Henry KendallIda LupinoJohn Mills
The Ghost Camera
Medium: film
Year: 1933
Director: Bernard Vorhaus
Writer: Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, H. Fowler Mear
Country: UK
Actor: Henry Kendall, Ida Lupino, John Mills, Victor Stanley, George Merritt, Felix Aylmer, Davina Craig, Fred Groves, Charles Paton
Format: 66 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0024054/
Website category: British
Review date: 2 July 2010
I'd never even heard of this before I watched it, which is the best way to see movies. Within the first twenty seconds I was guessing "British silent film". It's edited by a young David Lean, while the actors include John Mills and Ida Lupino (last seen by me in the 1939 Basil Rathbone Adventures of Sherlock Holmes).
I was wrong about the "silent" bit, but it is the early 1930s. The film feels slight and slightly cobbled together, more like a TV episode than a movie, but there's nothing wrong with that. The story, disappointingly, doesn't involve the supernatural. Instead it feels like a prototype Hitchcock movie, with innocents finding themselves accidentally embroiled in a sinister affair. Our hero, played by Henry Kendall, finds a camera in the back of his car. There's nothing written on it to identify its owner, so reluctantly he starts developing the exposed plates inside the camera in order to get a clue as to how to return it. The first negative appears to show a murder being committed... and so the plot begins.
It's quite a good plot, actually. It wouldn't be nearly enough for a modern movie, but it's more than enough for 66 minutes of slightly atmospheric black-and-white. Kendall's detective work is fairly impressive and we see it in more detail than you'd expect in a similar modern movie. From just a few photographs of scenery, he tracks bad guys across the English countryside. Nice one, mate. Later on the film gives us an unusual kind of courtroom drama, after which there's a bit of a plot twist and the inevitable romantic ending. I've no complaints. The story has a solid structure, everything holds together and the only thing I could be said to have a problem with is the casualness of the resolution. Oh, there's nothing wrong with it. It's clever. I like it. However it all falls out a bit too easily and I think a couple of minutes of mortal terror was the main thing the film needed to become genuinely excellent instead of just a pleasant bit of fun and an easy recommendation.
I like the visuals. There's location shooting, which Hollywood would have avoided in those days, and the director's even managing to build up a bit of atmosphere. The country inn is creepy, if not even scary. The movie feels cinematic, if you know what I mean. Take for instance the bit where the camera moves to give us point-of-view shots from not one but both characters in the scene. That surprised me. Oh, and at the end there's a brief fight in which the director's making so much use of variable shutter speed (speeding up or slowing down the film) that it becomes so stylised that it seems experimental. I presume that wasn't the intent, but it's still cool.
The acting... well, in the opening scene, it looked awful. Kendall would seem never to have interacted with another human being in his life, but soon that turned out to be his characterisation. He's like an intelligent but autistic Bertie Wooster and I'd bet a month's wages that he'd never even kissed a girl before. Look at how he speaks. "I hope you will accept my sincere assurance that any confidences imparted to me will be held inviolate." No, really. It might not look so bad, but you try saying it. Ida Lupino thinks he sounds funny too. I blinked a bit at his occasional way of answering questions as if unaware that they're even questions, but that surely must be characterisation because no one could survive in the acting profession if they were unwittingly doing things like that. Overall he's a bit unworldly and prissy, but he couldn't be more fair or honest and he's certainly a much more distinctive protagonist than the usual more heroic types. He might be the film's most unique feature, actually. Mind you, obviously these days Kendall's a much lesser name than Ida Lupino (who's beautiful) and John Mills (who's at the start of what would end up being a 74-year career in the movies).
The weird bit is the courtroom scene. Movies don't usually bother with coroner's courts because they're just a preliminary hearing rather than the real thing, but here we've got one and it's an informal and slightly shambolic courtroom with the coroner doing service as both judge and prosecutor. It's rather refreshing, even before you add in the overly casual manservant and John Mills's suicidal courtroom strategies.
Overall, this thing's far too lightweight even to dream of one day being a classic. It's fun and no more. Look out for the moment where Kendall finds himself at the door of a brothel, for instance. It has some atmospheric moments, but they're not really building up to anything and in the end it's enjoyable, but nothing you're likely to remember. The last line made me laugh while also being a bit clever in how it comes full circle with cameras and photographs, I suppose. "Oh, that spoils the picture." At the end of the day, it's a pleasantly charming time-waster with an unusual hero in a bow tie and glasses that are making him look like Harold Lloyd. You'll enjoy it, anyway.