Cape Forlorn (1931)


Isolated on a remote lighthouse with a husband and two criminals who crave her!

vt The Love Storm
UK / 82 minutes / bw / British International, Wardour Dir: E.A. Dupont Scr: E.A. Dupont, Victor Kendall Story: Cape Forlorn (1930 play) by Frank Harvey Cine: Claude Friese-Greene, Walter Blakeley, Hal Young Cast: Fay Compton, Frank Harvey, Ian Hunter, Edmund Willard, Donald Calthrop

Cape Forlorn - 0 opener

Although her best friend (uncredited) in the Sydney dance club where they both work as taxi dancers/hostesses is derisive about the idea, Eileen (Compton) decides to marry the much older Captain Bill Kell (Harvey), known as “Captain” or “Skipper,” and go live with him on his remote lighthouse somewhere unappetizing off the coast of New Zealand. On arrival there she discovers that Bill wants her not so much for a wife as for a housekeeper.

Cape Forlorn - 1 Eileen before her marriage

Eileen (Fay Compton) before her marriage.

It soon becomes obvious to the lighthouse’s mate, Henry Cass (Willard), all brawn backed up with very little brain, that Bill is neglecting his connubial duties and, with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, Cass moves in on the frustrated woman: he has £600 in the bank, he tells her, and big plans to buy himself a dairy farm outside Sydney, a venture in which he’d like her to join him. She rebuffs his advances at first, but then comes the night when she tarts herself up alluringly to tempt her husband and he responds by throwing her cosmetics out the window into the raging sea and roughly wiping her facepaint off with a towel.

Cape Forlorn - 2 Cass begins to register the possible availability of Eileen

Cass (Edmund Willard) begins to register the possible availability of Eileen (Fay Compton).

Desperate for physical fulfillment and to get away from the lighthouse, she slips out of their cabin that night and into the tattooed arms of Cass. “Strewth, Eileen, I could push the whole world over for you. That’s the sort of bloke I am,” he tells her at one point. All that and £600 in the bank: what woman could resist?

Cape Forlorn - 3a Eileen slips out of her bedroom for an assignation with Cas

Cape Forlorn - 3b

 Eileen (Fay Compton) slips out of her bedroom for an assignation with Cass.

They’re interrupted that first night, though, by an alarm raised by the lighthouse’s other crew member, Parsons (Calthrop). The seas have bashed a small craft onto the rocks that surround the lighthouse. Parsons, Bill and Cass between them rescue the boat’s sole occupant, who identifies himself as Gordon Kingsley (Hunter). It’s pretty obvious he’s not quite the fresh-faced innocent he appears, especially when it proves he’s carrying a gun—which Eileen promptly confiscates. Far smoother and more sophisticated than Cass, Gordon soon attracts Eileen’s amorous attention.

Cape Forlorn - 4 Bill tries to do the books as Cass grumbles

Kell (Frank Harvey) tries to keep up with the books as Cass (Edmund Willard) grumbles.

Cape Forlorn - 5 Eileen tormented by her love for Gordon and her lust for Cass

Eileen Fay Compton) tormented by her love for Gordon (Ian Hunter) and her lust for Cass.

Cass hears over the radio that the cops are on the hunt for “the missing General Manager of the Otago Building Society, Gordon Ewart Keeling” and that “a warrant for the arrest of Keeling has been issued,” and it doesn’t take him long to realize, from the physical description of the fugitive embezzler, that Keeling and Kingsley are one and the same. When he tries to blackmail Gordon with this knowledge, however (“Why, you’re not even a crook’s bootlace,” Cass sneers), threatening to tell the Skipper who Gordon really is, Gordon blackmails him right back, pointing out that Cass depends on him not telling Kell the truth about Eileen’s nookifaction with Cass.

Cape Forlorn - 6 Cass smug after he hears the news on the radio

Cass (Edmund Willard) is smug as a bug after he hears the news on the radio.

They’re at this stalemate when Eileen stumbles in. Cass makes a derogatory (albeit true) remark about her multiple succumbments, the two men fight, and a distraught Eileen grabs up the gun she confiscated from Gordon and shoots Cass dead.

Cape Forlorn - 7a Eileen horrified as Gordon and Cass fight

Cape Forlorn - 7b

Eileen (Fay Compton) is horrified as she watches Gordon and Cass fight.

Cape Forlorn - 7c Cass on the verge of strangling Gordon

Cass (Edmund Willard) seems to have the upper hand over Gordon (Ian Hunter).

Cape Forlorn - 7d But then Eileen shoots Cass down

But . . .

She and Gordon agree they must tell the same story in order to get off, but don’t have the time to agree what story that should be before the Skipper’s investigation starts. “What happened then?” Kell asks his wife. The reply is so shocking that, not only must it be kept from our hearing by the crashing of thunder and the pealing of the lighthouse bells, Eileen can only whisper it into her husband’s ear. We can guess some of it, because he denounces Cass as a dog and starts cooking up his own story to explain Cass’s death . . .

Cape Forlorn - 10 Bill enraged by Eileen's confession of guilt with Cass

 Kell (Frank Harvey) is enraged by Eileen’s confession of guilty doings with Cass.

Parsons, who looks a bit like a sort of former-day Jeremy Corbyn but without the intellectual integrity, seems a poorly acted spare cog to begin with but eventually ingratiates himself into the heart of the movie, not least because he’s prone to deliver family memories at inappropriate moments. Here he is trying to comfort a weeping Eileen after she’s shot Cass:

“Don’t you take on like that. Don’t you cry. No. You know, a night like this always makes me think of Albert. Did I ever tell you about Albert? . . . He had a great pal, called Deeming. He was hanged—Deeming, you know, not Albert. But from what I can hear they ought to have hanged Albert too. He was a dirty bit of work, Albert was. Well, the hanging . . . Ah, no. Perhaps this isn’t quite the right moment to talk about hanging . . . Still, I always laugh. If I was to tell you the story you’d bust yourself with laughing.”

Cape Forlorn - 9 Bill and Parsons plan their strategie-lies

 Kell (Frank Harvey) and Parsons (Donald Calthrop) plan their strategic lies.

The direction is stodgy and pedestrian—the movie’s running time could have been decreased by about 20 minutes simply through getting the cast to speak at a normal rather than a leaden rate, through getting them to move at a normal speed rather than spend long moments seeming to have to decide whether or not to, say, stand up from their chair, and through editing out all sorts of padding in the shots.

That last doesn’t seem to be the fault of the cinematographers (Friese-Greene, with the other two as assistants), because, overall, their efforts go some way toward rescuing the movie. A little sequence that sticks in the mind comes just after Eileen has shot Cass. We see her from the outside of one of the lighthouse’s paltry windows as rain pours down it and as she peers anxiously out through it into the night. At first what we see clearly is Cass’s staring dead visage behind her, but then the focus shifts so that, as the foreground sharpens, it’s her tormented face we see, Cass’s being lost in a blur. Also of note are the long, flowing takes at beginning and end of the movie in the seedy Sydney club where Eileen works.

Cape Forlorn - 8 Eileen peers through window with dead Cass behond (sse text)

Eileen (Fay Compton) peers through the window with the dead Cass (Edmund Willard) behind her.

Parallel versions were made in French and German:

  • Le Cap Perdu (1931; “The Lost Cape”) dir Dupont, with Marcelle Romée, Harry Baur, Henri Bosc and Jean Max
  • Menschen im Käfig (1931; “People in the Cage”) dir Dupont, with Conrad Veidt, Tala Birell, Fritz Kortner, Heinrich George and Julius Brandt.

I haven’t seen either of these (and doing so is hardly at the top of my list of priorities), but I suspect they may be better than the English-language version.

A very major problem with Cape Forlorn is that, thanks to much of its cast having been grafted in from the play’s stage incarnation, the actors tend as noted to move with exaggerated ponderosity (Hunter for the most part excepted) while leaving extraordinarily protracted pregnant pauses after often the most ordinary of utterances, as if they were of such great profundity that the audience might need time to let them sink in. Some of the dialogues between Eileen and Gordon are out-and-out Fiona and Charles (for those who fondly recall the 1965–8 BBC radio show Round the Horne).

Cape Forlorn - noirish cinematog 1

There’s noirish cinematography galore as Eileen (Fay Compton) heads for a sinful rendezvous.

Cape Forlorn represents an interesting part of film noir’s prehistory. We’re accustomed to noticing early-1930s precursors of the classic-era Hollywood noir tradition, and likewise of the French noir tradition, but less so for their UK counterpart. As will be obvious from some of the screengrabs here, cinematographer Friese-Greene was certainly well aware of German Expressionism, and he deploys angles and shadows in precisely the same way that his Hollywood equivalents would do a full decade later. It’s in movies like this one that we can see very clearly where it was that one strand of international film noir came from.

The movie was initially banned in Australia, and released there only after extensive cuts had been made at the behest of the censor. That same cut version seems to have been the one initially released in the US. Whether it was the rampant shock-horror immorality that raised the censors’ hackles, or simply the nagging urge to speed the movie up a bit by cutting out some of the egregious padding, is something left to the reader to decide.


13 thoughts on “Cape Forlorn (1931)

  1. What a great title for this film! Your review is terrific, especially your description of the pauses after the actors have spoken. It sounds like the pacing would make this a bit frustrating, but if I came across this film I would definitely watch it.

  2. I’m entirely convinced that this is potent pre-noir, and that it was rather clumsy in script and production. Still, it resembles many a thriller where a woman’s only choices are poor ones.

    • It’s protonoir, I’d think, in the sense that it indicates one of the places noir was coming from, in terms of its treatment — especially the cinematography. There’s a certain noirishness in the premise, too: as in, say, Quicksand (1950), the protagonist’s initial bad decision leads to all sorts of unpredicted bad consequences.

  3. Pingback: Ferocious 26 inch blizzard on Monday Morning Diary (January 25) | Wonders in the Dark

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