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Three Classic British Films to Watch for the Fever-Dream Experience

Or, How I Got Through Covid...

By Rachel RobbinsPublished 22 days ago 4 min read
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Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (1947)

I have been blessed/cursed with being a vivid dreamer. Last night, I dreamt about touring with Midge Ure from Ultravox, as his comedy support. (There was also a sub-plot scandal involving footballer, Wayne Rooney). Midge and I were stuck on a motorway in a camper van full of leaflets and I could feel the gentle humming of the engine as we panicked about making our next gig. I woke up with my hefty cat, sitting purring on my chest.

I have recently recovered from Covid but my sleeping life still has that fevered, anxious edge. Images are tilted and layered, shifting in focus. And honestly, I like it.

It feels like my own personal, peculiar cinema. And it was film that got me through the listless, exhausting boredom of illness.

If you too want to feel that shifting, intense, wavering sense of reality without the sting of a chest infection, here are three of my favourite classic British 1940s movies to take you there.

Black Narcissus

Powell and Pressburger's vision of Black Narcissus

In a less-fevered state I would be making important statements about the use of make-up and white actors playing Indian roles. This is a British movie set in the heights of the Himalayas, where all the main players have cut-glass accents and are decidedly pale. Of the three Indian principal characters, only one is played by an Indian actor. It is complicated watching Jean Simmons, in heavy foundation soundlessly playing the seductress Kanchi, with spectacular jewels and eyes that look down just so that they can look up through heavy lashes.

But the film plays with place in many ways. It is shot almost exclusively in a studio making use of painted scenery and scaled models. Perspective is heightened so that everything feels as though it might soon topple. The setting matters in that it must feel alien, disorientating, other-worldly for the madness that unfolds. The constant theme of clear, cold mountain air whistles through the narrative. There are flashbacks and restrained emotions.

But for that fevered dream feel, most importantly there are Sister Ruth’s eyes. Red-rimmed, maniacal and lost. Faith as obsessive. Love as consuming. Vocation as escape. The exotic and erotic playing with each other.

The film won Oscars for his cinematography and it is a blissfully dark melodrama that pits a terse faith against sensual temptation.

You enter at your peril, knowing there will be no winners.

Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth

Blithe Spirit

Kay Hammond as Elvira and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcarti in Blithe Spirit (1945)

You’re probably in the mood for some levity.

How does the ghost of an ex-wife in a supernatural comedy sound?

There can’t be many images that invoke a fever dream more than a luminous green woman floating through your drawing room, supposedly conjured there by a frantic and surprisingly agile Margaret Rutherford.

The movie is almost a direct filming of the Noel Coward play. And while it deals with heavy and dark themes, like love, jealousy and of course, death, it does it all with a deftness of touch, equal parts cynicism and joy. It is playful and glib, never quite gaining a foothold on harsh reality.

And then there is Coward’s dialogue. Rex Harrison, with his superior air, delivers with panache:

"If you're trying to compile an inventory of my sex life, I feel it only fair to warn you that you've omitted several episodes. I shall consult my diary and give you a complete list after lunch."

The Third Man

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949)

But if you really want the Fever-Dream Experience ™, then you need some classic Film Noir.

The Third Man is set in the ruins of a bombed-out Vienna. Splendour juxtaposed with debris and detritus of war. It is shot in high contrast black and white, with tilted angles, and dizzying, bewildering set pieces. Shadows, tunnels, a fair ground, an array of languages and accents all seen through the eyes of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a hack writer of adventures, used to working within his imagination.

Post-war Europe is a nightmare. It is an uncertain place, lawless, brutal, traumatised. It echoes the Wild West of Martin’s writing, but without the wide open spaces as compensation for the violence. Escape seems impossible.

The film marries Noir melodrama with a story of unrequited love, underpinned by the haunting sounds of the zither soundtrack. The last lingering shot like a dream that the protagonist can’t direct.

But it is Orson Welle’s fingers grasping at the outside from the sewer of Vienna that remain imprinted. A doomed struggle, a gasp for air.

It can be argued that all cinema is based on dreams and visions. A sharing of imagination from one person’s mind to the audiences.

But to make a film good for viewing while in the throes of a fever, for me, it needs a twist, some darkness, some dizzying terror or a surreal flourish. It needs to feel other-worldly. That’s why I choose films from a different era.

As LP Hartley says:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

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About the Creator

Rachel Robbins

Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.

Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.

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  • Marie Wilson22 days ago

    Excellent choices, astutely observed! Rutherford is a blast - always; and Welles fascinates - always. Thx for this journey through your fever dreams, fever nightmares, fever flicks. PS. Try "Cloud Atlas".

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