Frieda (1947): One of the Best Films You Probably Haven’t Seen

FRIEDA, holding hands from left: Mai Zetterling, David Farrar, 1947

To view Frieda click here.

It’s funny how little things can make us happy, and I’m pretty giddy that we have a wealth of cinematic riches available on FilmStruck right now highlighting the very underappreciated work of director Basil Dearden. We’ve got eleven of his films, running the entire spectrum of his career, and you may recall we’ve featured several of this titles on Streamline over the past few months including Sapphire (1959), The League of Gentlemen (1960), Victim (1961), and All Night Long (1963).

However, Dearden got his start as a secret weapon of sorts for the beloved Ealing Studios, whose remarkable run of British classics spans multiple genres with an incredible arsenal of actors and directors at its disposal. Though he’d proven his dexterity with silly wartime comedy thanks to the well-crated The Goose Steps Out (1942) for Ealing, Dearden really proved his value with a pair of back-to-back anthology films: the evocative fantasy The Halfway House (1944) and the most influential horror omnibus ever made, Dead of Night (1945). In the latter case, Dearden was just one of four directors brought on board, but his helming of the flawless framing device (with a group of strangers in a country house swapping stories of the uncanny) couldn’t have been more perfect. Dearden also directed the shortest of the tales about a creepy premonition involving an old-fashioned horse-drawn hearse, but it’s the connective tissue that really shows off Dearden’s early talents as he slowly winds the audience up to a nightmarish finale no viewer has ever forgotten, a virtuoso concerto of disturbing visuals that must have left postwar attendees gasping for air.

That brings us to Frieda (1947), an astonishing little gem that’s never had an official home video release in the U.S. and will come as a big surprise if you’ve never come across it before. The film did get a very marginal American theatrical release from Universal and aired once on TV, but it’s been confined to Great Britain for the most part. In fact, I didn’t get a chance to see it at all until its first video release anywhere in 2013 as part of the third set in the incredible UK DVD series, The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, each containing four seldom-seen Ealing gems. (And if you’re an Ealing fan and have a multi-region player, every single one of these is worth snapping up.)

I already enjoyed Dearden before setting eyes on this one, but the opening sequence catapulted my appreciation for his abilities to a whole new level. With incredible visual force and narrative economy, we’re thrown into the demolished ruins of a German church where Frieda (Mai Zetterling) and Robert (David Farrar, a.k.a. Mr. Silly Hat Stud-muffin from 1947’s Black Narcissus) are wed in a covert nocturnal ceremony as flashing bombs drop outside. It’s a gorgeous, atmospheric piece of storytelling, with the minimal bilingual dialogue barely registering as we’re taking in the sights and sounds of a marriage that will form the crux of the entire story. Back home in England, Frieda, a German who saved David’s life, is greeted with scorn and derision from the locals including another Black Narcissus alum, Flora Robson, in an incredible performance that manages to find the humanity and tragedy at the heart of prejudice, showing how propaganda and group-think can blind people to the cruelty of their day-to-day behavior. Not surprisingly, the always charming Glynis Johns gets a more traditionally sympathetic and welcoming role here– but would you really want to see the mom from Mary Poppins (1964) as a bad guy?

FRIEDA, from left: Flora Robson, Barbara Everest, Glynis Johns, 1947

Dearden has gotten something of a reputation as an issues director over the years, which isn’t surprising given the bold, forward-thinking way he tackled topics like racism, homosexual persecution, colonialism, sexism and nationalism. However, what’s interesting is that he isn’t bound by those topics in his scripts;  he’s also a master of both genre and cinematic language, able to blend sight and sound together to build character, story and theme at the same time. You don’t feel like you’re being hammered over the head with one of his films; he may have something important to say, but there’s no wagging of fingers in your face. That coalesces here during the poetic ice-water finale, which is not only beautifully shot and hauntingly poetic but also a powerful symbol of the physical toll such treatment can do to people when borders become more important than the lives of fellow human beings.

The achievement of everyone involved is especially impressive when you consider this film was rushed into production after the source play appeared in 1946– an understandable tactic given fears that the subject matter might not be very topical if they waited longer and the bomb-dropping traumas of World War II receded a bit further in the public memory. Fortunately the film hasn’t really dated at all, with its theme of looking beyond the decreed enemies of war still resonating powerfully today. (How that speaks about the progression of the human race, on the other hand, is a little scarier.) It’s a shame this wasn’t seen as something that could translate to mainstream American audiences at the time, which means this film hasn’t gotten the critical attention it deserves outside of a few think-pieces about Dearden. (Heck, it doesn’t even have a single external review on IMDb!) It’s also a fascinating example of how Dearden and Ealing in general tackled the presence of World War II from different angles, coming on the heels of The Halfway House (which also features Johns) and one of the studio’s most beloved films in its home country, The Captive Heart (1946), which I’ll be tackling in more depth in a few weeks. With this film in particular, Dearden proves he was just as able to vault melodrama to devastating heights with as much skill as Douglas Sirk, and you could make a very strong case that the two men should enjoy an equal amount of respectability in film circles today. The fact that they don’t is really more a matter of cinematic happenstance, showing that the right films coming out at the right time in front of the right eyes can make all the difference.

Nathaniel Thompson

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3 Responses Frieda (1947): One of the Best Films You Probably Haven’t Seen
Posted By kingrat : August 9, 2017 11:53 am

Nathaniel, thank you for writing about a film I have never heard of and obviously want to see. And it has Flora Robson, a wonderful actress.

Because the French auteurists essentially dismissed all the British directors who remained in Britain, almost every British director of the studio era is undervalued. Michael Powell now receives his due, but others do not. Thank you for giving Basil Dearden his due.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : August 10, 2017 9:43 pm

Glynis Johns is arguably the villain of The Ref and she steals the entire movie.

Posted By robbushblog : August 10, 2017 11:12 pm

I love discovering these great, old British films that we never hear or read about in film classes or books. They always concentrate on the French and Italians, but never on the great, old British stuff. Now I really want to see this!

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