Basil Dearden (director)
BFI Film (studio)
23 April 2018 (released)
18 April 2018
This rather bold and courageous piece of cinematic history from 1944 has novelist and playwright J.B. Priestley's stamp all over it - he even makes a guest appearance.
The author (who quite rightly turned down a peerage being no hypocrite) was known for his extreme left wing beliefs and this is only too obvious from reading or seeing the majority of his work, including this one. Certain factors re-appear throughout Priestley's plays, the time factor for one invariably plays its part. THEY CAME TO A CITY is, politically speaking, his most adventurous opus (it is only too obvious that originally it was written for the stage) though as such not necessarily the most entertaining once transported into the cinematic medium. It is in fact more of a political statement set mostly in a fantastical utopian world.
A young couple (Brenda Bruce and Ralph Michael) during an outing in the countryside argue about life in general and how much better life might be if people started to realize their idealistic and individual hopes instead of conforming blindly to the rules of a society that might bring them little more than hardship and disillusionment. As Brenda remarks: “After the war people will insist on things being different”. A middle-aged man (J.B. Priestley himself) walking along the road overhears the couple and politely asks them whether he might join in the discussion, replying to Brenda’s point of view: “Some will, some won't” (which amounts in actuality, although a truism, to nothing). The film begins by the way with all three sitting on a hill overlooking what looks like Yorkshireman Priestley's home landscape as he proceeds to tell the youngsters about nine people from very different walks of life and their individual scenarios… which is when the actual story begins. Indeed it is a make-believe scenario being used as a platform for the nine protagonists to air their political beliefs.
All those people from markedly different backgrounds suddenly walk out of a door (or a train carriage) into the dark and find themselves on a surreal tower-like building with various steps and labyrinth-like levels which all lead to one gigantic and imposing door that, for mysterious reasons, is locked (art director Michael Relph had a field day with the design). The stranded people, not having a clue as to where they are and how they came to these strange surroundings, are to an extent stereotypes: Alice Foster (Googie Withers) a disenchanted waitress who just quit yet another job, Cudworth (Norman Shelley), a bluff businessman who has scratched his way to the top (Mrs. Thatcher's ideal), Sir George Gedney (A. E. Matthews), a pompous and naive aristo, Malcolm Stratton (Raymond Huntley), an idealistic banker's clerk and his insecure, overtly nervous and constantly bickering wife Dorothy (Renee Gadd), Lady Loxfield (Mabel Terry Lewis), a wealthy domineering old woman and her put-upon daughter Philippa (Frances Howe), Joe Dinmore (John Clements), a youngish seaman with Marxist/Communist views and last but not least Mrs. Batley (music hall legend Ada Reeve making her film debut at 70), a kindly old working class charlady and, as it turns out, the wisest of them all.
Yes, we have met these people before in Priestley plays - they are Britain and STILL are. In this somewhat unusual scenario where these disparate people soon begin to get acquainted with one another but also argue about things it transpires that despite their efforts they cannot open the imposing door. The door is, of course, a symbol and somehow we know it will open and close only when IT decides to. It doesn’t take long before a certain amount of interaction takes place… Alice and Joe take an instant like to each other though at first any promising progress is hampered by Alice’s bad experiences with life in general and men in particular, while Joe seems obsessed with his ideological views. In turn, Dorothy Stratton takes an instant if somewhat irrational and paranoid dislike to Alice and accusing her husband of favouring Alice over her (and who could blame him?!). Only the wise charwoman knows that the gigantic door has a mind of its own and when it does eventually open (we also know that we, the audience, will not see what is on the other side) some of the various characters step through it to find an utopian city lies behind it, well, shall we say an utopian city for idealists.
And we pretty much get an idea to who out of the nine this city (which we never get to see due to reasons of budget) will appeal to and to whom it will be pointless. In the case of neurotic Dorothy Stratton, she won’t even attempt to find out what’s behind the door though her long-suffering husband does. How on earth did they find themselves together in the first place? Cudworth, the dotty old Sir Gedney (he has been in Utopia all his privileged life), those two speak the same language. The horrid old martinet Lady Loxfield cannot understand when her daughter Philippa returns from ‘the secret city’ it is only to bid farewell to her mother and finally free herself from her clutches… to go back to the utopian city forever! Obviously others will want to go there and when that door closes they may never get another opportunity. Will Alice and Joe enter this 'brave new world' together? Only two of the nine characters will stay in this new world behind the door. One can't help wondering that if Priestley could have looked into a crystal ball perhaps a few more may have stayed.
Distinguished thesp Sir John Clements (who seldom played working class parts) does a reasonable job of maintaining a working class accent in a part usually associated with Sir John Mills. Boarding school educated Googie Withers is in familiar territory. Raymond Huntley (Britain's first Dracula) who always sounded like a stiff high-ranking bank manager puts in one of his more telling performances as Malcolm Stratton and we can almost feel sorry for him having to put up with his pain in the butt of a wife. Director Basil Dearden supplies his usual competence in this visually restrained but intriguing affair. Scriabin's 'Divine Poem' provides the right musical atmosphere.
With his Dual Format Edition we also get the usual plethora of BFI's bonus material, invaluable to someone studying the immediate aftermath of WW2.