The Phantom Light

UK 1935, 76 mins
Director: Michael Powell

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

Michael Powell bid for box-office success with this tale of a gang of ship-wreckers who spread the legend of a ‘phantom lighthouse’ to distract attention from their activities – but they didn’t reckon on Gordon Harker’s newly-installed lighthouse keeper Sam Higgins. Edited by Powell’s soon-to-be regular collaborator Derek Twist, and making evocative use of its coastal locations, it’s all carried off with real atmosphere.
James Bell,

Michael Powell’s last film in his contract for Gaumont-British/Gainsborough was a fascinating taste of things to come from the young director. The Phantom Light (1935) was a comic thriller adapted from the stage play The Haunted Light by Evadne Price and Joan Roy Byford.

It seemed the perfect project to Powell, who later admitted, ‘I am a sucker for lighthouses. The lonelier and inaccessible, the better. And I love comedy-thrillers. I said “yes” to this one right away, and never regretted it. I enjoyed every minute. The less said about the plot the better.’

It’s true that the film was interesting less for its slim plot – which, though entertaining enough, could almost pass for an episode of Scooby Doo – than for its effective use of location and atmosphere. Particularly impressive are the night sequences of the lighthouse and bay, and an evocative opening sequence which suggested that Powell had been paying attention to the Universal horror films of the period (e.g. Dracula, 1931; Frankenstein, 1933). The effective editing – notably in the sequence in which a ship narrowly escapes disaster on the rocks – also hints at greatness to come, but the film is far from a masterpiece.

Gordon Harker, a favourite of British audiences in the ’20s and ’30s thanks to his versatile comic skills, is good value as the no-nonsense lighthouse keeper, and Ian Hunter is suitably heroic, if a bit stiff, as a naval officer (a role that Powell had hoped to offer to the inexperienced Roger Livesey, but was overruled by studio head Michael Balcon), while there is a likeable performance from Donald Calthrop as a dour coastguard official. All three actors had been Hitchcock regulars.
Mark Duguid, BFI Screenonline,

A contemporary review
A lighthouse off the coast of Wales has been the scene of strange events and disappearances, while a phantom light appears on the rocky coast.

Gordon Harker as Sam Higgins, the new Cockney chief lighthouse-keeper is excellently cast. His matter-of-fact tone when confronted by the local tales of the haunted lighthouse told in sing-song, Welsh-accented English, is finely done, as also his amazement when he finds that half the village are related Owens. Helped by a naval lieutenant and a lady detective, he solves the mystery.

The atmosphere is well built up and sustained, and the tension is balanced by the comic relief. The photography is very good, giving some fine views of Welsh landscape and of the village where the drama takes place. The shots of the ship Mary Fern in the fog are well done and add their full quota to creating tense expectation. The sound effects are enhanced by the booming of the sea and the screaming of the seagulls which are used to add to the eeriness of the scene.

Binnie Hale as the lady detective acts well, especially in her fight with the wreckers at the top of the lighthouse-she makes it real. Her efforts to be taken to the lighthouse, involving overtures first to Sam Higgins and then to the naval lieutenant, are amusing, and her success at last is welcome. Gordon Harker and Binnie Hale are well supported by the rest of the cast, especially by Herbert Lomas as the melancholy Welsh assistant keeper.

There are a number of violent scenes which make the film unsuitable for young people or impressionable adolescents.
Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1935

Director: Michael Powell
Production Company: Gainsborough Pictures
Producer: Michael Balcon *
Associate Producer: Jerome Jackson
Scenario: Ralph Smart
Dialogue: J. Jefferson Farjeon, Austin Melford
Based on the play The Haunted Light by: Evadne Price, Joan Roy Byford
Photography: Roy Kellino
Editor: D.N. Twist
Art Director: Alex Vetchinsky
Music Director: Louis Levy *
Sound: A. Birch
Studio: Gainsborough Studios

Binnie Hale (Alice Bright)
Gordon Harker (Sam Higgins)
Donald Calthrop (David Owen)
Milton Rosmer (Dr Carey)
Ian Hunter (Jim Pierce)
Herbert Lomas (Claff Owen)
Reginald Tate (Tom Evans)
Barry O’Neill (Captain Pearce)
Mickey Brantford (Bob Peters)
Alice O’Day (Mrs Owen)
Fewlass Llewellyn (Griffith Owen)
Edgar K. Bruce (Sergeant Owen)
Louie Emery (station mistress)

UK 1935
76 mins
Digital 4K

* Uncredited

Remastering has been supported by Matt Spick and the Charles Skey Charitable Trust.

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Lazybones + Her Last Affaire
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Projecting the Archive: The End of the River + intro by film scholar Dr Kulraj Phullar
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The Phantom Light
Wed 6 Dec 20:30; Sun 17 Dec 12:30
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Experimenta: Michelle Williams Gamaker and Powell + Pressburger + Michelle Williams Gamaker in conversation with Dr Kulraj Phullar
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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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