Secrets and lies in the East End

John McCallum and Googie Withers star in the 1947 film. John McCallum and Googie Withers star in the 1947 film. (courtesy of rialto pictures)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / January 7, 2009
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In American film noir, the characters' lives usually seem a little glamorous, no matter how desperate. You can't say that for the working class Brits in Robert Hamer's 1947 film "It Always Rains on Sunday."

All the cigarettes and trenchcoats in the world can't brighten the damp, dull, deprived existence of London's East End in the hard years after World War II. No wonder housewife Rose Sandigate is so easily convinced to help when her old lover Tommy Swann shows up after breaking out of Dartmoor prison.

Rose faces the classic choice between domestic safety and costly passion. But instead of the typical claustrophobic noir focus on her mounting desperation, the movie opens out to a panoramic and sometimes comic view of East End life over the course of one rainy Sunday.

An implacable detective pursues Swann by questioning his old acquaintances. Rose's teenage stepdaughters each face man trouble. A trio of crooks peddles a load of stolen roller skates. A musician tries to convince his wife he isn't cheating on her. A loan shark fixes a fight and donates his winnings to a youth center. Rose's dullish husband goes to a darts match at his local.

All these mundane doings figure in a complex plot mechanism that keeps returning to the shabby row house where Rose must hide Tommy from all the people coming and going. It's a combination of kitchen-sink drama and Hitchcock's "menace in the ordinary." The ending is as bleak as anything Jim Thompson ever wrote, but for a tacked-on epilogue that suggests Rose can still live happily ever after.

(One caveat: The philandering musician and the loan shark are Jewish brothers, anti-Semitic stereotypes.)

This is a mostly forgotten gem. The best-known actors here are Googie Withers as Rose and her real-life husband, John McCallum, as Tommy. Hamer went on to direct the classic "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and just a handful of others before dying young.

Perhaps the most notable career connected to this black-and-white film is that of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who went on to shoot "The Lavender Hill Mob" and the first three Indiana Jones movies. Slocombe makes something special of the climactic chase through deserted streets and across a freight yard at night, amid moving trains and puffing steam. Watching that on the big screen is by itself reason enough to see "It Always Rains on Sunday."

One other note: Boston viewers will enjoy the outbursts of a hot-tempered thug named Whitey. He's in London too.

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY Directed by: Robert Hamer

Written by: Henry Cornelius, based on a novel by

Arthur La Bern

Starring: Googie Withers,

John McCallum

At: Museum of Fine Arts

Running time: 92 minutes


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