Sunday, April 11, 2010

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Great Britain's Ealing Studios, best known for their pre- and post-war working class comedies, occasionally went off the reservation to more daring subject matter. One of the most successful examples was It Always Rains on Sunday, from 1947, adapted from a novel by Arthur La Bern (another of his novels would later be adapted as Hitchcock's Frenzy). It was helmed by one of Ealing's up-and-coming directors of the time, Robert Hamer, whose follow-up effort was the blacker-than-black comedy widely recognized as the studio's greatest triumph, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Hamer was also working with another prominent craftsmen on the climb, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. A recent theatrical re-release in America by Rialto Pictures has brought new attention to It Always Rains on Sunday, and hopefully a US DVD release will eventually follow to further increase its accessibility.

On a dreary weekend in London's East End, the fates of two families and other characters are intertwined by passion, ambition, and ultimately by crime. An obviously desperate housewife (Googie Withers), Rose Sandigate, attends to her dull husband George (Edward Chapman) while doing domestic battle her resentful stepdaughters, Vi (Susan Shaw) and Doris (Patricia Plunkett). Vi is stepping out with a married man, musician and store owner Morrie Hyams (Sydney Tafler), while Morrie's well-connected gangster brother Lou (John Slater) takes an interest in the more innocent Doris. Meanwhile, the police are after escaped convict Tommy Swann (John McCallum), who's also Rose's former lover (Withers and McCallum were husband and wife off-screen). The bogies are also tracking a group of small-time crooks trying to fence some unusual merchandise: over a hundred pairs of roller skates. As Tommy gets Rose to hide him in the backyard tool shed/bomb shelter, the real and potential affairs of her stepdaughters are coming to a head, while the crooks are running out of patience and options...

The modern critical response, sampled here at Rialto's homepage, understandably describes the overlapping storylines as prefiguring Robert Altman. Each of the plotlines has its share of strongly realized scenes, both visually and dramatically. The strongest of them, and certainly the most "noir" part of the story, is the bleak position facing Rose Sandigate. Frustrated with her relatively safe but unfulfilling situation, she takes out her anger on her potentially wayward stepdaughters, until the return of her lost love Tommy (her longing for him having been economically established via flashback) proves to be frightening and enticing at the same time. She scrambles to keep him safe from the law, but is her own circumstance anything but a dead end in its own way? Why fight to preserve that? This classic noir dilemma, brilliantly portrayed by Withers, forms the heart of the film.

The other characters and narrative arcs are not quite as fully realized, although the atmosphere is wonderfully rich in all parts of the story. The ethnically heavy East End of the time is predominantly working-class Jewish, with the movie featuring plenty of related slang and character bits. Morrie Hyams, self-identified on his record covers as "The Man With Sax Appeal," exchanges banter with his brother Lou about Morrie's wife being "meshugga" and "married to a schlemiel." After discovering Morrie's dalliance with Vi Sandigate, his wife reminds him that "I know all about you and your little shiksas." The dim-witted roller skate thieves come to life through their intense suspicion of anyone not immediately associated with their lowly station, including the comparatively big-time Lou Hyams.

Slocombe's visuals are most striking in the final chase sequence, with Tommy on the run at night, fleeing through an ominously dark trainyard. Aside from one clunky model shot, the expressionistic images are as effective as those in Carol Reed's similar man-on-the-run sequences in Odd Man Out and The Third Man, or Richard Widmark fleeing for his life in Jules Dassin's Night and the City. The narrative drive is weakened a bit by the shift in focus to Tommy in the denoument, since he hasn't been the main focus of the audience's identification. That role belongs to Rose, but she's mostly off-screen during the chase.

It Always Rains on Sunday is an excellent film, a post-war British slice of life told through a noir lens. While the narrative is not quite as tightly realized as the other top noirs of the period, it has enough memorable sequences, performances, and details to rank with the best of them.

Written by Haggai


  1. Get this out on US DVD now! & Pink String and Sealing Wax. Hamer was the only one at Ealing with the real guts to fight the puritan ethos there. David Thomson has described Kind Hearts as a sort-of noir, as well. Kind Hearts is not just a cute 'Ealing Comedy'. It is actually a v excellent, serious little film with an erotic heart.

  2. Another great British noir - gritty and realisic of the time. Googie Withers is superb!


Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley