Movie review: 'Went the Day Well?'

"Went the Day Well?" is the innocent-sounding title of one of the most subversive films to come out of World War II, a British drama that was unsettling in its day and is even more so now.

Playing for a week at the New Beverly Cinema in a 35mm restoration, this 1942 drama, originally released in the heart of the conflict, takes an unnerving look at a head-spinning possibility: German soldiers masquerading as Britons taking over the bucolic English hamlet of Bramley End.

But what is disturbing about this story is not just the specter of clandestine invasion, which is scary enough, but it's also the brutality with which it all plays out. There is a pitiless quality to the violence on both sides, and to take but one example, seeing the town's kindly elderly postmistress make free with an ax is a sight not likely to be forgotten.

Though "Went the Day Well?" was based on a short story by Graham Greene, that coolness comes from the film's Brazil-born director, Alberto Cavalcanti. Best known for an episode of the omnibus film "Dead of Night" as well as the recently restored "They Made Me a Fugitive," Cavalcanti had a gift for bringing unflinchingly bleak mood pieces to life that stands him in good stead here.

The film's title comes from a 1918 epitaph written for the dead of World War I by John Maxwell Edmonds. The opening lines of this haunting tribute to unknowing heroism is the first thing we see on-screen: "Went the day well? We died and never knew. But, well or ill, Freedom, we died for you."

A point-of-view camera shot then shows us a road sign to Bramley End and follows the country lane to the village churchyard, where the local verger speaks to the camera and says, "Good to see you. Come to have a look at Bramley End, have you." Then he points to a gravestone with German names on it, and letting us know that the war had been won and the Germans defeated (something that was far from clear when the film came out), talks about the previously hidden history of his little town.

"Went the Day Well?" then flashes back to Whitsun weekend, starting May 23, 1942. A convoy of army lorries rolls up from nearby Upton holding 60 soldiers needing lodging for three nights. Their commanding major couldn't be more British, saying things like "Oh, splendid, thanks very much," but he is not what he seems.

For as the audience but not the villagers immediately finds out, this man is a German officer rendezvousing with a local grandee named Oliver Wilsford (star Leslie Banks), who is in reality a fifth columnist loyal to the Nazi regime. The troops are in town to jam British airways in preparation for a German invasion and must not be discovered.

One interesting aspect of the script, co-written by John Dighton, Diana Morgan and Angus MacPhail, is the way it plays on national stereotypes. The Germans come off as rigid and mechanical, unable to adapt, while the British, though initially in the dark until some lucky breaks open their eyes, are resourceful and keen to improvise.

What is more interesting is not the differences between the nationalities but the similarities. It must have been disarming to those believing in the inherent evil of the Hun to see how smoothly the Germans were able to infiltrate the very heart of British gentility.

And once the villagers catch on to what's happening, "Went the Day Well?" does not pull any punches about the ferocity of the local response. The willingness to kill runs deep on both sides, and the sense is great that if an invasion had happened, it would have played out very much this way.

The New Beverly is showing "Went the Day Well?" on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and as part of a double bill with other Greene-related films the rest of the week. "The Fallen Idol" plays Monday night, the original "Brighton Rock" with Richard Attenborough on Tuesday and Thursday, and the incomparable "The Third Man" with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles on Wednesday.

If you haven't see one or more of these, this is a great chance to catch up.

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