The rain that sheets down in nearly every scene of Robert Hamer's 1947 It Always Rains on Sunday is as much a psychological phenomenon as a meteorological one — a bleak, bone-chilling damp born from the bombed-out dreams and desires of a dozen or so characters during a single 24-hour period in postwar London. Based on a novel by Arthur La Bern, it begins as the story of a former barmaid, Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers), who offers safe haven to her former lover, the escaped felon Tommy Swann (John McCallum). But with that desperate situation as its emotional and narrative core, It Always Rains on Sunday fans out into a sprawling, Altmanesque tapestry of East End life that encompasses the barmaid's comely stepdaughter, Vi (Susan Shaw); Vi's occasional lover, Morry (Sydney Tafler); his gangster brother, Lou (John Slater), who has eyes for Vi's sister, Doris (Patricia Plunkett); and the flat-footed detective, Fothergill (Jack Warner), who's close on Swann's trail. Like Hamer himself, all meet with something less than a good end.

It Always Rains on Sunday is a masterpiece of dead ends and might-have-beens, highly inventive in its use of flashbacks and multiple overlapping narratives, and brilliantly acted by Withers and McCallum. Compacted into a breathless 90 minutes, the entire film exists in a state of high anxiety — not a frame is wasted. Finally, day gives way to night, the despair thickens, and all points converge on a fever-dream train-yard finale of long shadows, deep focus, billowing smoke and rear projection.

This is clearly the work of a tortured soul. A repressed homosexual and a drunk, by the time of School for Scoundrels (1960) — the last film that bears his name as a director — Hamer was collapsing on the set and suffering from horrific delusions (including one of a mutilated lobster chasing him through the streets of London), and ultimately had to be replaced. Three years later, he was dead at 52. But for bad luck and a penchant for self-destructiveness, Hamer might have been one of the major figures in modern British cinema. As things stand, It Always Rains on Sunday is a major work, badly in need of rediscovery.

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