Is the battle for the recognition of the pre-Grindhouse “quota quickies” and B-cinema over? One would think so considering the posthumous (and richly deserved) attention paid by critics, film-makers and archivists to the works of directors such as Joseph H Lewis, Edgar G Ulmer, Jacques Tourneur, Samuel Fuller and the subsequent efforts from the Corman school. There is a long tradition of appreciation at this point, stretching at least from the original Cahiers groups to the documentary love-letters of Martin Scorsese. And yet, and yet- 2015’s Trumbo features a scene set in a reconstruction of the King Brothers’ (B-Movie production specialists) office, a set adorned with a mix-match of posters for double-billers and low-budget pictures ranging from famous works such as Gun Crazy and The Leopard Man to almost totally forgotten works. The implication given in this sequence, and backed up by the evidence of following scenes, where the Kings attempt to limit and control Dalton’s expression and experimentation? That we are in the presence of schlock-meisters who care little about their cinema and inhabit a space in which great works of cinematic art such as the aforementioned titles (and they are genuine treasures of the American cinema) exist on the same level as the most forgettable of Noir and Horror efforts and for whom the great Dalton Trumbo is, really, far too great. No matter that Gun Crazy is a far better film than the big-budget Trumbo-penned Exodus, and better than Spartacus too. It is a bizarre form of amnesia that can summon forth the memory of Trumbo and the rest of the Hollywood blacklist and yet completely forget decades of critical and popular rehabilitation of the cinema once dismissed as easily and unthinkingly as this film again manages, and one hopes it is not an attitude that is again becoming widespread.
The Phantom Light is more proof, if it is indeed needed, of the poetry that can be made from even the creakiest of scripts. This is a British example of the quota quickie/B-Movie form, and the British equivalent is certainly much less thought of than the American; I lack the experience with the form to suggest whether this is completely fair, but I at least know with Michael Powell that it isn’t.
The Phantom Light works best in the moments of grace and digression before, between and during the unfolding of its tired plot machinations, in the stretches where Powell seems to hit upon a feeling somewhere between M.R. James, Jules Verne and James Whale. There’s little doubt here that we are seeing the groundwork being laid for the certain (and to me most appealing) strain in Powell’s cinema that consists of an effort to find an alternative view of Britain that incorporates popular folklore, fairytale, mental instability or eccentricity far from the cliché of the stiff-upper-lip, Pagan portent, romance, Jamesian antiquity and the encroaching darkness of the madness of the 20th century that flowered most fully, perhaps, in A Canterbury Tale.
Thus, as the film begins, we step off the train into to a Vigoian cloud of steam surrounding a remote Welsh village, meet an old woman who appears to be a classic childhood witch in a black pointed hat, and spy a beautiful young female who trails the Big Smoke behind her. From there we are plunged into a lighthouse ghost story flavoured by local characters seemingly on day release from Milk Wood, the screech of seagulls, the taste of sea salt and a monochrome rich with inky bible-blacks. Powell’s eye for an image, and his camera movements influenced by James Whale, keep the film securely away from the staider end of British cinema even when the film eventually, for the always-arguable reason of narrative, rejoins with a more everyday thriller reality; a certain gothicness is retained, a certain timelessness that even begins to point towards the imagery of the universal subconscious adored by the surrealists (the haunted lighthouse of dream and nightmare, surrounded by the black abyss and dwarfing it’s sickly, lonely human inhabitants), and there are impressive bursts of Eisenstein-influenced montage as a boat is threatened by the titular phantom light and the rockier end of the coast.
So if this is no masterpiece then at least remember that it has it uses; for sometimes we need a reminder that poetry can reside and flourish in the margins.