Monday, May 14, 2012

The Ghost Camera (Real Art/Twickenham, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Ghost Camera, a 1933 British production that I was inclined to think of as one of the earliest examples of Alfred Hitchcock’s influence — until I looked it up on and found it was made in 1933, two years before The 39 Steps and four years before Young and Innocent. Both its writer and its star had Hitchcock connections in their pasts, though: Harry Kendall, who played the rather prissy male lead John Gray, had played the suburban husband Fred in Hitchcock’s 1931 masterpiece Rich and Strange (when the film was a financial flop Hitchcock blamed Kendall, who was not only Gay but a bit of a queen in real life), and the film was based on a story by J. Jefferson Farjeon, one of whose plays had provided the basis for Hitchcock’s 1932 film Number Seventeen. It was a production of Twickenham Studios (the company dissolved in the late 1930’s but the studios remained in use — the first third of the Beatles’ Let It Be was shot there in 1969), a company I’d known before only as producers of four of the five Sherlock Holmes movies with Arthur Wontner as Holmes (which hadn’t particularly impressed me: they were hamstrung by stage-bound stories and low budgets and the Wontner Holmes movie Twickenham didn’t make, The Sign of Four, was his best in the role).

The Ghost Camera was based on a Farjeon story called A Mystery Narrative — when I saw that in the opening credits I thought that was simply a genre indication, but it was the actual title of the source story, reflecting how John Gray, an innocent man drawn into investigating a murder, compares his own story to those of the heroes of detective fiction. He’s also the sort of person who tries to impress people with his learning (his “erudition,” as he’d say) through never using a one-syllable word when a four- or five-syllable word will do. The script is by H. Fowler Mear and is quite witty, the sort of thing that uses the typical mystery clichés but also ridicules itself for doing so, though Gray’s comic-relief sidekick, Albert Sims (S. Victor Stanley), gets pretty oppressive after a while. (It must have been really challenging for this film’s casting director to come up with someone even queenier than Harry Kendall!) The gimmick is that Gray is driving through the countryside in a convertible when someone throws a camera away and it lands in the (otherwise empty) back seat of his car. He finds it and decides to develop the film inside — he’s got a fully equipped processing lab in his basement, which is explained by the fact that he and Sims are proprietors of a drugstore (a “chemist’s,” as they call them in England) and presumably use the lab to develop film for their customers. There are five photographic plates in the camera’s clip, and the first one Gray develops is a photo of one man stabbing another — only when he hangs the negative and print to dry, a heavy-set man breaks into the shop and steals them as well as the camera itself. Gray still has the other four plates, and three of them turn out to be scenes in the countryside — including an old ruined castle and a shot of a train — while one is a photo of a woman.

Using the pictures to trace the girl, Gray finds out she is Mary Elton (Ida Lupino, in her first film), and the camera belonged to her brother Ernest (John Mills), who took it out to the country one day to shoot some pictures for a contest and hasn’t been seen since. Ernest worked at a jewelry store and joined a plot led by some crooks to steal a valuable diamond, then thought better of it and stole the diamond back, intending to return it — but his two confederates each thought the other had made off with the gem, so they had a fight and one of them stabbed the other while Ernest shot the scene with his camera hidden. The killer disguises himself as a Scotland Yard officer and tries to retrieve the other plates and keep from being discovered, and as they travel together Gray and Mary begin to fall in love even though she realizes that the likely outcome of his investigation will be the apprehension and trial of her brother for murder, especially when they trace the locations in the photographs and find the cave where the killing took place — with the victim’s body still inside. Ernest is found and indeed arrested, and he’s put on trial before a coroner’s jury headed by an officious coroner (Felix Aylmer) who’s obviously gone into the proceeding already convinced Ernest is guilty. It’s only at the very end, when Gray is confronted by that “Scotland Yard officer” and he realizes at long last he isn’t a Scotland Yard officer, and is in fact the real killer, that it ends happily, with him and Mary paired up and kissing just at the right moment to spoil Sims’ attempt to photograph them.

The Ghost Camera is a finely honed light mystery, beautifully balanced between thriller and comedy elements in the way Hitchcock would become famous for later, and while director Bernard Vorhaus doesn’t quite have Hitchcock’s skill at suspense and pace, he keeps the action flowing and shoots much of the film from oblique angles. One wonders where he was when Twickenham was handing out the directorial assignments for all those dull Holmes movies with Wontner! This film is filled with people who became far more important later, not only in front of the camera (Lupino, Mills, Aylmer) but behind it as well: the editor was a young man on the make named David Lean. Lupino is billed first on the title card — perhaps a later addition to boost her billing to take advantage of her subsequent success in Hollywood — but only eighth in the opening credits, but it does seem to have been an “introducing” sort of credit because in terms of screen time and overall importance she truly has a leading role, and it’s fascinating not only to watch the young blonde Lupino but to hear her voice before she went to the U.S. and eradicated her British accent so successfully that on at least one occasion she was passed over for the part of a Brit because the director didn’t think she could learn to talk like one again! The Ghost Camera is quite a good movie, a surprise especially given its auspices — and one wonders why Bernard Vorhaus didn’t have more of a career as a director: this was his first film and he eventually made it to the U.S. but got stuck at Republic making things like The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine and the 1950 So Young, So Bad instead of the Hitchcock-style scripts he clearly deserved!