Red Ensign


1h 9m 1934

Brief Synopsis

David Barr is the manager and chief designer of a British shipyard (when we still built ships). The shipyard is in financial trouble but Barr has a design for a new ship that will save them all. Can he get the ship built in spite of the opposition from his own bankers as well as the rival shipbuilders and their infiltrated militants.

Film Details

Also Known As
Strike!
Genre
Drama
Release Date
1934

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 9m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1

Synopsis

David Barr is the manager and chief designer of a British shipyard (when we still built ships). The shipyard is in financial trouble but Barr has a design for a new ship that will save them all. Can he get the ship built in spite of the opposition from his own bankers as well as the rival shipbuilders and their infiltrated militants.

Film Details

Also Known As
Strike!
Genre
Drama
Release Date
1934

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 9m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1

Articles

Red Ensign - Michael Powell's RED ENSIGN (1934) & THE PHANTOM LIGHT are featured in 3-Film "Classic British Thrillers"


MPI Home Video's new "Classic British Thrillers" DVD is a wonderful surprise. Three rare and worthwhile films - each of which involves at least one very famous name - are now available in decent-quality transfers.

The most notable name here is Michael Powell. Before he became famous for partnering with Emeric Pressburger to write, produce and direct some of the greatest British films of all time, including The Red Shoes (1948), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), The Life and Death of Col. Blimp (1943), and (from Powell only) Peeping Tom (1960), Powell honed his skills by directing almost two dozen "quota quickies" in the 1930s. These were low-budget features, barely over an hour long, designed to allow film companies to comply with a 1927 British law which required a certain number of homegrown British films to be released each year so as not to let American movies overwhelm British theaters (and, presumably, British culture). Though many quota quickies were awful, some were quite good, and all ended up providing on-the-job training for many new British filmmakers and actors, with Michael Powell a prominent example.

Red Ensign (1934) was the 12th of Powell's 23 quota quickies, and the first in which he felt able to insert a bit of his own personal sensibility. Powell and his co-writer, Jerome Jackson, got the idea for the film from a newspaper article about the decline of British shipbuilding. Their screenplay centers on an idealistic and patriotic shipbuilder named David Barr (Leslie Banks) who is determined to construct 20 new ships at a struggling Glasgow shipyard even without a guaranteed contract from a shipping line. (One company makes an offer, but Barr rejects it because the ships would be sold to foreign companies, not British ones). Barr wants to reinvigorate a depressed industry and supply a steady amount of jobs to the local Scottish workers. He gets the shipyard humming again, but reality intrudes, and he eventually runs out of money. As he scrambles around trying to raise more cash, hundreds of disgruntled workers start getting restless, and a riot seems very possible.

It's a small and simple story, somewhat overacted by Leslie Banks as Barr, but it has an undeniable little something special. Powell's love of all things nautical is apparent throughout, and the whole notion of mighty ships rescuing a country's economy and pride is a romantic one typical of Powell. Montage sequences of the shipbuilding are mesmerizing and lovingly filmed, with a semi-documentary feel. The faces of the working men, whose very lives depend on the renewal of the shipping yard, look and feel authentic, and they foreshadow Powell's treatment of Hebrides islanders in his lyrical 1937 feature Edge of the World, his first truly personal movie.

Red Ensign is a minor triumph of style over substance. The aforementioned sequences occur just often enough to prevent the ordinary scenes from overwhelming the picture. Somehow Powell managed to get impressive shots of very expansive exteriors which make the movie look like a bigger production than it was. Art direction credit goes to Alfred Junge, who would later serve as production designer of some of Powell and Pressburger's greatest films, including Black Narcissus (1947), for which Junge won an Oscar.

Also on hand here in a tiny role is the fine Scottish actor John Laurie, in only his second film appearance. Following Red Ensign he would play the farmer in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935), and he would appear in many more Powell films later on. (The two became good friends.)

Leading man Leslie Banks, who brings perhaps a tad too much eagerness to his role, is most fondly remembered for his portrayal of Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), directed by Ernest Schoedsack. Banks worked with Powell in two other quota quickies, and years later he had a part in Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949).

Powell first realized he had incorporated a personal stamp into a film when an actress friend told him that Red Ensign had somehow, mysteriously, moved her, despite its ordinariness. Powell later wrote in his memoir: "It was the first time that Michael Powell himself realized that there was something special about a Powell film, something going on on the screen, or behind the screen, which you couldn't quite put your finger on, something intriguing, aloof, but in the long run, memorable."

Another Powell quota quickie is also on this DVD: Phantom Light (1935). (He directed five films in between.) Set mostly in a Welsh lighthouse, it's a nifty thriller sprinkled with comedy, and again it shows Powell taking a simple suspense plot which might otherwise have been perfectly forgettable, and lifting it into something interesting by sheer force of his style. The shots of the ocean, waves, rocks, and ships are composed and cut in ways that create a convincing atmosphere despite the low budget. Much of it appears to have been shot on location. Powell also defines the various spaces in the lighthouse (rooms, corridors, ladders, landings) in an exceptionally clear way so we always know where the characters are, relative to each other. Without such a directing skill, the creation of suspense would be next to impossible. Gordon Harker's performance as the lighthouse keeper is really winning; he brings an appealing humor to his otherwise by-the-book character. Also note the use of words like "damn" and "hell" long before Clark Gable made "damn" sensational. (The Production Code didn't apply in England.)

The third picture on the disc is The Upturned Glass (1947), directed by Lawrence Huntingdon. While a bit overly methodical and occasionally slow-going at first, it maintains considerable interest in the story of a brain surgeon (James Mason) who operates on a young girl, falls in love with her married mother, and then investigates the mother's supposedly accidental death.

At the end of the story's second act we are treated to a delicious plot turn which effectively plays with our expectations of how flashbacks usually work, and the final half-hour of his tale is as mesmerizing and breathless as it is unpredictable. It's also very "adult." Without giving too much away, I can say that the movie delves into psychology and mental illness in a provocative and stimulating manner while at the same time taking us deep inside Mason's character without our even realizing it. (It's hard to explain without revealing too much - just see the movie!)

Mason is superb as always, playing another variation on the character type he did best: ambiguously villainous yet sensitive, refined and anguished. (The only other actor whose persona seems similar is Robert Ryan.) Mason starred in this film right after the great Odd Man Out (1947), and he was very involved with its making. He is credited as one of two producers (along with Sydney Box), and his wife Pamela Kellino wrote the screenplay and plays a major character. Pamela and James had been married since 1941.

The image quality of The Upturned Glass is not great, but it's not bad either. All three titles are on one side of this disc and are perfectly watchable despite some wear. Considering there are three movies here, the disc is reasonably priced by MPI. Discovering three virtually unknown British films like these is a total delight, making this my favorite classic-movie DVD release of 2008 so far.

For more information about Classic British Thrillers, visit MCI Home Video. To order Classic British Thrillers, go to TCM Shopping

by Jeremy Arnold
Red Ensign - Michael Powell's Red Ensign (1934) & The Phantom Light Are Featured In 3-Film "classic British Thrillers"

Red Ensign - Michael Powell's RED ENSIGN (1934) & THE PHANTOM LIGHT are featured in 3-Film "Classic British Thrillers"

MPI Home Video's new "Classic British Thrillers" DVD is a wonderful surprise. Three rare and worthwhile films - each of which involves at least one very famous name - are now available in decent-quality transfers. The most notable name here is Michael Powell. Before he became famous for partnering with Emeric Pressburger to write, produce and direct some of the greatest British films of all time, including The Red Shoes (1948), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), The Life and Death of Col. Blimp (1943), and (from Powell only) Peeping Tom (1960), Powell honed his skills by directing almost two dozen "quota quickies" in the 1930s. These were low-budget features, barely over an hour long, designed to allow film companies to comply with a 1927 British law which required a certain number of homegrown British films to be released each year so as not to let American movies overwhelm British theaters (and, presumably, British culture). Though many quota quickies were awful, some were quite good, and all ended up providing on-the-job training for many new British filmmakers and actors, with Michael Powell a prominent example. Red Ensign (1934) was the 12th of Powell's 23 quota quickies, and the first in which he felt able to insert a bit of his own personal sensibility. Powell and his co-writer, Jerome Jackson, got the idea for the film from a newspaper article about the decline of British shipbuilding. Their screenplay centers on an idealistic and patriotic shipbuilder named David Barr (Leslie Banks) who is determined to construct 20 new ships at a struggling Glasgow shipyard even without a guaranteed contract from a shipping line. (One company makes an offer, but Barr rejects it because the ships would be sold to foreign companies, not British ones). Barr wants to reinvigorate a depressed industry and supply a steady amount of jobs to the local Scottish workers. He gets the shipyard humming again, but reality intrudes, and he eventually runs out of money. As he scrambles around trying to raise more cash, hundreds of disgruntled workers start getting restless, and a riot seems very possible. It's a small and simple story, somewhat overacted by Leslie Banks as Barr, but it has an undeniable little something special. Powell's love of all things nautical is apparent throughout, and the whole notion of mighty ships rescuing a country's economy and pride is a romantic one typical of Powell. Montage sequences of the shipbuilding are mesmerizing and lovingly filmed, with a semi-documentary feel. The faces of the working men, whose very lives depend on the renewal of the shipping yard, look and feel authentic, and they foreshadow Powell's treatment of Hebrides islanders in his lyrical 1937 feature Edge of the World, his first truly personal movie. Red Ensign is a minor triumph of style over substance. The aforementioned sequences occur just often enough to prevent the ordinary scenes from overwhelming the picture. Somehow Powell managed to get impressive shots of very expansive exteriors which make the movie look like a bigger production than it was. Art direction credit goes to Alfred Junge, who would later serve as production designer of some of Powell and Pressburger's greatest films, including Black Narcissus (1947), for which Junge won an Oscar. Also on hand here in a tiny role is the fine Scottish actor John Laurie, in only his second film appearance. Following Red Ensign he would play the farmer in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935), and he would appear in many more Powell films later on. (The two became good friends.) Leading man Leslie Banks, who brings perhaps a tad too much eagerness to his role, is most fondly remembered for his portrayal of Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), directed by Ernest Schoedsack. Banks worked with Powell in two other quota quickies, and years later he had a part in Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949). Powell first realized he had incorporated a personal stamp into a film when an actress friend told him that Red Ensign had somehow, mysteriously, moved her, despite its ordinariness. Powell later wrote in his memoir: "It was the first time that Michael Powell himself realized that there was something special about a Powell film, something going on on the screen, or behind the screen, which you couldn't quite put your finger on, something intriguing, aloof, but in the long run, memorable." Another Powell quota quickie is also on this DVD: Phantom Light (1935). (He directed five films in between.) Set mostly in a Welsh lighthouse, it's a nifty thriller sprinkled with comedy, and again it shows Powell taking a simple suspense plot which might otherwise have been perfectly forgettable, and lifting it into something interesting by sheer force of his style. The shots of the ocean, waves, rocks, and ships are composed and cut in ways that create a convincing atmosphere despite the low budget. Much of it appears to have been shot on location. Powell also defines the various spaces in the lighthouse (rooms, corridors, ladders, landings) in an exceptionally clear way so we always know where the characters are, relative to each other. Without such a directing skill, the creation of suspense would be next to impossible. Gordon Harker's performance as the lighthouse keeper is really winning; he brings an appealing humor to his otherwise by-the-book character. Also note the use of words like "damn" and "hell" long before Clark Gable made "damn" sensational. (The Production Code didn't apply in England.) The third picture on the disc is The Upturned Glass (1947), directed by Lawrence Huntingdon. While a bit overly methodical and occasionally slow-going at first, it maintains considerable interest in the story of a brain surgeon (James Mason) who operates on a young girl, falls in love with her married mother, and then investigates the mother's supposedly accidental death. At the end of the story's second act we are treated to a delicious plot turn which effectively plays with our expectations of how flashbacks usually work, and the final half-hour of his tale is as mesmerizing and breathless as it is unpredictable. It's also very "adult." Without giving too much away, I can say that the movie delves into psychology and mental illness in a provocative and stimulating manner while at the same time taking us deep inside Mason's character without our even realizing it. (It's hard to explain without revealing too much - just see the movie!) Mason is superb as always, playing another variation on the character type he did best: ambiguously villainous yet sensitive, refined and anguished. (The only other actor whose persona seems similar is Robert Ryan.) Mason starred in this film right after the great Odd Man Out (1947), and he was very involved with its making. He is credited as one of two producers (along with Sydney Box), and his wife Pamela Kellino wrote the screenplay and plays a major character. Pamela and James had been married since 1941. The image quality of The Upturned Glass is not great, but it's not bad either. All three titles are on one side of this disc and are perfectly watchable despite some wear. Considering there are three movies here, the disc is reasonably priced by MPI. Discovering three virtually unknown British films like these is a total delight, making this my favorite classic-movie DVD release of 2008 so far. For more information about Classic British Thrillers, visit MCI Home Video. To order Classic British Thrillers, go to TCM Shopping by Jeremy Arnold

Quotes

Big aren't they ?
- David Barr
Terrifying. How are they worked?
- June MacKinnon
Bad language mostly.
- David Barr
Yours?
- June MacKinnon
No, mine hasn't the necessary horsepower.
- David Barr

Trivia