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Monday, 11 August 2014

Classic Film Review: The Stars Look Down (1940)

The Stars Look Down tells the story of a coal-mining community who have been asked to mine a section they believe is unsafe. The mine owner refuses to show them plans to demonstrate it's safe but, after a three month strike, their will is broken and they go back to work. Amidst all this is Davey Fenwick (Michael Redgrave), a socialist who has worked in the mines but has now obtained a scholarship. His aim is to become qualified and make a difference to his community including his father (Edward Rigby), mother (Nancy Price) and brother Hughie (Desmond Tester). But he encounters Jenny (Margaret Lockwood), the spurned girlfriend of his old friend Joe (Emlyn Williams). She wants a husband and wraps Davey around her little finger, persuading him to give up his studies and become a teacher back in his home village. There, Davey becomes increasingly worried about the dangerous place his father and the rest of the miners are working in but his pleas fall on deaf ears.

As an snapshot of working Northern life, this film works quite well. The insular community is depicted, along with the insular family life. Mrs Fenwick really doesn't see the point of her son getting an education and why he thinks he's better than his family and that's something replicated across the town. The mine owner Mr Barras (Allan Jeayes) is an interesting character who does suffer for his greed but also likes his status too much in the first two thirds of the film. His choices have a direct impact on the impending disaster.

One of the criticisms I had is that the film seems cut in two. The first two thirds are primarily about Davey, Jenny and Joe, with the film even following Davey away from home. Then two of the characters who have been integral to the plot (particularly Joe for reasons I'll leave you to discover) disappear. I wanted to see their reactions to what happens but by then the tone of the film has shifted and the focus is on Davey and Barras.

Enough foreshadowing is done to demonstrate that there will be a problem with the mine and the pay-off is as grim and as realistic as any modern cinema could hope to convey. There's one scene where the alarm goes and everybody in the area is suddenly running which lingers in the memory. The claustrophobic tunnels and the efforts to find the missing men may seem a little protracted but they were utterly gripping. I won't, however, tell you how the film ends. You'll have to find that out for yourself.

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