Classics From Criterion: GREEN FOR DANGER (1946)

This post is a dual posting in conjunction with Kristina from Speakeasy!  Be sure to check out her thoughts on this film here!

A few months ago I posted about my trip to the Princeton Record Exchange.  Among my DVD purchases for the day were a few Criterion films, including GREEN FOR DANGER.  This was a film that I had seen years ago with my family and one that I had really enjoyed.  Luckily for me, Kristina gave me the perfect excuse to see this film again when she agreed to join me in a dual post!

During the days of WWII, August of 1944 to be exact, the English countryside is under attack from the German Doodlebugs.  “Buzz bombs” as the locals call them are V-1 flying bombs which fly towards their intended targets with a loud buzzing motor before going deathly silent, as the motor cuts out and the bombs glides noiselessly towards the people below.  One such area suffering the scourge of the doodlebugs is Heron’s Park Emergency Hospital, a rural hospital in the southeast of England.

The staff of the hospital work tirelessly, in spite of the constant threat of bombing, to provide care for the sick and injured locals.  Among the staff members of the hospital are the five doctors and nurses who were present in the operating theatre the night postman Joseph Higgins comes in.  There is Mr. Eden (Leo Genn), the attending surgeon with steady hands and a silver tongue.  He has a definite weakness for the ladies, especially nurses, something which Sister Bates (Judy Campbell) is all too familiar with.  Sister Bates tries her best to maintain her cool in her role as head operating theatre nurse but she finds it difficult to forget the past relationship she had with Mr. Eden, especially when she walks in on him kissing Nurse Freddi Linley (Sally Gray).  Freddie has been a bit conflicted of late, she is drawn to Mr. Eden certainly but she also still loves the man she might or might not be engaged to, Dr. Barney Barnes (yes, really).  Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard) works alongside Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) who is the voice of sarcasm and reason more often than not, as well as Nurse Sanson (Rosamund Jenkins) who everyone seems very surprised to see back at work after her “incident” and who Mr. Eden strongly urges to leave the hospital as soon as possible.

Into this cocktail of people, relationships, and motives comes Joseph Higgins.  A local postman and member of the town watch, Higgins was brought in quite injured after a bomb landed on his post office.  Due to his injuries, it takes several days before his identity is discovered by the hospital staff.  By that time, however, it has been decided that Joseph Higgins must undergo surgery to repair a fractured leg.  Mr. Eden will perform the surgery, assisted by Dr. Barnes, Nurses Bates, Linley, and Woods, while Nurse Sanson cares for Joseph Higgins on the ward.  We have to start with Joseph Higgins you see.  We have to start with Joseph Higgins because, as Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) dictates in his case report, “he was the first to die”.

Let me start off by saying that I don’t think that anyone does a better whodunit than the Brits.  For me, there is nothing that I love more than a proper English murder mystery.  And GREEN FOR DANGER has to be one of the best that I have ever seen.  I heard a description of this film as one that puts out lots of red herrings during the story but at the end you will still have not guessed the identity of the murderer until it is revealed.  Now, let me say that I do not go into films usually trying to guess the ending,  I prefer to let it unfold naturally.  However, this is not to say that I don’t try to guess the ending before it happens.  Well, as I said I had seen this film before, albeit a few years ago, and I can say that I still couldn’t guess who the murderer was before the end!  My husband joined in watching with me and when we took a break halfway through he told me, quite confidently I might add, who he thought was the murderer.  He was wrong.  As the end credits rolled he said, “That is why it is a Criterion.”

Aside from the fact that it is (forgive the overt British-ism) a cracking good mystery, this film has a cast to die for.  Trevor Howard, Leo Genn, Megs Jenkins, ALASTAIR SIM?!  Does it get much better than that?  The characters never feel forced or like one-dimensional place holders, rather they are all fully fleshed out people that we feel we know.  I think that is part of what makes the ,mystery so good in GREEN FOR DANGER.  We get to know these characters, or at least we think we do, and so we form very definite ideas about who we think could actually be the murder.  We are biased towards our preferred character and when confronted with new evidence find it difficult to condemn them.

The backdrop of WWII is always present in this film, as the droning buzz bombs not only are the catalyst for the whole murder, brining Joseph Higgins to the hospital in the first place, but remain a constant threat overhead.  It is an interesting juxtaposition to see, the hospital staff held at the mercy of a murderer among them, while overhead death could come quickly and indiscriminately with a single bomb.  The staff face each threat in the same way, while resolve to continue on their duties but with a watchful eye at all times.  The war on the home front is  being waged against the German forces but there are still those who find the time to wage war amongst each other.  Is it selfish?  Maybe, but maybe too there is a sense of escapism in finally having something else to focus on rather than the war.  Perhaps the personal problems of five staff members are a welcome distraction from the horrors of war buzzing just above.

Finally, let me just say that GREEN FOR DANGER has a script that is just so clever and so witty that I can hardly stand it.  It is so good.  For example;

Dr. White: I do hope everything can be arranged discreetly.
Inspector Cockrill: Umm, shouldn’t think so for a moment.
Dr. White: Why not? Press? Do they have to be seen?
Inspector Cockrill: Can’t keep ’em out.
Dr. White: Oh, dear.
Inspector Cockrill: I don’t mind; they always give me a good write-up.

Dr. Barney Barnes: I gave nitrous oxide at first, to get him under.
Inspector Cockrill: Oh yes, stuff the dentist gives you, hmmm — commonly known as “laughing gas.”
Dr. Barney Barnes: Used to be — actually the impurities cause the laughs.
Inspector Cockrill: Oh, just the same as in our music halls.

And the best…

Inspector Cockrill: My presence lay over the hospital like a pall – I found it all tremendously enjoyable.

Clearly Alastair Sim gets all the best lines.

This is a terrific murder mystery and wonderful film. My husband, who is not a classic film fan, gave it 4 out of 5 stars and I think it says something that the murder mystery is so well done and surprising even to those who have seen it before.  If you would like to hear a bit more about GREEN FOR DANGER, no spoilers I promise, check out this episode of the Attaboy Clarence Podcast.  And of course be sure to go and read Kristina’s take on this film as well!  Then go and watch it and let me know what you think.  Once you do you might realize that the biggest clue was right in front of you all along!