Dead of Night (1945)

by Afra Nariman

Dead of Night (1945)

Director: Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, Alberto Cavalcanti

Stars: Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Mary Merrall, Googie Withers, Frederick Valk, Anthony Baird, Sally Ann Howes


“Trying to remember a dream is like.. being out at night during a thunderstorm. There’s a flash of lightening and for one brief moment, everything stands out vivid and starkly.”

The point at which our memories intersect with our dreams is a fascinating one that garners reflection, yet can also induce fear — as illustrated in Dead of Night. Dreams are essentially constructed from our memories — not in terms of the events we dream up, but in terms of the faces and locations which paint our dreams. Likewise, yet perhaps more abstractly, after we awake, our dreams become memories themselves, of our other, nighttime reality. The basic question that is often expressed in this type of discussion is something along the lines of, “where lies the line between dream and reality;” but more accurately, the question that materializes the most when reflecting on our own experiences of this point of intersection between memory and dream, is “how do these ‘subconscious thingamajigs‘ inform one another.”

There has been a few moments where I’ve found myself remembering something extremely vividly, yet those who my memory places at the remembered-site with me, recall no such event taking place. This is typically experienced with very simple, mundane “stories” that we dream, which share probable and believable tropes that we can easily relate to as taking place in our reality. Simply put — some dreams are more realistic than others, and can more easily be conflated with real-life. 

Not only can dreams become conflated with real-life memory — which does shape our reality in the way we potentially perceive our lives, our relationships, our past, etc; our reality (where real-life memories are created in the present moment) can conversely be shaped by dreams as well. Typically we all accept that the faces in our dreams/nightmares are the faces which we encounter — even briefly — in reality. Although presented to us more supernatural than is perhaps conceivable, in Dead of Night, we’re asked to consider what would happen if the opposite occurred: faces from our nightmares now show up in real life — and thus your nightmares seep into your reality. 

When I was a young kid, I would often have nightmares, including a few recurring ones (as many kids often do). Some of the nightmares were more strange and abstract — not inherently “scary,” yet still inducing the feeling of fear. Others though, would consist of a plot — something bad/inherently “scary” would happen to me or to those around me. At one point (and I cannot remember exactly how old I was), 2-3 nightmares of mine (only one of which I can still remember in relative detail) featured the same antagonist. The thing was, I did not recognize him. Usually, if you do remember the face of a “main character” from a dream, you’d recognize that person from real life. I did not, and I remember finding that strange for whatever reason. A little while later though, I went to the post-office with my mom and while we were waiting in line, I saw the antagonist of those nightmares! He was a postal employee that I still didn’t recognize. Of course, in reflection that was my neighborhood post-office and I had likely seen him countless times, yet never paid any attention. But in the moment, as a kid, that seemed kind of freaky to me. Although my dreams didn’t directly inform my physical reality; those nightmares did inform how I perceived my reality. Like I said, it’s likely that I had “seen” that man countless times at the post-office, but it was the effect of those nightmares that likely made me finally notice him that time. Those nightmares affected how I reacted to that real-life moment. Similarly, the looped structure of Dead of Night indicates this cyclical relationship between what we dream and what we experience/perceive — again though, the film presents this much more abstractly, inconceivably and supernaturally. 

The world our dreams and nightmares are made of are often altered reflections of our reality. People’s faces assume new identities, their jobs change, our dream-world’s are often geographically different than our real-world, etc. Much like is expressed in the film’s segment about the mirror that reflects a bedroom which differs from the couple’s own, our dreams can be understood as being a reflection of our reality — changed and unalike, yet persistently shaping our thoughts, emotions and perceptions of things, just as the altered reflection in the mirror shaped the man’s thoughts, emotions and perceptions. At one point, finding the line between his reality and this abstract reflection blurred, he says:

“I feel as if that room, the one in the mirror, were trying to claim me, to draw me into it. It almost becomes the real room and my own bedroom imaginary.”

The conflating of dream/reality is more common in children — hence my story — but is nonetheless notable generally (regarding nightmares, which are often more vivid than regular dreams; but as we get older, it becomes more plausible with common interactions, as I mentioned earlier). 

Dead of Night features a collection of stories told by a group of people who have all encountered what one character coins, “subconscious thingamajigs” — or supernatural events that bend either reality/dreams, time or dimensions. Like I said — more abstract, inconceivable and supernatural than my story about the postal worker I hadn’t noticed, but certainly had seen. Dead of Night is not particularly “scary,” but it is certainly fascinating and at moments, chilling. A hugely imaginative work that feels ahead of its time in many regards.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

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