“Lovely weather for a manhunt.”
Childhood vacations to England have given me a lifelong cache of fond memories of the British Isles. Tea and scones conjure up only good things as do Cathedrals and cobblestone streets. Somehow even the daily drizzle, when it feels quintessentially English, is something I don’t altogether mind. It has to do with it being novel as I always came from sunny California. We romanticize it.
However, It Always Rains on Sunday is nothing like that. It is a film generally for people who have lived in these locales all their lives. The novelty quickly dissipates; it’s always dreary, dismal, and damp. They have their slickers turned up and their Wellington boots on, if they have any. Of course, in a cinematic sense, rain functions as instant atmosphere. It sets a very specific tone while being an evocation of England through and through. It proves to be an ongoing theme.
Furthermore, the picture was produced by Ealing Studios, that British film institution, known for their Alec Guinness comedies of the 1950s and, subsequently, directed by Robert Hamer, most well-remembered for helming one of those Guinness’ comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets.
But with It Always Rains on Sunday (the title fits the weather and therefore the environs), they found themselves crafting a proto-kitchen sink, day in the life drama that really dug into a community of post-war Britain. We get everything from the daily grind, the mundane activities, and the dodgy dealings playing court with everyday life.
As the rain pours outside, perpetually, men have their papers open. The front pages are plastered with the biggest headline: Dartmoor Escape. Escaped criminal Tommy Swann (John McCallum) is on the run! Coincidentally, three cronies are milling about. Could it be they have something to do with this man or maybe a load of rollerskates that were nicked?
A typical British family becomes our anchor and Hamer is constantly drawing the story back to them. The husband is a generally benevolent chap content with his morning newspaper and the breakfast at the kitchen table. He’s remarried to Rose (Googie Weathers), a former bar hostess, who is not altogether horrid, but there’s an undercurrent of this being a marriage of convenience — at least for her. It becomes most transparent in her sometimes callous dealing with the step-children.
Two daughters, one dutiful the other blonde and bodacious, when it comes to the boys, and a young son bent on getting some extra spending money to buy a new mouth organ. She doesn’t seem to have any maternal concern for them even as she dutifully runs the house.
The question remains how these seemingly disparate strands might possibly be tied together. But this is a day in the life long before the Beatles ever cornered the market. We come to understand It Always Rains on Sunday is this type of story. It readily covers the beats of the city with all its shadings. This is the joy of the picture, especially all these decades later. It envelopes us in the highly colorful world of the East End, with its smells, markets, fish shops, and pubs.
The local policeman, Inspector Fothergill, goes about his usual business, making his rounds, followed by a cheeky journalist ready to pounce on a scoop. He’s looking for any news on Swann that might be of interest to him.
The best human interest story of the movie is actually behind the scenes romance. Because, upon meeting one another on the set of this picture, Googie Weathers and John McCallum would fall in love and get married soon thereafter. Their union lasted over 60 years, well into the 21st century.
The crucial reveal is that the current Mrs. Sandigate knew Thomas Swann in her previous life. Now he comes calling for a favor since he has nowhere else to turn, setting up a chilling reunion. For now, all we have is in front of the camera. It certainly heightens the available stakes as she harbors the wanted man, and he looks to coax her to remember the former life they had together. It’s obvious the situation can only end in some form of tragedy.
Simultaneously, one of the local gangsters, the angular-faced Mr. Hyams, checks in on one of his game parlors and offers a job then flowers to Doris Sandigate — claiming there are no strings attached though she unsure — he’s just feeling charitable.
Coincidentally, he also catches wind of some roller skates on the market, but he’s already had his hand in fixing the local fights. The dirty money is already being siphoned off from somewhere else. His generosity continues when he donates a large sum of money to the local gymnasium to counteract his shady dealings. One questions the state of affairs when we must turn to criminals as a primary source of charity.
In another vignette, a record store shopkeeper is caught kissing with one of his pretty clients, this time Vi Sandigate, who can’t stay away from any handsome face. He dishes out a pair of mouth organs to keep the blackmailing tykes quiet — including Vi’s baby brother Alfie. They proceed to stomp around town to the tune of “Colonel Bogey’s March.”
The music store owner’s wife Sadie is not stupid. She arrives at the local bar one day to let him know definitively, she’s walking out on him. In response, her weak-willed philandering husband goes scampering after her. Far from feeling like a sordid love triangle, it’s a pointless mess with at least two out of the three lives ruined for good (if not all of them).
Implicit to the movie is this context of a Godless nation. At least no one goes to church or has the normal Christian view of the world you half expect in mid-century Britain. However, given the context of the hell they went through during the war (and even after), I’m not sure the change is unwarranted.
One resident yells at the boys to pipe down with their infernal racket because they are desecrating the sabbath. Then, we see the priest running the orphanage in another scene. But these are isolated almost unimportant moments in a broader narrative.
Otherwise, this world feels devoid of such religiosity. Maybe it’s simply from coming from an American perspective, but in films of the 40s and 50s, there’s a commonplace aspect to God in some way, shape, or form. Here such ritualism feels almost absent, if not done away with altogether. If nothing else, it does speak to something about our characters and the lives they lead.
It’s based on currencies of love and money. But everyone seems dissatisfied and always longing for something better. And to be completely clear, there is reason to gripe with the world set before them. America, more than possibly any nation, could recoup from the war without a physical need to regroup. Britain did not have such a luxury.
And while the police chase after a fugitive across brick-paved streets, train tracks, and train yards, not unlike the pursuit of Harry Lime, it all feels indicative of a broader problem. I’m not sure if we ever get to it. We are left with a climax and a conclusion that’s stirring enough. But the tale nevertheless leaves so many of its narratives in a state of indefinite suspension.
A lot like life, we do not know how or where they will fully resolve themselves. This illusion is powerful. Not only that, the stories extend outside the confines of a film, but also a happy ending, as it were, is not going to be handed to us blithely.
In short, It Always Rains on Sunday deserves to be named among the best of British noir alongside titles like Odd Man Out and Brighton Rock. The key comes with integrating the everyday occurrences with the criminal element. It makes us aware of how closely related they are. It’s pointless to try and pull them apart.