Continuing our crime film month with a look at a stilted but fascinating theatrical mystery that was Ralph Richardson’s sole directorial effort.
Home At Seven occupies a unique place in cinema history by being the only film directed by theatrical luvvie Ralph Richardson, who also takes the lead role. He does a solid enough job behind the camera – arguably a better one than in front of it – so it’s odd that he didn’t become the Kenneth Branagh of his day, knocking out worthy but tedious films while occasionally taking a commercial job to pay the bills. Perhaps he thought – in common with a lot of British actors of his (and later) generations – that cinema was somehow beneath him and so would only lower himself to it when absolutely necessary.
Based on a stage play by R.C. Sherriff, Home at Seven plays like a frightfully middle-class English version of a Twilight Zone story. Richardson is bank clerk David Preston, who arrives home from work on the dot of seven, just like every night. There’s only one problem – he’s lost an entire day somewhere. His wife Janet (Margaret Leighton) is understandably distraught that he has been missing for twenty-four hours, though he tries to dismiss her concerns as mere female hysterics, even after she shows him the newspaper to prove the date. It’s only when he speaks to his boss at the bank – a man, and therefore a much more reliable source – that he finally accepts the truth. They call in the doctor (Jack Hawkins), who can find nothing wrong, but does uncover Preston’s dark secret – while he’s been telling his wife he finishes work at six, he in fact finishes an hour earlier. What awful thing does he do in this secret hour? Well, it turns out that Janet doesn’t much approve of alcohol in the house and so since the war ended – that’s about seven years! – he’s been slipping to a pub near his bank on the way home. That’s a whole ‘nother level of hen-pecked.
The frightfully 1950s middle-class attitude of the film is brilliantly (though somewhat unintentionally I suspect) captured here, as Preston explains that “like most men” he likes to enjoy a sherry after work. The doctor nods in agreement, saying he’s just the same. Now, call me a cynic, but the idea that a glass of sherry was ever the post-work choice of tipple for working men across the country made me chortle out loud. But there it is. Preston has two glasses of sherry and a game of darts with his unconvincingly working-class chums who run the pub, along with what everyone insists is an entirely innocent flirtation with the younger barmaid, and he does this every night. The possibility that this is connected to his memory loss is understandably discounted because even in the 1950s, it’s unlikely that audiences would buy the concept of the sherry blackout.
Things get more complicated when it turns out that the dull-sounding social club that he is the treasurer of was robbed during his lost night, and that Preston was seen there by the club steward. It goes from bad to worse when the steward is subsequently found dead. Preston is obviously the prime suspect, but Inspector Hemingway (Campbell Singer) is sure he is innocent, probably because he is a well-spoken professional who lives in a nice house surrounded by chrysanthemums. But everything points towards Preston, including his secret financial problems and his hatred (admittedly not the sort of pathological, bitter hatred that might lead to murder) of the dead man. Is he really guilty? Well, it’s hardly a spoiler to say no, of course he isn’t (this isn’t the sort of film that will pull the rug from under your feet that way). But the revelation of who the real culprit is, and the secret of Preston’s missing day are where the film’s real narrative surprises lie, even if those revelations are rather eccentric and a touch hard to swallow.
Not quite a thriller – not enough really happens for the film to ever thrill – Home At Seven is a bit of a curio. It plays like a throwaway programmer, though the presence of Richardson – a respectable name even at the time – suggests it was a main feature. It is essentially a mystery, but the character at the centre of the mystery, the one who would traditionally be seeking out the truth in a desperate bid to clear his name, is simply a rather bland bystander here. In fact, so convinced is he of his own probable guilt and likely conviction, Preston even begins sorting out his affairs, writing cheques to pay bills so that his wife won’t get confused and packing his bag ready for prison. He’s a somewhat unappealing central character as a result – he seems too dull, too flat to really care about, and while Richardson plays this utterly bland character to perfection, you rather wish he had a bit more zip about him. Frankly, I began to wish that the film actually would pull a swerve and reveal that he really was some sort of schizophrenic psycho, just to make the character a little more interesting. At the very least, you want him to show a bit of interest in finding out what happened to him. Perhaps this is more realistic – I’m not sure that many people falsely accused of crimes really turn amateur detective to clear their name in real life – but it hardly makes for compelling drama or a character we can connect with.
Still, his marriage seems a match made in beige heaven, as Leighton is equally boring as his wife, who seems a completely empty vessel. The level of condescension he shows towards her will probably get feminist viewers foaming at the mouth with indignation, but quite frankly, you suspect that this character probably would struggle with the basics of life. The film might seem outrageously sexist to modern viewers but in truth, it is actually a pretty accurate interpretation of a time when men routinely took charge of such things and women had no part in dealing with financial affairs – my own knowledge of older family members tells me that many women of this generation really would find themselves at a loss should they find themselves suddenly left in charge. They seem the classic stiff and repressed suburban middle-class pair, and the fact that they are childless makes me suspect that it’s because they have never actually consummated their marriage.
The supporting characters are more interesting – Hawkins is solid as the doctor who refuses to believe that his patient could be a killer, and Singer is laid back as the equally trusting copper. Michael Shepley, as fellow social club big wig Major Watson, is entertainingly ridiculous – part comic relief, part essential exposition, he talks so fast that you can barely follow his conversation for much of the time.
I’m probably not making Home At Seven sound all that appealing, and in truth, it is a bit of a forgettable film. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an entertaining film to watch. It’s very stagey in approach – clearly, little effort has gone into adapting the stage play to the wider cinematic canvas – and not a lot happens, but as a strange point between British drawing-room dramas and genre films, it’s not without its moments. It’s certainly a fascinating glimpse into a world long gone, with its simple suburban pleasures and social deference and if nothing else, as a slice of ancient social history it’s well worth a look.
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