Powell before Pressburger: The Phantom Light (1935)

“I’m a sucker for lighthouses. The lonelier and more inaccessible the better. And I love comedy thrillers. I said ‘Yes’ to this one right away and never regretted it. I enjoyed every minute. The less said about the plot, the better.” (Michael Powell)1

“Lummy, what a night!” (Gordon Harker as Sam Higgins, the Lighthouse Keeper, reflecting on his new job)


It is sometimes forgotten that, prior to teaming up for the first time with Emeric Pressburger on The Spy in Black (1938), a partnership that was to develop into the most creative and dynamic director/producer collaboration in the history of the British cinema, Michael Powell had already directed 24 films. Admittedly, they were generally modest, low budget affairs, but they proved a valuable training ground for a fledgling director whose talent was clearly discernible even amidst the limits of the material.

Of these early films, four were made for Michael Balcon’s Gaumont British Picture Corporation, the last and best of these being The Phantom Light (1935), a ghost story-cum-comedy thriller adapted from the play The Haunted Light by Evadne Price and Joan Roy Byford. It stood out as a cut above the standard British B-movies of that era. Variety described it as “a very strong melodrama, atmospheric to a marked degree.” Even Graham Greene, that most notorious denigrator of British movies of the time, was positive. Reviewing it for the Spectator he called it a “an exciting simple story of wreckers on the Welsh coast”; praised “some lovely use of Welsh scenery”; and only lamented the under-use of one of his favourite actors, Donald Calthrop in a relatively small role as the Harbour Master, whose main task is to tell the new lighthouse keeper that the North Stack Lighthouse, of which he is now in charge, is haunted.2

All in a Night’s Work

A lighthouse keeper with “twenty-five years’ service come Michaelmas”, Sam Higgins (Gordon Harker) arrives in a small Welsh village to take up his new post. He is at first unfazed by village gossip about the mysterious fate of previous keepers or the talk of a “phantom light” that has appeared on the cliffs and lured ships to their doom. On arriving at the lighthouse, however, he is taken aback by the distraught state of the senior assistant keeper, Claff Owen (Herbert Lomas), and by Claff’s traumatized nephew, Tom Evans (Reginald Tate), who seems to have lost his mind over what he has seen. Evans is adjudged by Dr Carey (Milton Rosmer), who has accompanied Sam to the lighthouse, as being too ill to move, although still sufficiently dangerous to warrant being tied to his bunk. As if that is not enough to occupy him, Sam has then to contend with the sudden appearance alongside the lighthouse of a boat containing two people he had expressly told not to follow him: an investigative journalist, Jim Pearce (Ian Hunter), and an amateur spiritualist, Alice Bright (Binnie Hale), who are both purportedly investigating the stories of hauntings. In fact, Pearce turns out to be a Naval officer on the trail of a gang of wreckers who are planning to sink an approaching ship, the Mary Fern, captained by Pearce’s brother, in order to claim the insurance; and Alice will at first claim to be an actress and then an insurance investigator but who is most plausibly seen as a decorative red herring. Unbeknown to them all, conspirators have infiltrated the lighthouse; there is still much skullduggery to contend with as well as rescuing the ship from disaster.

Preparation and casting

As he recalled in the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in Movies, although he did not think much of the film’s plot, Powell enjoyed the actual filming very much. He insisted, by way of preparation, on visiting all the most inaccessible lighthouses he could. He also visited the premises of the manufacturers of the lenses for the lights. He was delighted to have Gordon Harker in the leading role, for Harker was popular with audiences through his appearances in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent movies, such as The Ring (1927) and Champagne (1928) and his splendid character performance in an early British success of the sound era, Rome Express (1932), a film Powell greatly admired. He was less happy with the casting of Ian Hunter as Pearce, a dependable player in numerous British films but who is probably best remembered by cinemagoers as King Richard the Lionheart opposite Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood in the Warner Brothers swashbuckler classic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Powell would have preferred Roger Livesey. He had seen him on stage at the Old Vic and been entranced by what he called this “golden-haired Viking” and tested him for the role. However, on viewing the test, Michael Balcon, who, in Powell’s view, was “not an exciting leader”, disliked Livesey’s husky voice, his hawk-like profile, and his upswinging hair, and vetoed the suggestion. “This was my first experience of being overridden by the front office,” wrote Powell, “and I didn’t like it.”3 Later, of course, when he had the power to do so, he was to star Livesey unforgettably in two of the greatest of Powell and Pressburger’s films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945).

The character of the comedy

Powell thought of The Phantom Light as a comedy-thriller, but the comedy arises mainly out of wry observations of behaviour rather than from suspenseful situations. He has fun with the opening scenes of the film, as Harker’s Sam Higgins alights at Tan-y-Bwlch station and seems like a stranger in a foreign land, unable to understand the language or the people. Even his friendly greeting to a local villager, “Nice evening”, receives the less optimistic response, “Maybe”; and almost every person he encounters seems to go under the name of Owen. “Owen, Owen,” he muses. “Anybody paying?” He is alone (understandably perhaps) in finding that quip funny. “Nice place, Wales,” he says, as if trying to convince himself. The visual jokes are relatively subdued. The landlady of the local pub, the Bottle and Jug, makes no attempt to be a glamour queen and even smokes a pipe; when menaced by a raving Tom Evans, Sam’s strategy for keeping him at a bay consists of hopefully waving a stick at him and a bottle of sleeping pills; and when Alice needs to change into some dry clothes, she accepts Sam’s disgruntled offer of his best pair of trousers to wear but, finding them too big, proceeds to cut them in half with a pair of scissors. Most of the humour comes from Sam’s reactions to events. When he arrives at the lighthouse and his first sight is that of Claff at his most deranged, he cannot help exclaiming, “Cor blimey, King Kong!” When Alice (who prefaces each succeeding lie about her profession with the line “I’m going to tell you the truth”) tells Sam that she is an actress in hiding from the police, Sam’s cheeky response is to take her at face value: “Was your acting as bad as all that?” But as she elaborates ever more outrageously on her sob story, Sam retorts: “What was the show you were in? East Lynne?” Today’s viewers might not immediately pick up that reference to Mrs Henry Wood’s phenomenally successful sentimental blockbuster of the Victorian era, which gave rise to the immortal phrase “Dead!… and never called me mother!” (which is not from the novel itself, incidentally, but taken from T. A. Palmer’s 1874 stage adaptation). Audiences of the time, however, certainly would have recognized it (the play was still a regular in the theatrical repertory and had been filmed twice in the silent era); and would probably have enjoyed Sam’s ironic way of implying that he did not believe one word of what Alice had said. Harker’s expert timing and delivery at times reminded me of the style of the diminutive comedian Arthur Askey. Was Harker an influence? Several critics have noticed some similarities between this film and Askey’s later feature, also a comedy thriller set on a lighthouse, Back Room Boy (1942).

The character of the lighthouse

Nevertheless, the thing that fired Powell’s imagination most was not the comedy or the characters but the lighthouse itself, and the possibilities it offered for atmosphere and tension. A panning shot across a wall reveals the lighthouse’s portentous motto, which is the opening of Psalm 127: “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that built it.” Behind the credits we see a hand gripping the top of some steps and a shadowy figure emerging, almost like Nosferatu out of his lair, and then walking like a somnambulist before disappearing up the lighthouse steps. An uneasy spirit walks abroad. The lighthouse appears to have a life of its own. A fire breaks out unaccountably; doors that were closed are now mystifyingly open; and sounds of footsteps and screams seem eerily amplified. The waves crash ceaselessly outside as a constant reminder of the difficulty of escape. Powell’s direction exploits to the full the dramatic potential of the lighthouse interiors, where at various times, a cabin can offer safety or entrapment; winding steps as shot from above can gather a vertiginous sense of impending danger; and shadowy spaces can provide momentary safety or sinister concealment. Herbert Lomas’s intense performance as the disturbed and frightened Claff helps sustain the anxious mood, as does Roy Kellino’s black and white photography, which has the quality of a 1930s horror film and met with the director’s approval. The climax is genuinely exciting, as Powell crosscuts between a ship in serious trouble, a violent struggle on the lighthouse, and Pearce and his village helpers negotiating the treacherous waters in a small boat as they try to reach the lighthouse in time to rescue the endangered Sam and Alice from the now desperate wreckers.

Two contemporary classics for comparison

This may appear an invidious comparison but, considering The Phantom Light, I was struck by how it could seem a modest companion piece (not necessarily in terms of quality) to two acknowledged classics of that period, both of which Powell knew and where his own film comes somewhere between pastiche and homage. The first is Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934), his documentary about a small community of crafters and fishermen in the west of Ireland. Powell had encountered Flaherty in the editing rooms at Gaumont British when Flaherty was editing his film,4 and, like most people, he was enchanted by Flaherty’s flamboyant and outsized personality which enabled him to secure funding for what would seem impossible subjects for the commercial cinema. (In fact, Man of Aran was funded by the normally cautious Michael Balcon, was a success, and became Balcon’s favourite film.) “He was like an Irish bishop,” he said of Flaherty, “and he could sell the flies off the wall if you didn’t see him coming first.”5 There is something about the opening scenes of The Phantom Light that put me in mind of Flaherty: the crisp depiction of the isolated community; the wonderful collection of faces that seem authentic to the area; and the way the location is photographed which Graham Greene saluted and where one can almost feel the wind on one’s face.

The other film that comes to mind in this connection is Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). As with Flaherty, Powell encountered Hitchcock during his time at Gaumont British, when Hitchcock was working on one of his most eccentric vehicles, Waltzes from Vienna (1934), a biopic about Johann Strauss, which Powell, observing the incongruous match of director and subject, said was “like asking Picasso to design greeting cards.” When Hitchcock mentioned that his next project would be an adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, Powell was delighted (“the best thriller ever written”, he enthused), but puzzled when Hitchcock added that Madeleine Carroll would play “the girl in the film”, for there is no female role in the book. But then he thought: “There was no reason why there should not be a girl in the film.”6 One wonders whether that reasoning influenced the decision to include Binnie Hale in The Phantom Light, whose character, in terms of the narrative, is strictly surplus to requirements, but whose presence would add to the film’s box-office allure. Coincidentally, both films feature quite prominently a daring scene where the heroine is required to remove some of her wet clothing, a risqué thing to show in the cinema of the mid-1930s. There is something Hitchcockian in the film’s shifts of tone between comedy and suspense. Powell’s movie even sneaks in a Buchan-esque spy sub-plot which lasts about ten minutes, when Sam suspects that Pearce and Alice might be Communist saboteurs. In both films, the principal villain is an ostensible pillar of the community, who at the end is armed but cornered and tries unavailingly to jump clear of capture. Another connection between the two films is that both were edited by Derek Twist, who was to become one of Powell’s regular collaborators.

The Phantom Light is minor Powell perhaps, certainly when viewed across the perspective of his later achievements, but this is still one of his best films before his association with Pressburger which transformed his career. And there is something about its quirkiness of characterization, the response to setting, the oddity of situation, the turbulence of nature, that hints at things to come. Travellers finding themselves in strange surroundings and whose presence causes unease and unrest in a private and remote community will crop up from time to time in some of his most original movies, such as Edge of the World (1937), I Know Where I’m Going, Black Narcissus (1947) and Gone to Earth (1950). That might explain why he jumped at the chance of directing The Phantom Light, and why he delivered it with such precocious panache. He knew where he was going.

Neil Sinyard

This is one of five pieces on British film posted on this site as a tribute to Network. Return to the introduction here: Tribute to Network.

  1. All quotations from Michael Powell are taken from his two volumes of autobiography, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (Heinemann, 1986) and Million Dollar Movie (Heinemann, 1992). 

  2. Graham Greene, ‘St Petersburg/Paris Love Song/The Phantom Light’, The Spectator 12 July 1935, reproduced in Graham Greene (edited by John Russell Taylor), The Pleasure-dome: The Collected Film Criticism 1935-40 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972, pp. 6-7 or reproduced in Graham Greene (edited by David Parkinson), Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007 edition [originally 1993]). The Phantom Light is discussed on pp. 7 and 9 respectively. 

  3. Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (Mandarin, 1992 [originally published by Heinemann, 1986], p. 236. 

  4. Powell, pp. 236-237. 

  5. Powell, p. 237. 

  6. Powell, p. 227. 

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