is 1947's The Upturned Glass, starring (and co-produced by) James Mason, with direction by Lawrence Huntington.
Red Ensign, by Powell's own admission in his autobiography, was his first film where he felt his personal imprimatur coming into full flower. While the film has some pre-echoes of Powell's later war time efforts 49th Parallel and Contraband, it's a fairly dated if at times riveting story of a maverick shipbuilder, David Barr (Leslie Banks), obviously modeled after Powell himself. With the British shipbuilding industry in crisis, obviously filling in for the British filmmaking industry, Barr comes along with a radical new design that can resurrect not only the industry but British pride and prosperity themselves. Nothing like a little hubris, but Powell manages to get his point across here with little if any soapboxing, save for a couple of rabble-rousing speeches Barr gives to his unpaid workers when one of many crises threatens to shut down the construction before it's completed. There are also a couple of interesting subplots here, with a rival shipbuilder sending spies to foment labor unrest, leading to one of the finest editing moments in the film, when they realize they're not going to be paid for the work they've done. The rapid cutting between haggard faces and threateningly raised steel hammers is brilliant, matched by a long intercut crane shot as Barr comes to the rescue to quell the incipient riot. Things get a little messy and over convoluted when Barr resorts to forgery to secure funds for his project, but as is to be expected, things work out for the best in the final few minutes, with Barr not only launching his dream ship but winning the hand of the heiress whose money has funded the project, as well as reconciling with a well-meaning if curiously unaware Board Member who has unwittingly aided the competition.
While Ensign is obviously the work of a man finding his voice, there are several Powell tropes already on display here, none more obvious than the idiosyncratic genius battling great odds to achieve his dream. Now Powell's geniuses aren't always sunshine and lollipops, as anyone who's seen Narcissus or Peeping Tom will tell you, but Barr in this film is written with enough complexity that his idealism is balanced with some patently stupid decisions that help make the character nicely multifaceted. While the love interest (Carol Goodner) is fairly tame and chaste, and the struggle with the Board Member (Frank Vosper) rote and largely unconvincing, the film has the visual sweep that marks Powell's later work, with superb location shots (in Glasgow) including some technically demanding second unit work in actual shipyards. Ensign is not a great film by any means, but it's a fascinating historical curio for those interested in Powell's early career.
The Phantom Light shows Powell working in a less dogmatic style than Ensign with plenty of comedy (verging on music hall burlesque at times) playing against the scarier elements of a haunted lighthouse that keeps killings its lightkeepers. The film, as a number of Powell's do, boasts an exotic setting, this time the coast of Wales. There's a bit of British superiority at play here, if not outright jingoism, as the English are portrayed for the most part as the folks with the brains, while the Welsh are an unending assortment of eccentrics (most of them surnamed Owen, in a running gag) who couldn't find their noses on their faces without a, well, a lighthouse.
Gordon Harker stars as the new lighthouse keeper, who is quickly accosted by a seeming floozy played by Binnie Hale, who keeps insisting she needs to get to the lighthouse herself. Harker soon finds out that not only have his predecessors either died or gone insane under mysterious circumstances, there's also a "phantom light" that keeps appearing luring ships to their demise on the rocky reefs that surround the rugged Welsh coast. This sets up the bulk of the film, as Harker and various other company members end up on the lighthouse as a series of melodramatic events unfolds. It doesn't take a genius to discern that Hale's character has an ulterior motive, which, as unbelievable as it is, leads directly to the showdown which provides a nicely tense denouement.
Powell does some superb staging here, in what certainly appears to be the actual interior of a lighthouse. Working in an extremely confined area, Powell is able to stage his action with superb ingenuity, often having vertical layers of action unfold, which he captures from a variety of interesting angles. This footage might be seen as the antithesis to the open mountain cliff vistas (as obviously matted as they were) that comprise the climax of Black Narcissus. If Light shies away from its supernatural setup (as do a lot of films, to be fair), it provides some excellent thrills and chills as the real culprit is revealed in a confined space from which there is no easy escape.
The Upturned Glass is a neat little thriller that has some quasi-Hitchcockian moments, including at least one neat twist early on and one great offscreen denouement truly worthy of the master almost at the end, which place it among the best British suspense films of the late 1940s. James Mason plays brilliant neurosurgeon Michael Joyce, who just happens to freelance as a college lecturer in abnormal psychology. The film opens with him relating the story of an unusual case featuring a "perfectly sane" murderer who commited his crime in the pursuit of justice. The film then shifts into an extended flashback sequence detailing the history behind the murder. It's hard to give an adequate plot summary here without spoiling some of the neat surprises in store for the viewer, so let me just say that Joyce is involved in the flashback aside from merely relating the sequence of events in the "present."
The film becomes a cat and mouse game between a wounded lover and the woman he feels has contributed to the death of his love. The future Mrs. Mason, Pamela Kellino (who co-wrote the film), plays the antagonist here and does a superlative job with a character who is self-obsessed, vain and mercenary. (Kellino's first husband Roy is cinematographer on Light and he would go on to marry June Cleaver herself, Barbara Billingsley). Mason himself also does admirable work here in his portrayal of a conflicted and brilliant man slowing descending into darkness as he pursues a truth he may be better off not knowing.
Glass has several outstanding sequences, the best of which is alluded to above (though one recurring element will remind Hitchcock fans of Vertigo). Toward the end of the film, a murder has taken place and the body resides in the backseat of a car. An emergency ensues and another character needs to retrieve an item from that car. Director Huntington stages the moment flawlessly, with no dialogue, simply a closeup on the murderer's eyes as he slowly realizes what's about to happen as offscreen the sound of a car door opening and closing is heard. It's one of the finest non-Hitchcock moments I've seen in a British suspense film. While some of the surgery sequences may be a bit hard to take (though nothing is ever really shown), and the ending of the film seems abrupt (and may be seen as a sort of precursor to Mason's literal end in A Star is Born a few years later), The Upturned Glass is a nifty little character study wrapped around a couple of deaths that will satisfy most any mystery fan.