Went The Day Well? is a fascinating Second World War Ealing propaganda film based on Greene’s short story The Lieutenant Died Last, published in June 1940 by the noted Brazilian-born documentary maker Alberto Cavalcanti.
The storyline (which has some resemblance to Jack Higgins’ The Eagle Has Landed ) evokes with a convincing passion the determination of a nation that had to be defended against an invader. The setting is a small English village that is so cut off that the arrival of a car is an event. When lorryloads of Royal Engineers led by Major Ortler (Basil Sydney) turn up, the villagers have no reason to suspect that they are really disguised German paratroopers, and that the squire, Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), is a Fifth Columnist. The villagers eagerly billet the soldiers but slowly their suspicions are aroused (the visitors cross their sevens, for example, and misspell words like “chocolate”). But the Germans move first and the village is held captive. Suspense mounts as the captives attempt to outwit the enemy, and finally the alarm is raised.
Cavalcanti realised his vision of Went the Day Well? with considerable dramatic force. His documentary background clearly helped in creating a vivid and credible mise en scene and he showed remarkable empathy with his actors. The film, given its subject, inevitably raised controversy on its release. Perhaps the divisions of opinion were caused by the reactions of different people, at that particular time of crisis, to the very idea of showing invasion actually in progress. “It seems, in retrospect, one of the film’s signal strengths that in such a traditionally genteel setting, it allows such violent realism to erupt,” said The Listener . “It does all that Hitchcock is said to do: injecting horror into the quotidian, the strangler at the tea party; but with a purpose more profound than his, not simply for the sake of a transitory thrill.”
UK / Ealing / 1942 black and white
Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
Writer: Angus MacPhail, John Dighton, Diana Morgan, from a story by Graham Greene
Cast: Leslie Banks, Basil Sydney, Marie Lohr, Valerie Taylor, CV France, Frank Lawton, Elizabeth Allan, Mervyn Johns, David Farrar