City of Shadows (Vancouver, 1957)

This video clip comprises excerpts from Out of the Shadows, produced for the Salvation Army in 1957 by Lew Parry Film Productions.  The film depicts the experiences of a homeless alcoholic on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and his eventual reintegration into society through the services of the Harbour Light Corps.[1]

These excerpts, edited from the first half of the film, show the man’s day-to-day existence on the streets of Skid Row – loitering, panhandling, drinking non-potable alcohol, sleeping rough, and finally passing out in an alley.  The second half shows his growing awareness of his condition, his struggle to give up alcohol and regain his self-respect, his acceptance of help from the Harbour Light, and his newfound faith.

Out of the Shadows has several remarkable elements.

  • The unnamed central character is not played by an actor, but is an actual recovered alcoholic, re-enacting scenes from his own life.[2] Seen first in his new job as a commissionaire at Vancouver Airport, he then recalls his story in an extended flashback.[3]
  • The first-person narration, written by journalist Reginald M. Dagg and spoken by (uncredited) Vancouver actor Walter Marsh, is dramatic and compassionate, yet entirely believable as coming from the subject himself.
  • The film was shot on location in the streets of Vancouver, stressing the seamier aspect of the city.
  • The black-and-white cinematography, mainly using available light, emphasizes darkness and shadow. In one scene, a handheld camera is used to provide a subjective view of the protagonist’s staggering drunkenness.  Strangely, no cinematographer is named in the credits.

Many of the above elements – the use of flashbacks, first-person narration, location shooting, an urban setting, and of course black-and-white film – are also key characteristics of film noir, the cycle of darkly poetic crime dramas made in America during the 1940s and 1950s.[4]  Were producer Lew Parry, director Bert Pullinger, and writer Reg Dagg consciously influenced by film noir?  That might be overstating the case.  Nevertheless, it’s quite true that Out of the Shadows is markedly different from any other film that Parry produced.  His legacy as BC’s most prolific filmmaker rests on 30 years of sponsored industrial films – competently made, straightforward, and mostly impersonal.  And Bert Pullinger made so many films for the BC forest industry that Parry dubbed him “Cecil B. DeSawmille.”

Chilliwack Progress, 19 November 1958, p. 8

Chilliwack Progress, 19 November 1958, p. 8

Out of the Shadows probably owes much to another Vancouver film:  the CBC documentary Skidrow, directed by Allan King and written by Ben Maartman, which was broadcast nationally in early 1957.  It shares the setting of Shadows, and many of the same cinematic qualities – as well as its insight and compassion – and is one of the best Canadian films of its time.  But Skidrow is also unremittingly bleak, and its third-person narration allows us to stand outside the lives of its derelict subjects, who are portrayed as men utterly without hope.  The Salvation Army’s presence is presented as charitable and well-meaning, but largely ineffectual.

The subject matter was not a popular choice, either.  When Skidrow was submitted to the Prix Italia broadcast film competition, a small-minded editorial in the Vancouver Sun questioned whether “Canadian cultural interests require CBC to show this city to Europe as a collection of drunks sleeping in doorways.”[5]  However, the stark realities of life on the Downtown Eastside have often captured the attention of writers and artists.  Malcolm Lowry described the area memorably in a powerful poem, written just after the Second World War:

Beneath the Malebolge lies Hastings Street,
The province of the pimp upon his beat,
Where each in his little world of drugs or crime
Drifts hopelessly, or hopeful, begs a dime
Wherewith to purchase half a pint of piss –
Although he will be cheated, even in this. [6]

Shadows, on the other hand, offers the hope of recovery and self-redemption, and demonstrates through example that they are possible.  This important difference is no doubt due to the fact that the Salvation Army wanted to use the film as a promotional and fund-raising tool.  In place of the unwavering documentary eye of Skidrow and Lowry’s poem, Out of the Shadows maps a narrow path out of its urban Hell.  I follow that path in another post with a look at the film’s second half.

Shadows_still_1_edit

Out of the Shadows: “Yeah, this was me. I was this man. Empty. Bleary-eyed. I was a bum, a drunk.” (Digital frame grab from BC Archives V1987:18/004.01)

==============

[1]       The usage of “Downtown Eastside” to denote the blighted Vancouver neighbourhood centred on Main and Hastings seems to date from the early 1970s.  In earlier decades, the area was known as the city’s “Skid Road” or “Skid Row”.  The social problems connoted by that label began prior to Prohibition, and were exacerbated by the Great Depression, the Japanese-Canadian internment, and many other factors.  See “Downtown Eastside” and “Skid row: Vancouver” in Wikipedia; retrieved 8 January 2017.

[2]       [Newspaper reference from BC Filmography Project files.]

[3]      The opening sequence at the airport, which is badly damaged in the BC Archives’ print, has not been included in the video clip.

[4]      The heyday of film noir is generally seen as being bookended by John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).

[5]       Vancouver Sun, 9 August 1957, p. 4.

[6]       Malcolm Lowry, “Christ Walks in This Infernal District Too,” Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry, ed. Earle Birney, Pocket Poets no. 17 (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1962), p. 64.  “The Malebodge” is a reference to Dante’s Inferno, where it is the name given to the eighth and penultimate circle of Hell.

2 thoughts on “City of Shadows (Vancouver, 1957)

  1. Pingback: A Path from the Shadows (Vancouver, 1957) | Seriously Moving Images

  2. Pingback: “The Best Surviving Copy”: Preserving BC’s Filmed History | Seriously Moving Images

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