AFED #41: The Halfway House (UK, 1944); Dir. Basil Dearden

It's sometimes inexplicable how certain films become completely forgotten. Unless you're a devotee of old British horror/supernatural films there's a good chance you've never heard of The Halfway House, yet this Ealing drama prefigures their more celebrated Dead of Night and one suspects its musing on our final destinies could even have influenced Powell and Pressberger's A Matter of Life and Death.

Ten people of varying backgrounds are drawn to spend the weekend at a remote guest house in rural Wales. They're a cross section of British wartime society: a famous conductor who has just months to live, a feuding middle-class couple and their adolescent daughter, a retired seaman and his wife still grieving over the death of their son in conflict, a neutral Irishman and his fiancee, a deserter recently released from prison and a racketeer who's made a fortune from the war.

Their hosts are the Halfway House's enigmatic innkeeper Rhys (Mervyn Johns) and his daughter Gwyneth (Johns' real-life daughter Glynis). Rhys tells his guests that the hotel was subjected to bombing a year earlier, but the visitors soon realise there's something that doesn't quite add up. Why has the Halfway House's guestbook not been signed in the past year? Why are the newspapers similarly a year old? And why is it that Gwyneth casts no shadow?

More bemused than frightened the guests slowly grow to understand that they've been called here by fate, having each reached a crossroads in their lives. For some it's a call to be reconciled, for others to move on or make amends.

Adapted from a play by Denis Ogden The Halfway House is both a quaint ghost story and a morality tale. Although two of the characters are spirits, the film ventures no suggestions about what's to come, only that we must live in the moment and face our destinies with courage. Death understandably weighed heavily on the popular consciousness during this period and one surmises that, although a fantasy, the public may not have been disposed to such a theme, which might account for its relative obscurity.

Despite the supernatural element and wartime backdrop it's hard to imagine a  film that's less sinister. Watching The Halfway House is like putting on a warm, comfortable pair of old slippers, but despite that manages to explore its themes without ever becoming twee or sentimental. Although representative of types, the characters are more than just cyphers and it's not such a stretch to imagine Ingmar Bergman making a film like this a decade or so later.

A literally enchanting little picture in need of some long overdue recognition.


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