Sound and the fury: David Thomson on The Long Day Closes

This 2007 feature explores Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes – its Liverpool of 1956, the Hollywood movies in the picture houses and its evocative soundscape. We republish in tribute to Davies, who has died aged 77.

The Long Day Closes (1992)

Terence Davies wrote in the introduction to the published script for Distant Voices Still Lives (1988) that he was “trying to create ‘a pattern of timeless moments’.” Yet that picture has a stronger dramatic line than The Long Day Closes (1992). In Distant Voices family life eddies around an immovable rock: the father’s violence to the mother and their children. He has furies, never explained. At Christmas, sat down to dinner, he suddenly pulls the cloth off the table and roars at his wife to clean up. A man can die eventually, but that sort of timeless moment lingers. Violence persists, like an old smell, and can make new nostrils mad again.

The Long Day Closes has violence only at school. There’s a cane in every room, ready to come down on the palm of a hand. Mr Nicholls – who teaches erosion – uses his cane to show the boys who’s boss: “You play ball with me, I’ll play ball with you.” And the hands take the cane’s slap and grow harder, or less hurt, their owners more certain they can hold back the tears. A skin grows, a new surface – or is the hand beaten away, as in the larger world, according to Mr Nicholls, where erosion does its remorseless natural work? In all of Davies’ films there are processes that wear life away and those that let it grow new resources. The school has very limited functions: it canes, it permits bullying, it teaches erosion and it does the ceaseless missionary work of testing the boys’ hair for lice.

After all, this is Liverpool, as 1955 turns into 1956 – and people are a few years away yet from being told they’d never had it so good. The family members wash their hair over a basin using saucepans of hot water and cold; there doesn’t seem to be much variety in the way of food. And there’s no television yet – when that comes, does it add or take away from the easy-going, sing-song atmosphere? There’s just radio and a shilling if Bud wants to go to the pictures.

“Mam,” he asks, “can I go to the pictures?… I’ve got a penny… If you gave me eleven pence I’d have a shilling.” Which is a working definition of mother love and the new version of hard times. And you can tell from Bud’s wheedling voice that he fancies he’s going to get the eleven pence. He’s done it before. And then he’s standing outside the Hippodrome and Doris Day is singing ‘At Sundown’ from Love Me or Leave Me. It would have been an A certificate, so Bud has to ask strangers to take him in. We all did it then, and our mothers knew and went along with it. I daresay they’d be up before Social Services today. It leaves you wondering whether all the violence in the house has since gone out on to the streets.

The Long Day Closes (1992)

How old is Bud? About 11? So I wonder what he made of Love Me or Leave Me. Not that the ladies or gentlemen who took strange kids in to see A certificate films often tested one afterwards. There were a couple of old ladies in Streatham who would take me from the Astoria, over the High Road, to Pratt’s, to the restaurant there. They would insist that I had an ice-cream and ask: “Did you enjoy the picture, dear?” I remember once it was Come Back Little Sheba, which I’d seen for the sake of Burt Lancaster and in hopes that The Flame and the Arrow would be repeated. It was not The Flame and the Arrow, and I told the ladies I really hadn’t understood it (and I was depressed that Burt was not in colour and doing acrobatics – I felt Burt was sad, too). “And neither did we, dear!” they hastened to add. You see, the problem picture appeared early.

Family fortunes

I love The Long Day Closes far too much to start any serious consideration of its director ‘cheating’, but I have to say I think Terence Davies is having his cake and eating it. Because, if you recall, he does suggest that Bud has been seeing Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and The Ladykillers (1955) and The Robe (1953 – though it’s a very tattered, eroded poster on the street wall). I will even allow him the song from Tammy (which is 1957 – and personally I believe either Bud or Terence would have flinched at Tammy when 1957 also offered Lee Remick in A Face in the Crowd or Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind). That’s not my real issue. The thing I love in The Long Day Closes, but have to complain about, is that Bud seems also to have seen Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Bet you didn’t! Bet I did!

Of course, it is the scholar and the nostalgist summoning up memories of those films for an 11-year-old in Liverpool. There wasn’t the chance then to see old pictures in re-runs – not even hits like Meet Me in St. Louis, let alone the devastating failure of The Magnificent Ambersons. And how could Bud be expected to understand a young man’s ‘come-uppance’ when Orson’s dark, dreamy voice tells what happened to George Minafer? Is these films’ inclusion legitimate? Yes, because those two extras are near enough in time to be incorporated, and because they enjoy the same rapturous sense of movie palaces where crowds reclined in such hallowed story sense beneath the funnels of projected light where Beowulfs of cigarette smoke wrestled. (Just to show you that anyone can do 11 going on 21!)

But the employment of ‘wrong’ period films does alert us to this obvious and crucial thing: that The Long Day Closes is not actually ‘There is a boy’, but ‘There was a boy’, which is already tinged with the mixed feelings of adulthood. And that’s where those two extra movies are so suggestive. I can believe that putting his film together (for £1.75 million, for the British Film Institute and Channel4), Davies took clips where he could get them and afford them. It may be that those two movies are there from forced measure, or chance.

Still, they say so much about family. Meet Me in St. Louis, if you recall, is a version of ‘our family is perfect’. There are the Smiths in St Louis, on the eve of the World’s Fair, their little lives all spinning and humming. Then Lon, the dad (Leon Ames), says the bank is going to send him to New York. “Splendid!” they all say, lying their heads off. This is America where people are expected to keep moving, to be advanced, to take the new in their stride. But they hate the thought of it – even the grown girl (like Judy Garland) who might guess she’d be a sensation in the big city. And as the time comes, they grow sadder still, until at Christmas – that last woeful Christmas – Judy sings to Margaret O’Brien (her little sister) the saddest of all Christmas songs, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Tootie (O’Brien) is in tears and goes into the garden and destroys her family of snowmen.

But Lon hears the noise, and the fuss, and he reads it aright. “No one wants to leave St Louis. Well, we won’t!” he cries, the words choking in his throat – for New York was something he wanted. The family stays put. I don’t know if that was right for 1904 (the year of the World’s Fair), but the movie was made in 1944, and lots of people then wanted everything to stay in place. I have a vague recollection – is it in The Cruel Sea? – of a sailor coming home, maybe to Liverpool even, and it’s not just the house that has gone but the street too. Things got blown up.

Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

And if l recall Ambersons, it’s a heartfelt, rueful story about an imperfect but agreeable family that falls apart. They are the Ambersons and they once gave the best parties in that part of lndiana. But the family flopped. Some of them died. Georgie – the bright young hope – has to eat ashes. And if we’d had the whole film that Welles intended, then we’d have seen Georgie and Fanny living in a low boarding house, wondering if they’ll ever recover.

Family position does change. One day you’re the kid at the Christmas table and a silver sixpence has been smuggled into your portion of Christmas pudding and all the older faces turn to you and wish you Happy Christmas – and you’re too pleased to see the mixed feelings in those faces. And then you’re grandfather and the family is already split apart in the modern ways and you’re hoping someone will telephone and you wonder what happened to silver sixpences and kids who would believe stories like that.

I have to say that Terence Davies’ family films don’t quite face that alteration in family life. There is tragedy in the violence of Distant Voices and a kind of reward in the unmarred love of mother and son in The Long Day Closes. The aural quilt of the latter is easier in that there are raised voices, no rows. But I wonder in real life how long it was before, say, Terence started going out with a Protestant girl… or a black boy. There’s a wondrous moment in the film when a man from Jamaica – amiable in every way – comes looking for someone. And the white family jump as if he were a ghost. In the next few years colour came to Britain and many unexpected adjustments were required. The autobiographical films Davies made – though they are more and less than that – are one of our treasures. But in certain dramatic and sociological ways they stop at a point where life might become harder, and where an angelic mother might open her eyes wide and say ‘What?” (like comedian Ted Ray at some outrage) if Bud brought Sal Mineo home, or Monty Clift.

Listen to Britain

Near the end of The Long Day Closes there’s an overhead tracking shot that scans a packed cinema and then turns into a crowded church. There’s the suggestion that these places and school are the large communal experiences Bud and his family enjoy. Davies has left it painfully clear – in his trilogy Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983) – that he hated the Church for the guilt it wanted to apply to him, guilt that could then be made burning brimstone. So the picture house is regarded kindly, as an alternative and even a healing place. I have heard Davies speak, with heartwarming humour and grace, about the merciful fantasy of American cinema. All in all, I suppose, this has helped make Terence Davies one of those emblematic directors – the ones who love the movies and were made by them – that we like to point to when we’re defending the medium. If it needs defending?

The Long Day Closes (1992)

But as I looked at The Long Day Closes again I was struck by something else: the music. It’s a film where the still of the house can be broken by Mam’s soft voice singing ‘Me and My Shadow’. In the superb but mysterious opening, perhaps the greatest thing Davies has ever done, or done yet, you get the camera tracking slowly down a noir Liverpool alley or street, as if it were looking for a body. The street is in ruins – was there a bomb or was the place ‘condemned’? You feel the erosion, all right, but you hear the accretion too, the little bites of sound, from old films or Twentieth Century Fox music. You see the entrance to Bud’s own house and the door’s open and there’s trash inside, and then there’s a great swoon of music and the strange, lush voice of Nat ‘King’ Cole sings ‘Stardust’. Here’s the verse: ”And now the purple dusk of twilight time/Steals across the meadows of my heart/High up in the sky the little stars climb,/Always reminding me that we’re apart./You wander down the lane and far away,/Leaving me a song that will not die./Love is now the stardust of yesterday/ The music of the years gone by.”

Davies lets the song play – and I wonder if the songs aren’t truer and more vivid than the references to movies here. You see, he doesn’t use clips (I daresay his budget dictated that). But that’s no artistic problem, not when he can go from Nat ‘King’ Cole to a snippet of Ray’s A Laugh on the radio, the commencement of a Lift Up Your Hearts, and then, like a great sailboat in a tenement street, the cold thrill and soaring uplift of Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’.

Again, Davies lets it play, as if he loved it so much, the way at the end of the film he has that mackerel sky and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’ itself. It has the same mourning mood as ‘Stardust’: “The lighted windows dim/Are fading slowly/The fire that was so trim/Now quivers lowly/Go to the dreamless bed/Where grief reposes/The book of toil is read/The long day closes.”

Then, in the script, as the a cappella singing ends, there’s a brief note: “The radio waves are heard from deep space.” That’s when, at last, I got it watching the film and reading the script at the same time. What Davies has created is not so much a celebration of those old movies as an oratorio on radio. It’s a bit of an illusion that the American films stand near Bud’s bed as his ancestors or ghosts. What the film really comes from is Humphrey Jennings and Listen to Britain.

Heartbreaking but tough

Perhaps some readers may need me to recall who Jennings was. Born in Walberswick, Suffolk, 1907. Read English at Cambridge. Studied painting – regarded himself as a surrealist. Started working on documentary films and during the war made Listen to Britain (1942), a 20-minute montage driven by sounds, from waves breaking to trains clanking into motion. And then Fires Were Started (1943), a feature documentary, and A Diary for Timothy (1946), written for a baby born in the last year of the war, when victory was assured but peace so worrying. Jennings was a genius and the BFI said so first, so I’m sure Davies knew it. But Jennings, it’s clear, didn’t know what to do after the war, and in 1950 he died in Greece, falling off a cliff.

Listen to Britain (1942)

Davies is past that hurdle. He’s 62 this year. Yet in the years since The Long Day Closes there have been gaps and difficulties. I don’t know the man, though I liked his The House of Mirth (2000) enormously and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t acclaimed. To be blunt, it is streets ahead of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence; it is heartbreaking, but tough. There isn’t a trace of too much sentiment, such as any stern critic fearful of erosion might have warned about in Davies’ future. But he has had great trouble keeping in regular work – and I mean regular like a shilling a week for the pictures.

There was an interview with Davies in this magazine at the time, in which he admitted that over the years he had thought The House of Mirth might never happen. And I can guess how Davies feels at not working. He’s a natural. Listen to this. Philip Home (S&S, October 2000) asked him about sound in The House of Mirth: “Sound is like smell. Take a clock ticking. It can either be very soothing, if it’s a loud tick, or there can be something incredibly melancholy about it. I know what those kind of stifling interiors are like – I remember going into houses that were still Victorian, so circumscribed, we can’t imagine now what it was like.”

Until we hear a sound. And Davies can give us a time and a moment in one shot or one sound. Suppose, a few years later, Bud brings home a boy – and the family goes quietly bananas. Or suppose Bud gets to play for Shankly at Anfield and one day Shankly realises what he’s got: a great gay soccer player. Or you could do the years after the war where Humphrey Jennings is waiting for his fall. Or announcing: The Umbrellas of Liverpool, Britain’s first all-singing romance, by Terence Davies.

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