DVD: Phantom Light, The (1935)

March 12, 2019 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  MPI

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  July 29, 2008

Genre:  Mystery / Suspense

Synopsis: Scheduled to take over a lighthouse on the Welsh coastline, the new keeper has to contend with spooked locals, a ghost, and two annoying outsiders.

Special Features:  (none)




In 1935, Michael Powell directed 7 films, and The Phantom Light (1935) is among the few of his early industry quotas to make it to DVD. For North Americans familiar with his more daring artistic experiments with Emeric Pressburger (such as The Red Shoes, or Black Narcissus), it’s tremendous fun to find traces of Powell’s recognizable style and fixations in these tightly budgeted, sometimes creaky genre entries.

Powell’s knack for exploiting the physical beauty of sometimes rough locales – in this case a Welsh coastal village – also seems like a deliberate effort to offset the story’s rather clichéd oddball villagers who add colour but lack much emotional depth. The film’s leading characters – an aging lighthouse keeper (Gordon Harker), a journalist (Ian Hunter) looking for a good story, and a blonde bombshell (Binnie Hale) who kind of has no idea who she is – are all outsiders either trapped in this armpit village of superstitious fools, although once a rescue is underway in the final reel, the locals become ordinary concerned citizens whose training to save a lost ship from striking the rocks pays off with striking nobility.

The story more or less has the three outsiders stuck in an isolated lighthouse, and their efforts to discern whether mounting weirdness is due to a ghost, a man gone mad, or a more practical game plan rooted in pure greed, and although based on a play (“The Haunted Light”) by Joan Roy Byford and Ralph Smart, the plot is quite utilitarian and could easily (and probably was) riffed as a more formal ghost story.

(There is a point in the film where one suspects a character has nefarious political or treasonous leanings, and the story briefly feels like a wartime propaganda thriller with potential Nazi spies scheming to wreck British arms shipments.)

What’s unique about Phantom Light is the strange light humour and dry banter between the three main characters, particularly Alice Bright and lighthouse keeper Sam Higgins. With exchanges often larded with colourful argot, it’s part vaudeville and screwball comedy, with Alice constantly making up far-fetched identities, and running around the film’s second half like a cabaret dancer, with her long gams constantly on display after chopping off the pants legs.

Powell basically had one major location – the isolated lighthouse – and the scriptwriters seemed to have realized the only way to open up the story was to add more nuances to opening scenes where the three outsiders collide and eventually converge at the lighthouse. The opening’s pacing also feels like a Powell trademark: before moving into the plot, things kind of hover so viewers get a slowly developing snapshot of a rustic locale and its ‘colourful’ inhabitants, much in the way The Spy in Black (1939) treaded in loopy buddy comedy before the two leads continued their mystery quest for a wartime spy.

For a while the aura of a haunted lighthouse works – it’s an impressive set, and a fearful location mounted on a lonely, wave-battered rock – and Roy Kellino’s cinematography provides some eerie high contrast shots, particularly the gears and refracted light from the roving light at the building’s top. The eventual revelation behind the ghost and final confrontation is fairly predictable, and gets quite goofy when Alice keeps running up and down stairs – presumably the scriptwriters’ method of keeping her character busy, while Kellino’s camera and lighting flatter her thighs.

Dramatic music is restricted to the opening and closing titles, but the sound mix contains a good array of effects to enhance the drama. The montage sequences are decent, if not crude in spots, and while the lighthouse set feels realistic, the model work for an approaching cargo ship is very weak.

With no political subtext nor grand artistic experimentation, The Phantom Light is an amusing B-movie that’s ideal for late-night viewing.

MPI’s DVD, Classic British Thrillers, features a transfer from a decent print, but the PAL to NTSC conversion is uneven, resulting in a visible speed-up of actions. Apparently using licensed Granada masters, this 3-film omnibus also includes Powell’s Red Ensign (1934), and Lawrence Huntington’s Upturned Glass (1947).



© 2008 & 2019 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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