THE MAGNET (1950) is a British film produced by the Ealing studios, directed by Charles Frend, starring Stephen Murry, Kay Walsh and William (later known as James) Fox. One day a young boy, Johnny Brent (Fox), cons a younger boy out of his prized possession, a large magnet, by trading it with an “invisible watch”. The little boy’s Nanny accuses Johnny of stealing. Johnny runs away and tries to get rid of the magnet in various ways, but it keeps returning to him. Finally he gives it to the inventor of an iron lung. The inventor tells the story of the boy’s charity on fundraising events, upon which the whole town searches for the mystery boy. One day on the train home from school, Johnny comes across the Nanny again and overhears her telling a friend how her parakeet died of a broken heart. He misunderstands and thinks that the little boy died of grief over losing his magnet. Johnny runs away from home and hides out with a gang of street children. While playing a game of dare on a bridge, one of the children falls, and Johnny saves his life. The injured boy is brought to the hospital and ends up in the iron lung, upon which the magnet has been mounted. When Johnny visits the boy, he runs into the inventor. Johnny receives a civic award, which he gives to the little boy he cheated out of the magnet.

Ealing is, of course, best known for comedies. This film is also commonly categorized as a comedy, and it was advertised with the tagline, “It turned the whole town TOPSY-TURVY!”. Perhaps the film is one of the studio’s lesser known efforts because it might disappoint in that regard. The misunderstandings and improbable twists and turns of the plot certainly provide some amusement, but it is hardly humor of the slapstick sort, and the protagonist’s predicament even has its dark side. False expectations would be a pity, because the film has much to recommend it on its own terms, and many people who have seen it seem to find it very memorable.

Two aspects intrigued me in particular. Firstly, the plot is an ironic reversal of the standard Hitchcock story. Instead of an innocent man being pursued, the protagonist actually did do something wrong, imagines even worse and feels guilty about it. Various people are looking for him not in order to persecute or harm him, but to help and even commend him. The director’s attraction to this story may not be entirely accidental, because Frend edited several of Hitchcock’s early British films, namely SECRET AGENT (1936), SABOTAGE (1936) and YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937). The film is quite suspenseful as well. It creates atmosphere and empathy with the protagonist’s fear, but with comparatively few subjective devices. Instead of Hitchcock’s surreal touches, the film is shot in a low-key style, almost like a documentary.

Secondly, and this also has some relation to Hitchcock, the film makes fun of psychoanalysis. The protagonist’s father is a child psychologist, and when Johnny begins to behave strangely due to his guilt feelings, he begins to analyze his son in the standard way, which entirely misses the mark. Mr Brent believes that his son’s anxiety is due to the growing pains of separating from his mother. Nothing could be further from the truth, because even though Johnny’s fears are exaggerated, the way he tries to deal with them alone is quite precocious, and his reasons for avoiding his parents have nothing to do with his relationship to them.

Even though class is certainly an important element of many British films, I do not quite agree with user reviews who regard the critique of psychoanalysis as a negative depiction of the middle class in contrast to the more positive depiction of the working class children. After all, the game of dare nearly kills one of them, and in the end, Johnny returns to his family and community. What ultimately wins the day so charmingly are traditional British virtues and values that are shared by all.

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By aplantage

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