During the Second World War, ten complete strangers: ailing orchestra conductor David Davies (Esmond Knight), impending divorcees Jill (Valerie White) and Richard French (Richard Bird), their precocious daughter Joanna (Sally Ann Howes), wrongfully convicted jail releasee Captain Fortescu (Guy Middleton), black marketeer Oakley (Alfred Drayton), bereaved mother Alice Meadows (Françoise Rosay), her grumpy Naval husband Captain Harry Meadows (Tom Walls), and young lovers Margaret (Philippa Hiatt) and Terence (Pat McGrath) find shelter at a remote Welsh inn known as “The Halfway House” that was supposedly destroyed in a bombing raid. Though the inn seems solid enough, the guests are perplexed to discover its newspapers are all out of date and their hosts cast no shadows. Gradually, ghostly innkeeper Rhys and his daughter Gwyneth (real life father and daughter Mervyn Johns and Glynis Johns) guide each of the troubled visitors towards resolving their personal problems.
Adapted from a stage play by Denis Ogden, this curious offering from Ealing Studios comes from the creative team behind the later, masterful, ghost story anthology Dead of Night (1945), although Alberto Cavalcanti is listed only as producer. Calling the shots was Ealing stalwart Basil Dearden, who made more films for the iconic British studio than any of his peers. Better known for dramatic thrillers like The League of Gentlemen (1960) and the groundbreaking Victim (1961), Dearden had a brace of fantastical films to his credit, e.g. The Mind Benders (1963), The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) and the underrated romp The Assassination Bureau (1969), but rather lacked the lightness of touch that characterises the best of the genre. Consequently, The Halfway House veers from heavy-handed metaphysical drama to tonally uncertain shifts into strained slapstick (e.g. Alice stumbles on Richard spanking Jill in the bathroom!) and flag-waving patriotism.
The underlining message is that in light of the troubled state of the world and the suffering of so many as a result of the war, these characters need to get a proper sense of perspective. Or as Rhys puts it poetically: “The world is what you make it. For your lives make up the world.” Which is a fair point except the personal problems herein range from genuinely compelling (Alice and Harry lost their son when his ship was torpedoed) to not-very-interesting (Margaret is aghast to learn Irishman Terence does not think Germans are all that bad) and frankly rather nebulous (what was Fortescu in jail for?). David’s fear over his imminent death would be a lot more compelling if not for the strangely stilted performance given by Esmond Knight. Oakley’s exploitation of war victims is a suitably odious crime, but the conclusion stretches credibility by implying he is ready to turn himself in.
On the whole Dearden proves unable to make the material transcend its stage origins, but a few poetic touches impart a dreamy atmosphere. Of the players, French star Françoise Rosay (“in her first British film” as the credits announce) imbues her bereaved mother with great poignancy and, even though her subplot ranks among the weakest, fourteen year old Sally Ann Howes - later Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) - is another winning presence (“Mummy, if I die, I want you to have my stamp collection”).