Wednesday Editor’s Pick: “Went the Day Well?” (1942)

by on May 24, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing thru Thurs June 2 at 1:30, 3:30, 5:30, 7:30 & 9:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
Film Forum rolls out the new restoration of Alberto Cavalcanti’s World War II curio Went the Day Well, a blackly comic and surprisingly violent work of anti-Nazi propaganda based on a short story by Graham Greene.
It’s still in the first week of a two-week run so you have plenty of time to catch the hotness. As Time Out New York Film Editor Dave Fear writes, “the chance to see this rarity is an opportunity to indulge in the sort of cinematic ecstasy that makes us obsessed with movies in the first place.”
More from Dave:

This 1942 war film initially seems like business as usual: A provincial village goes about its daily business, be it harmlessly gossiping about the vicar or poaching in the woods. Soldiers arrive, ostensibly for a training exercise; invitations are extended and cuppas served. Then it becomes apparent to both these rural denizens and us that something isn’t quite right about these lads in uniform. They’re actually undercover Nazis, prepping the U.K. for Hitler’s invasion. And once the ruse is dropped, the population’s stiff upper lips start snarling.


The smooth switch-up from typical Ealing satire to a tense WWII thriller—engineered by director Alberto Cavalcanti, a Brazilian émigré to Britain—is nothing short of a narrative coup. Just as shocking is the way England’s mountains green get stained red once the Nazis start gunning people down in cold blood (including kids). On a deeper level, this prototype for a man-on-a-mission potboiler gives you an incredible sense of the stakes during the days of bombing raids and necessary vigilance (even a country gent might be a Fifth Columnist!)—as well as the hint that, once the chips were down, average Brits could band together and show those bally Jerrys a thing or two. Home-front propaganda has rarely seemed so cutthroat or so cunning.



More NYC critics chime in upon the release. Jaime N. Christley for Slant:

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.


A.O. Scott for the Times:

An deservedly forgotten British film… Cavalcanti  handles the story with crisp, vigorous wit. Went the Day Well? contemplates some pretty grim stuff, but with equipoise, discipline and a sense of humor that embody exactly the virtues it sets out to defend. Apart from its considerable historical interest, this is a movie about how civilization survives.


Nic Rapold for The L:

Besides playing up the kills—with civilians invariably shot or stabbed in the back—Cavalcanti keeps the sense of hopeless limbo alive well beyond the villagers’ first attempts to raise the alarm. The sunny, idyllic green patch becomes a field of total war in the sense that anyone could be killed, and small shrewd victories in house, garden, and forest are routinely followed by deadly turnabouts or hair-raising disappointments. Though truthfully it’s not the most well-put-together film, some of its reticence in appeasing a fearful audience seems purposeful: of the resistance, Cavalcanti once marveled in an interview that ordinary people—or at least this gallery of small-town types—must embrace killing and risk becoming “absolutely monsters.”


Kristin M. Jones for The Wall Street Journal:

Think of Britain’s Ealing Studios and sophisticated, gently mordant comedies such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob will likely come to mind. But Alberto Cavalcanti’s recently rediscovered and rereleased World War II propaganda film Went the Day Well? is a different beast entirely. Subtly addressing themes of community and class relations while reflecting Ealing’s growing emphasis on realism, it’s also a potent thriller that’s since been compared to Sam Peckinpah’s explosively violent Straw Dogs and Wolf Rilla’s horror film Village of the Damned, and which for some viewers will summon uneasy, perhaps poignant, memories of recent real-life terrorism.


From across the pond, Tom Huddleston gives a thorough rundown of the historical background for Time Out (London):

By 1941, British backs were to the wall, as the false quiet of the phoney war gave way to the onslaught of the Blitz. All UK cinemas had been closed at the outset of WWII, but one look at Joseph Goebbels’s frighteningly effective Nazi propaganda machine was all it took to convince Churchill that a similar technique could work at home. Though born in Brazil, Alberto Cavalcanti had been working as a documentarian and occasional avant-gardist in Europe for much of the ’20s and ’30s, directing, among other things, cinematic portraits of Paris and Berlin and working with leading French formal innovator Marcel L’Herbier. He arrived in Britain in 1933 to take up a post with John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit, the branch of the Post Office tasked with raising public morale during the Depression. But with the advent of war, and with many British filmmakers shipped off to fight or co-opted into the Ministry of Information, he moved to Ealing Studios to work for the first time as a director of fiction.


All of these creative experiences fed into Cavalcanti’s debut film for Ealing, Went the Day Well?, the tale of a dozy British hamlet invaded by Nazi shock troops. His GPO experiences had provided the director with a unique insight into the realities of British life, in all its class-based complexity, but also with the mythic national character we create for ourselves. His documentary work provided him with a willingness to explore the life of a community: its hopes, its fears, its darkest secrets, along with a propensity for depicting even the most extreme events in blunt, unsentimental terms. And his work as an experimental filmmaker enabled him to fuse contradictory elements into a seamless whole: ‘Went the Day Well???’ is a film which simultaneously lionises, satirises and coldly questions the concept of Britishness, even nationality itself, while never diverting from its central, government-approved message of eternal vigilance. Love your neighbour, the film seems to say, but keep an eye on him too.


Bertrand Tavernier for the TCM festival program:

A caustic mix of political fable, ultra-contemporary speculation, liveaction science fiction…We give up counting the dead in the Peckinpah-styled ending. One of my friends told me that in these moments we discover Cavalcanti’s Brazilian soul, the Brazilian soul that will later inspire director Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes (1969). The fierce resistance led by these civilians, these young women, these old men, the death of Mrs. Fraser (a character close to Mrs. Collins) who gathers up a grenade that is going to explode in a room filled with children, exits and sacrifices herself (Cavalcanti doesn’t hide the reaction of the children to this death in a rarefied shot)—these are unique moments.


Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian:

Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1942 film  is a wartime conspiracy thriller, a black-comic nightmare and a surrealist masterpiece in which stoutly English-seeming army types reveal themselves to be Nazis, like the reflected figures turning their backs on us in René Magritte’s mirror.


The movie’s influence shows up in Dad’s Army, in Village of the Damned, and maybe even, with a twist, in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. In the sleepy English village of Bramley End, dozens of soldiers turn up, needing a billet. They are a fifth-columnist troop of Nazi agents, a revelation made more glitteringly disturbing by the fact that Cavalcanti never reveals how this infiltration has been achieved. The film shows the Germans being capable of violence and beastliness towards civilians – even daringly putting a slant on the first world war rumour about bayoneting babies, a rumour still at that time current, but revealing to us now, in 2010, an eerie innocence of what the Nazis were actually capable of doing.


For its original release, James Agee in The Nation:

The village types are the sort of entomologically observed, remarkably lifelike, charming dolls which not only Greene but Coward and Waugh so often create instead of characters – a dear-oldboy rector, his passionate, constricted daughter, the merry, warm old woman who manages the switchboard and the mail, the robinlike lady of the manor, the marked-down Heathcliff who helps the Germans, etc., etc. Well written and directed and beautifully played, these characters are not to be scorned, even though they are the soberer, still self-satirizing and self-congratulatory grandnieces and nephews of Gilbert and Sullivan; we have never yet managed to set up in films as good a portrait of an American small town, and there is poetic force in this puppetry though it lacks complexity and depth.


[The best is] in its relating of the people and their actions to their homes, their town, their tender, lucid countryside. As the audience watches from a hill, with the eyes at once of a helpless outsider, a masked invader, and a still innocent defender, a mere crossroads imparts qualities of pity and terror which, to be sure, it always has, but which it seldom shows us except under tilted circumstances. And at moments, when the invaders prowlingly approach through the placid gardens of the barricaded manor in the neat morning light, the film has the sinister, freezing beauty of an Auden prophecy come true.

Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →