If you are yet to enter the competition at Flickering Myth to win a copy of Ealing Studios production The Halfway House on Digital Versatile Disc, I do suggest that you hurry up and get a move on. This is a film worth seeing for three very good reasons. Pay attention ladies and gentlemen and I shall outline them for you.
Firstly The Halfway House is a fragment of history, a slice of our country’s past, and an especially engaging and vivid one too. For those of you enjoying the developments in three dimensional cinematic viewing or perhaps partial to the high definition of your colour television sets, it might be rather off putting that this is a film presented in mere black and white. I readily admit that I am not an avid viewer of black and white pictures myself.
I can assure you though that the lack of variation in colour is more than made up for by numerous other qualities. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it added to the charm of the film. In any case, this is top notch black and white, because The Halfway House has been digitally restored to a wonderful standard, so that it is, to all intents and purposes, as good as a modern day release.
This film was originally released in 1944 and judging by references to the date during the plot, filmed in 1943. It is therefore significantly influenced by the context of the ongoing Second World War in Europe. A number of the characters have lost friends, colleagues and relatives during the conflict. Others are affected in other ways.
The Halfway House is somewhat inaccurately and crudely labelled as a horror but in reality it is an interesting infusion of ghost story, fable and propaganda. The propaganda element is particularly fascinating and marks the film out as a genuine historical artefact. It is not overdone to affect the level of satisfaction for a modern audience, but certainly during the conclusion an Irishman’s change of allegiance from neutrality to supporting the Allies is noticeably underlined.
The second principal reason you should see The Halfway House is the impressive and rounded characterisation, forming part of a touching and timeless narrative. Whilst the historical background to the plot is crucial to setting it apart from modern releases, the quality and nature of the storytelling is also no longer replicated by studios today.
The first half of the film introduces a wide range of characters across Britain (showcasing unusual scope and variety of outdoor locations for Ealing Studios), each with their own problems, from terminal illness to divorce and criminality. The second half then brings all of these characters together at The Halfway House, a Welsh inn that may or may not have been destroyed by fire. The kindly and wise owners of the inn, who speak almost poetically at points, help the guests to help each other. Gradually they all gain perspective on their issues and worries by taking time out from the everyday grind. Such an intricately woven moral is still just as relevant today.
The Halfway House is superbly acted, even by modern day standards. It has a marvellous script that seems to transfer something from the original play by Denis Ogden. Primarily that something is dialogue which allows characters to breathe and grow convincingly, as they would on stage. Somehow The Halfway House is full of excellently fleshed out characters, despite the ensemble cast.
The third key reason for seeing The Halfway House is that it is tremendously amusing. Part of that humour arises inadvertently from the old fashioned and outdated formal register of the dialogue, which I have tried unsuccessfully to mirror regularly throughout this review. In certain situations the tone and accent of 1940s British speech, along with that persistent formality, is unavoidably hilarious.
However most of the comedic moments are intentional, with a mixture of fabulous and average one liners on show, alongside character humour enabled by their believability. One moment in the opening segment, in which we meet a dodgy dealing crook, is amusing due to role reversal; our criminal dismisses an employee for NOT having a criminal record and lying about it. This is also an example of one of many moments where the war has turned things upside down.
As if those three major reasons alone weren’t enough to at least have a go at the competition, there are also too many minor points of interest to mention. Director Basil Dearden has been underrated for years, only to be steadily recognised more and more recently as a groundbreaking filmmaker, with films like Victim starring Dirk Bogarde challenging taboos long before that was easy to get away with and just an arty saying. His direction here is simple for the most part, with the exception of one smartly edited action sequence which could fit into a modern film, but effective and professional. It’s remarkable enough they were making films as entertaining as this with the war raging on.
Good luck in the competition! But basically make sure you see The Halfway House when it’s released on the 20th of June. It’s an unseen and unappreciated classic of British cinema.
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Nazi Germany is a historical setting we are all familiar with. Films set within the Third Reich often have similarities; good natured people trying to help persecuted Jewish neighbours, informers, political intimidation, concentration camps and the striking red background of the swastika. Equally there are areas often overlooked. The boxing rings for example.
Max Schmeling is a German film directed by Uwe Boll which tells the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest boxers. He became world champion in the early 1930s, getting his big break by beating the title holder by default after an illegal “low blow” from his opponent. The film begins by following Max as a paratrooper for the German army in Crete, where everyone seems to know his name. During a conversation with a British prisoner he recalls how his fame started, flashing back to his regret at being denied the world championship outright. The rest of his career became a struggle to prove he deserved that title.
Schmeling wanted to prove himself outside of Germany as well as within it. He wanted to be the best in the world. He was already a national hero but he wanted to win other countries over with his ability. He frequently flew to America for huge matches at iconic venues such as Madison Square Garden. He was beginning to win admiration around the globe until his task became a lot harder with the rise of the Nazi party. As Germany’s image was soured so was Schmeling’s. One of the interesting themes in this film is that Schmeling saw himself as a boxer first and a German second. And that Nazism would simply pass as though it were an adolescent phase.
Hitler wanted Schmeling to be a symbol of the Aryan race and Germany’s might. As Schmeling sought to arrange fights with the formidable black American boxer Joe Louis, an opponent with an unbeaten record and extraordinary number of KOs that would enhance his boxing credentials should he somehow beat him, the Nazis tried to portray the clash as a battle between races and ideologies. Schmeling was naive in one sense but extremely brave in another, to carry on regardless of this manipulation and insist it was just a boxing match. Through his honour he simultaneously became a political pawn by refusing to recognise the wider significance, and rose above the Nazis by continuing with his dream.
So this film is an epic historical drama, encompassing wide areas of German life before and after the Nazis took power. We see both the glitz of the Weimar era and the race riots of Kristallnacht on the streets of Berlin, when Jewish shops and residents were viciously attacked. The period detail, particularly the costumes, and the variety of locations, are impressive. It is also a story of the rise of a sporting great, with Rocky style montages as Schmeling trains for his big fights and moments of tactical deliberation. And there is a love story, when Schmeling meets his soul mate in actress Anny Ondra and manages to marry her.
The love story gives this film something extra. There are, as I said, a lot of stories set in Nazi Germany, often with romances, sometimes with sporting heroes trying to avoid the control of the regime. But this romance is particularly convincing. Henry Maske gives an Arnie-esque performance, as a simple man falling for a beautiful woman. And Susanne Wuest is believable as first a teasing woman suspicious of a brute pursuing her affections and finally an actress frightened by what the Nazis are doing to her profession.
A short but enlightening “Making of” feature on the DVD reveals the reason for the authenticity of this relationship on screen; Maske is not an actor but a boxer. Therefore, as Wuest puts it in an interview, we have a boxer playing a boxer and an actress playing an actress. Director Boll was impressed with Maske’s performance and put it down to his ability to effectively play himself, identifying with Schmeling to inhabit the character.
Overall this might not be the most original film experience but it is immensely enjoyable. All of its various elements are superbly executed, from the production standards to the acting, from the music to the exciting and raw boxing matches themselves. This feels like an incredibly real snapshot of history and it’s a story that deserves to be well told about a remarkable man.
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