Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well?

Among the hundred-some quotable lines of Casablanca, Rick Blaine famously tells the Nazi Strasser: “there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.” The same held true for all of England, including the relatively peaceful countryside. In such an unlikely setting, the tight little country village of Bramley End defends king and country from the first wave of the German invasion in Alberto Cavalcanti’s unabashedly patriotic wartime drama, Went the Day Well? (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

The National Socialists were never able to muster the resources for their grimly anticipated invasion of Britain proper. However, according the Our Town-style narrator’s prologue, the “Jerries” did indeed launch a desperate operation, right here in Bramley End (though he assures us right from the start, they did not get far). Disguised as British soldiers on maneuvers, German paratroopers are to set up radio jammers and hold their advance position at all costs. Ominously, they also have a high placed collaborator, Oliver Wilsford, the local squire and civil defense coordinator.

Initially, the good citizens of Bramley End open their arms and their homes to the troops. Eventually though, the Jerries’ cover is blown, but Wilsford tries to minimize the villagers’ resistance through disinformation and self-defeating advice. Right, good luck with that. As the stirring lyrics clearly state: “Britons never never never will be slaves.”

Helmed by a Brazilian of Italian heritage (billed simply as Cavalcanti) and produced by the Ealing Studio celebrated for its wry comedies, Day begins much in the spirit of a classic Alec Guinness charmer, but evolves into Red Dawn. Paralleling the climax of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, it features a host of upright but eccentric Brits, rising up as one against foreign enemy. Land-Girls, spinsters, gossips, and poachers display the British national character at its finest: a stiff upper lip and a steady aim.

Based ever so loosely on a Graham Greene short story, Day empties both propaganda barrels on Wilsford, the Oswald Mosley fifth columnist subverting national security for unsavory ideological reasons. It is impossible to imagine a film like this being produced today on either side of the pond. Yet, Day’s earnest faith in British exceptionalism is both refreshing and nostalgic.

Indeed, Bramley End appears to be an agreeable spot, well worth fighting for. The locals feel real as well, particularly Elizabeth Allan and Thora Hird as Peggy Pryde and Ivy Dawking, two Women’s Land Army members turned legitimate war-fighters, largely stealing the film in the process. Conversely, Leslie Banks exudes an appropriately prissy, clammy vibe as the treasonous squire. It is also quite intriguing to watch David Farrar, probably best known as the tortured bomb disposal expert in Powell & Pressburger’s The Small Back Room, bringing the same dark-hued intensity as a Jerry: Lt. Jung, a.k.a. Lt. Maxwell.

Simultaneously charming and biting (and at times surprisingly violent for 1942), Day is a jolly good war yarn. It is also rather unfortunately timely, released while both America and Britain still face external and internal national security threats. At least all’s well that ends well for Bramley End, a point Day reaches in quite satisfying style. Warmly recommended, Day (in a freshly restored 35m print) opens this Friday (5/20) at New York’s Film Forum.