The Stars Look Down (1939)

D: Carol Reed
S: Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, Emlyn Williams

Though its obvious 'good intentions' and overall smug middle-class detachment may prove distracting and even off-putting for some, Carol Reed's film remains a powerful document of contemporary 1930s attitudes to social class in Industrial Britain and is a generally engrossing and moving humanist testament. Based on A. J. Cronin's novel of the same name, the film charts the plight of Welsh coal miners faced with uncaring capitalist exploitation and the changing demands of the younger generation.

Redgrave is the fresh-faced miner's son eager to better himself educationally and fight for the rights of workers on a political level against the wishes of his pragmatic parents. But his career is hijacked when Lockwood is jilted by his former friend Williams, an opportunistic manipulator of people and money, and attaches herself to him as a demanding but unloving wife. He is forced to take up a job as a local schoolteacher and watch as conditions around him worsen until inevitable conflict with management over a dangerous seam results in growing tensions in the community. Meanwhile Williams grows ever more influential and powerful in management and becomes involved in a shady deal which threatens the safety of his former colleagues, forcing further hostilities between him and Redgrave which are then accentuated by the resumption of his relationship with Lockwood. When the situation finally explodes into a prolonged strike followed by a mining disaster, the community finds itself torn apart from the inside and without defence, leading to all around devastation and misery.

On its own terms, this is a satisfyingly bleak story of the things men do to one another in the name the illusion of an ordered society. It works hard to establish a dichotomy between classes which goes beyond the simple mechanics of social activism, as subtly anti-union as it is anti-capitalist. Its focus is on the lives of ordinary people and the disappointments which inevitably come with a shift in perspective in a rigid social order. Just as characters begin to see a larger world and reach towards it, inevitable circumstance destroys both their dreams and the world they already know, leaving them with nowhere to turn and nothing to hang onto. This applies across the board to all of the characters, who must sell out or compromise and are ultimately shown to not be in control of their own destiny no matter what their station (even the mine owner's attempt at redemption goes unnoticed at the climax). In this, the film is as realistic in its depiction of social relations as many films which have followed purporting to argue for a working class depiction of working class issues (the films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh leap to mind). Though it is made from the comfortable position of film makers eager to sell a unique product in a thriving market, it does retain a certain amount of dignity and earns some respect for its earnest attempt to address complex political questions at a difficult point in history.

The film was among the first to look closely at this kind of material, but led to a rash of cliched imitations without even the social commitment evinced in this script (co-written by Cronin himself). The result is that it often seems contrived and hackneyed both in terms of the broad movements of the plot and the attempt to engage a working-class world from what was still resolutely a middle-class medium at the time. But the subtlety with which the characters are rendered and the atmospheric direction keep the film alive and exciting and outclass its many competitors. The script also provides some dramatically heart-rendering moments which tell stories of their own about the period (the scene where Redgrave's parents arrive unexpectedly for a visit just as the insensitive, grasping Lockwood wants to go for a night on the town is particularly affecting). The performances are also very strong, though Redgrave's line in clean-cut heroism lacks an edge it would need to be convincing today. The technical credits are quite strong, especially given the economic pressures facing the controversial production in 1939, but even when the dramatic mine cave-in comes, your focus is firmly on the characters and the situation rather than the special effects.

Overall the film is quite watchable, if depressing, and if the viewer is prepared to devote some time and attention to it, the rewards can be quite great.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.