If you only knew wartime propaganda movies from 1942’s Oscar-nominated pictures (Mrs. Miniver, The Pied Piper, In Which We Serve, among a half dozen others), you’d be right not to have imagined a film from the same year that begins with pastoral/tea-cozy/“there’s a war on, ye know” banality before descending into a sickeningly giddy action thriller that looks forward to Straw Dogs, Inglorious Basterds, and Red Dawn. Meet Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? (an adaptation, by three screenwriters, of Graham Greene short story “The Lieutenant Died Last”), Mrs. Miniver‘s homicidal twin sister, a sweet old lady from Ealing Studios who puts strychnine in your tea and rusty nails in your crumpets.
Going a step further, Cavalcanti’s nimble handling of two incongruous but adjacent pieces of movie might have been a model for the kind of thing Hitchcock made during his peak period, The Birds in particular. Exploiting an age-old nightmare possessed by all Britons (invasion and conquest from the continent), Went the Day Well? bookends its story with a then-future-tense narrator, a prideful village elder straight out of earliest Michael Powell, speaking to us from some indeterminate postwar moment. It’s this “what happened after we won” assumption (take note of its implicit, nonchalant optimism), as well as the unflinching depiction of wanton violence, that marks the film as having more in common with Andre de Toth’s None Shall Escape than any Oscar-winning show pony from Hollywood or Pinewood.
What’s impressive about Cavalcanti’s film is that, even if you know what’s coming (and the prologue has its share of winks and nudges), the second-act shift still fucks you up, and good. Cavalcanti achieves this effect by cutting the “normal life” scenes, which are surprisingly absent of red flags (or they’re wickedly subtle), with the same urgent tempo as the later scenes of violence and vengeance. Only the tone is shifted (bucolic to acidic—and it’s not an immediate shift, either, but agonizingly protracted), achieving the effect of a dagger slipped quietly between the shoulder blades. Surprisingly, the Brazillian-born Cavalcanti, best known to cinephiles for his legendary contribution to the 1945 horror portmanteau Dead of Night, deploys baroque framing and tilted camera angles only sparingly, preferring instead to ratchet up the tension, paradoxically, but ingeniously, by applying a consistent style and rhythm across a developing narrative. Lots of filmmakers could take instruction from the way Cavalcanti declines to take the conventional route, that of pressing all aspects of a given shot or scene into the service of a single piece of meaning. As few filmmakers are aware, there are few tools that are more underrated in their effectiveness than the indirect application of pressure.
By contrast, a dust-caked disaster like Mrs. Miniver (arguably Wyler’s worst best-known film) packages soft-pedaled nationalism with a mainstream-friendly lack of conviction (not to mention the kind of sprayed-on Englishness that only Yanks could love). No quaint moral rectitude for Went the Day Well?, which ironically sells Teuton-ophobic, for-King-and-country fever harder—and in its purest, uncut form—than any of the above-named official classics of the same era. It’s as if Cavalcanti bypasses the literary qualities of his film’s more tradition-minded counterparts, and applies electrodes directly to the medulla oblongata. Character choices, brave or treacherous, are made without the stopgap of showy, talky contemplation—avoiding the pandering middlebrow audiences require not simply to process a movie but to confirm their correct points of view in relation to what they’re seeing on the screen.
There simply isn’t any room for such equivocation here, and if the film can be said to present a thesis statement, it’s that reflex reveals character. Each instance of character revelation in the narrative, whether it’s ominous (those continental sevens), heroic (as when a lady of the manor house, previously depicted as stuffy and proper, reacts to the sight of children in danger), or vengeful (as when a traitor gets what’s coming to him) seems to contract decision-making to such a singular point that right and wrong choices alike are sourced to muscle memory. Nothing could speak more cogently on behalf of English virtue and chivalry than to attribute victory to DNA; it’s the apotheosis of nationalist pride, but the kind of pride where the individual relinquishes his whole self (body and spirit) to something larger than his own, private concerns.
It’s a heady psychochemical mix, not easily divisible as an artwork that offers much in the way of comfort or congratulations. (Some may say the film doesn’t get more proto-Tarantino than when two giggly adolescent girls pick off “Jerries” from a high window, but if that bit doesn’t make you a little queasy, you might need to talk to someone.) Instead, in the mode of the traditional horror film, Went the Day Well? is fully in the business of eruptions and interruptions, as when the embrace of two adorable young lovers is punctuated sonically (and foreshadowingly) by a rascally poacher’s rifle. The very picaresque nature of Bramley End is compromised when landscape is processed through the lens of covert military operations, its bends and intersections recast as points of strategic defense and advantage, so that even the cliché of the slow landscape pan is corrupted by the invader’s gaze. All of which points to the film’s great achievement in imbuing quotidian rural existence with objectless dread—never more effectively delivered than when it’s denied—and when it really lowers the boom, the audience is hardly relieved by a conventional resolution, as they are denied a return on their emotional investment. There’s almost too much reciprocity, and yet, not enough to compensate for what’s been lost, and, in the end, being a mere viewer also tastes a little like being a tourist-trespasser. And it’s not a nice taste; the folks at Bramley End make that quite clear.