Lance Comfort began to work in films between the age of 17 and 19, more or less growing up with the cinema. When he came to make 'B' films in the 1950s and 1960s, his wide-ranging expertise enabled him to deal efficiently with the constraints of tight budgets and schedules. He was astute at juggling several concurrent plot strands, his prescient anticipation of postwar disaffection, the invoking of film noir techniques to articulate the dilemma of the tormented protagonist. Comfort's reputation as a features director seemed to be made when Hatter's Castle, made by Paramount's British operation, opened at the Plaza, Piccadilly Circus, after a well-publicised charity première attended by the Duchess of Kent and luminaries such as Noel Coward. He had been in the film business for twenty years when, in 1946, he directed Margaret Lockwood in Bedelia. Comfort is not the only director who enjoyed his greatest prestige in the 1940s and drifted into providing fodder for the bottom half of the double-bill in the ensuing decades. There were six intervening films, justifying the journalist who described him in early 1943 as the Busiest British film director. Great Day, Portrait of Clare, Temptation Harbour, Bedelia, Daughter of Darkness, and Silent Dust were his six melodramas. He was an unpretentious craftsman who was also at best an artist, and in exploring his career trajectory, the viewer is rewarded by the spectacle of one who responded resiliently to the challenges of a volatile industry.
Brian McFarlane’s The never-ending Brief Encounter is above all a book intended
for those who have seen and never forgotten the famous 1945 film in which two
decent, middle-class people meet by chance, unexpectedly fall in love, but in
the end acknowledge the claims of others. The book grew out of an article, the
writing of which revealed that there was so much more to the after-life of the
film than the author had realised. This book examines David Lean’s film in
sufficient detail to bring its key situations vividly to life, and to give an
understanding of how it reworks Nöel Coward’s somewhat static one-act play to
profound effect. It also examines the ways in which the ‘comic relief’ is made
to work towards the poignant ending. However, the main purpose of the book is to
consider the remarkable after-life the film has given rise to. The most specific
examples of this phenomenon are, of course, the appalling film remake with its
miscast stars, and the later stage versions – both bearing the original title
and attracting well-known players and positive audience and critical response –
and an opera! As well, there are films and TV series which have ‘quoted’ the
film (usually via black-and-white inserts) as commentary on the action of the
film or series. There are many other films that, without direct quotation, seem
clearly to be echoing their famous predecessor; for example, in the haunting
visual quality of a deserted railway platform.
The 1940s represent a high point in the history of British film, characterised by the works of such recognised greats as David Lean and Michael Powell. But alongside this ‘quality cinema’ there exists a body of popular productions by film-makers who have not yet been the objects of detailed scholarly attention. Four from the forties addresses this oversight, drawing attention to four directors whose career trajectories had a good deal in common and can tell us much about what British film-goers expected from the cinema in this crucial decade. Leslie Arliss, Arthur Crabtree, Bernard Knowles and Lawrence Huntington were all born at the turn of the century. All had been active in a range of film-making functions in the 1930s, and all would do their most proficient and popular work in the 1940s, thereafter prolonging their careers into the 1960s through ‘B’ movies, co-features and television. Taken together, they offer a commentary on the changing fortunes of mid-century British cinema.
Lance Comfort has been shamefully neglected in the standard histories of British cinema, which have tended to be dominated by the work of major figures to an extent which obscures beguiling work done in less obviously prestigious areas of the field. His work exhibits strengths in categories that have been habitually undervalued in the discourse on British cinema: melodrama, genre film-making and the 'B' film have only very recently been given overdue attention. Actually, the word 'reappraisal' is a misnomer since Comfort has never had serious appraisal, even when he was the 'busiest film director' in Britain in the early 1940s. The rehabilitation of his critical reputation may depend on further work in melodrama and on an openness to the possibility of finding rewards in the too-often dismissed category of the 'B' film.
By the end of the 1940s, Lance Comfort had established a solid record of achievement in 'A' features, primarily in the melodramatic mode. Towards the end of the 1940s and the early 1950s, the dominant figures in the British cinema's corner of the field of cultural production were those whose output could be seen as having literary or social realist affiliations. This was the period of the ascendancy of Carol Reed, David Lean and Anthony Asquith, all of whom enjoyed critically privileged positions in British cinema. In a field dominated by the likes of those, a number of directors who had made some mark in the 1940s were to find difficulties in conducting careers at the same level in the succeeding decades. Among those who, like Comfort, had made their names and their most attractive films in the melodramatic mode were Leslie Arliss, Bernard Knowles, Arthur Crabtree and Lawrence Huntington.
The hierarchy in 'B' film-making is partly explained in terms of studios and companies, partly in terms of a distinction made between 'second features' and 'co-features', on the basis of cost, concept, length and billing. Most British 'B' films did not look like even modest 'A's, though a couple of Lance Comfort's do fall within this description. It was more common, drawing again on Picturegoer, to find much more characteristic British double-bills advertised. The most unusual of Comfort's co-features is Bang! You're Dead, the title of which is taken from a record played constantly by a simple-minded boy Willy on a gramophone. He has salvaged from a former wartime US army base in Southern England. One of the recurring characteristics of Comfort's later films is his use of the popular music of the day, because he felt it helped to make co-features more acceptable to wider audiences.
Lance Comfort might have established himself more firmly in the field of British cinema production, if he had followed up his success with Hatter's Castle by several more films in a similar vein. There were six intervening films that include Those Kids from Town, Squadron Leader X, Old Mother Riley Detective, When We Are Married, Escape to Danger and Hotel Reserve. 'One of the best spy melodramas yet made.' This was the verdict of Lionel Collier on the first of Comfort's wartime thrillers, Squadron Leader X, made at Denham for RKO-Radio, from a story by Emeric Pressburger. Comfort had worked, at British National, as assistant director and/or technical superviser to John Baxter on three of the series: Old Mother Riley in Society, Old Mother Riley in Business and Old Mother Riley's Ghosts.
Lance Comfort had been in the film business for twenty years when, in 1946, he directed Margaret Lockwood in Bedelia. The dominant positions, in terms of either economic or symbolic capital, in the field of cultural production, as it obtained in British cinema in the 1940s, just managed to elude Comfort. During the war, Comfort ventured into historical drama, regional comedy and spy thrillers, but did not again attempt full blooded melodrama during the period of Gainsborough's commercial ascendancy. Comfort's melodramas, including Temptation Harbour, Daughter of Darkness, Silent Dust and Portrait of Clare, were all perhaps too sombre for popular taste. The field of cultural production is not of course governed purely by critical or audience reception, and in the case of cinema the conditions of film production, distribution and exhibition all play their influential roles.
Lance Comfort's reputation as a feature's director seemed to be made when Hatter's Castle, made by Paramount's British operation, opened at the Plaza, Piccadilly Circus, after a well-publicised charity première attended by the Duchess of Kent and luminaries like Noel Coward. The first name to appear on the screen after the Paramount logo and the film's title, and in appropriately Gothic script, is that of A. J. Cronin, author of the novel on which the film is based. The film is a passionate melodrama, polarising tyrant and victims. While the film was in production, there was a steady stream of press releases stressing that Hatter's Castle was to be an important production. As for Comfort himself, his reputation as a feature director should have been made by the film's general success with critics and public alike.