Ranking: #84/111

Director: Anthony Pelissier (Britain)

Genre: Film Noir Social Drama

Rocking Horse Winner is a brilliantly atmospheric Film Noir social drama. Essentially a tragedy, the film offers a crushing social critique of materialism. It’s one of the most underrated films in cinematic history.

Based on a powerful short story by D.H. Lawrence, it’s a compelling psycho-social drama which  adapts excellent literature into a dynamic cinematic work of art. But it’s more than just a faithful adaption of the great British writer’s story. It elevates it to an even higher level of expressiveness for modern audiences. All the elements of film art are skilfully blended into a near-perfect cinematic work. The lighting and black-and-white noir contrasts help to reinforce the dark themes of obsession and compulsion, while the cast of characters all give out-of-this-world performances. The narrative structure is strong, gradually building up the plot towards its inevitable, awful climax. The cinematic dynamism is provided by the interactions between the characters in a fraught household struggling with overwhelming levels of debt. A subtly threatening atmosphere soon engulfs the Grahame home, with the rather predatory-looking rocking-horse adding to the ominous tone.

A young John Howard Davies gives a striking performance as the family’s eldest son, Paul. The family live in an upper-class home in London, but it soon becomes clear they have huge financial problems. The domineering mother, Hester, is a compulsive spender, with expensive tastes. She’s determined to live a high-class life at all costs. The father, Richard, is a gambler with debts from loses at card games. The veneer of piousness and upper-class snobbery, with its airs and graces, hides a darkly obsessive and disturbed home life.

Hester wants her husband to earn more money and her compulsion starts to haunt the household with the refrain: “We must have more money! We must have more money!” echoing down the hallway and whispering incessantly through the rooms of the stately home. Paul picks this up and internalises it. He, too, then becomes completely obsessed. When he befriends the new servant, Bassett, they form a partnership to win money at the horse races so Paul can save his parents from debt. In an unusual twist in the story, the boy finds he can predict the winner of the races by rocking his wooden horse. The two of them bet their money and win substantial amounts. However, this constant battle takes a mental and physical toll on the boy and he becomes severely ill and dies.

The rocking horse, ironically a Christmas gift, became a symbol of the demonic power money had in the household, with Paul as the sacrificial victim of his mother’s greed and selfish materialism. When Bassett offers Hester the money her son earned through betting, she is horrified and repents of her terrible selfishness, realising that it was her compulsion to be rich which led to her son’s downfall and death. For her, the winnings from the races are “blood money”. As the rocking horse goes up in flames at the end of the film, having become an evil presence, this redemption for the mother has come too late, adding to the poignant sense of tragedy.

By creating a plausible and lively picture of a family gradually crushed by living far beyond their real means, Rocking Horse Winner provides one of the most telling critiques in modern art of the dark power money can wield in the lives of people.