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!

Watching With Warner: ALL AT SEA (1957)

I am a complete anglophile.  I love all things British and so when I was wanting something a little more light-hearted to take a short break from TCM’s Summer of Darkness, I turned to Sir Alec Guinness, Ealing Studios, and the Warner Archive.

Captain William Horatio Ambrose (Alec Guinness) and his crew are being awarded the Lloyd Medal by the British Government, a prestigious award for their heroic actions in saving their ship, the H.M.S. Arabella.  After the ceremony Captain Ambrose is besieged by reporters hoping for a story but they are to be disappointed.  The good captain has already promised his story exclusively to a reporter named Peters.  Peters is waiting for the captain at the pub across the street, where the captain is given a jug of rum with the compliments of the owner all in thanks for his heroic actions.  Captain Ambrose begins to regale Peters with the tale of his life, one which starts soberly enough but as the rum flows becomes more and more, shall we say, blustery.  It seems that Captain Ambrose comes from a long line of sea-faring men all of which met with varying degrees of success, or lack there of, during their naval careers.  Ambrose has a terrible secret of his own and it is that he suffers from terrible and intractable sea sickness.

After the end of the war, the duration of which Ambrose spent in naval labs testing different experimental sea sickness cures, the aging Captain Ambrose reads an advert in a local paper regarding the sale of a vessel docked at Sandcastle called the Arabella.  After spending his entire life savings to buy this vessel, Captain Ambrose finds that he has not bought a ship at all but rather a run-down amusement pier.  The local population is not particularly impressive either.  The pier is currently run by a crew of men who, although wearing naval uniforms, have no military experience save one man named Tom (Percy Herbert).  The head man of the pier is a man named Figg (Victor Madern), a local dredger who promptly resigns as soon as it becomes clear that Captain Ambrose is now in charge and has no interest in continuing to allow the men to slack off.  Tom is quickly promoted to First Officer, and Captain Ambrose sets about trying to make the pier profitable again.

This does not go particularly well however.  The problem is that Captain Ambrose has managed to get on the bad side of two members of the local council.  The first is Mayor Crowley (Maurice Denham), a crooked local politician who sold the pier at a vastly inflated price but who doesn’t like that the captain is not willing to play ball with him in matters of pay offs and the like.  The second, and more troublesome, is Mrs. Barrington (Irene Browne) who runs the local bath houses, has a penchant for moral decency at all costs, and who already thinks that the captain is a peeping tom.  The first sign of trouble comes when Captain Ambrose wakes up to find that the pier’s slot machines have been confiscated by the council because they encourage gambling, according to Mrs. Barrington that is.  Heading down to the police station to make his case, Captain Ambrose manages to convince the local officers that the machines do not constitute gambling at all when Mrs. Barrington walks in.  Supremely confident in her right to take the machines, she is less than pleased to see the captain walking out with them.  This clearly means war.

Captain Ambrose sets about trying new and different ways to improve the pier and create a lucrative tourist attraction.  But at each possible juncture he is foiled Mrs. Barrington and the council.  He makes a dance hall for the local teens (and yes, Alec Guinness dances and it is fabulous) but the police shut him down because he doesn’t have the proper permits.  When Captain Ambrose goes before the council to pay his fines, he is informed that on top of the money he owes he is no forbidden from acquiring a dance hall permit.  He tries to make a bar but he is prevented from getting a liquor license.  The next day the council meets and Mrs. Barrington immediately launches in to a diatribe about how Captain Ambrose is corrupting the morality of the community.  Mayor Crowley dismisses her concerns as he has plans to create a marine drive which will lead to the demolition of the pier.  Mrs. Barrington is on board with this plan until she realizes that it means that her beach huts will be destroyed as well.  In an indignant rage she resigns from the council and storms out.  No one seems to miss her.

Out on the pier Tom and Captain Ambrose spot a figure on the shoreline.  It is Mrs. Barrington and she is crying!  Ever the gentleman, Captain Ambrose goes ashore to speak with her and see if there is anything he can do to help.  Mrs. Barrington brushes him off at first but finally relents and agrees to join the captain for a spot of coffee, with a dash of rum, in his cabin.  After a few cups, Mrs. Barrington and Captain Ambrose are feeling much more sympathetic towards each other.  Captain Ambrose thinks that it is a travesty that the bath houses are to be demolished!  Mrs. Barrington tells him that things are much worse than that, his pier is set to be demolished too!  The two former enemies then set about devising a way to keep both the bath houses and the pier from being torn down.

God Bless Warner Archive.  I love Ealing films, ever since my Dad first showed me KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS.  Some might argue that ALL AT SEA (also released as BARNACLE BILL in England) is a lesser Ealing comedy, but I would say that even a weak Ealing comedy is still aces.  Yes, I am channeling my inner Brit.

Let’s start with the obvious, Alec Guinness is fabulous.  He plays the role of Captain Ambrose totally straight, which makes the situations even funnier.  A character who could be very buffoonish comes across as quite human and sympathetic.  He brings a dignity to Captain Ambrose, but also a humor which is quite endearing.  Also, his voice and diction are wonderful.  He is another person I could sit and listen to read the phone book.

This film is really what I love about the Ealing comedies.  Clever and witty, funny and charming, ALL AT SEA is just a really lovely way to spend an afternoon.  The story is engaging and amusing, and the cast of characters is varied and enjoyable.  Even the “bad” guys are easy to take and no one comes across as really annoying or  just too evil to tolerate.  This is what Ealing did best, a human comedy about people.  While the stories and situations might be slightly inflated or seem just a little out there, there is still a very human heart to each story.  This might be a little story about little people, but it is really great fun and I certainly recommend it.  Thanks to Warner Archive for making ALL AT SEA available and I will be crossing my fingers for more Ealing Studios releases in the future!

If you want to hear more about All At Sea/Barnacle Bill and some other lesser known Ealing comedies check out the Attaboy Clarence Podcast

Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: THE TUNNEL (1935)

Lots of things happening around the blog lately.  As I posted previously I am taking part in the Classic Film History Blogathon with not one but TWO entries, as well as the upcoming Beach Party Blogathon.  AND lest we forget I am also taking part in the Summer 2015 Classic Film Reading Challenge…which means that very soon there will be BOOK REVIEWS!  I am still trying to find time to watch other films for the blog, and clear off my DVR in the process, which leads me to THE TUNNEL…

A group of millionaires gathers to take in an evening of music at some unspecified date in the future (there is an illusion to a past event being in the 1940s so it is safe to assume that we are at least in the 1950s) somewhere in England.  They are introduced to brilliant engineer Richard McAllen (Richard Dix) who has come up with a crazy idea.  Having already built “The Channel Tunnel”, McAllen now wants to build a tunnel underneath the ocean to connect America and England.  While he pitches his idea, McAllen’s wife Ruth (Madge Evans) and his best friend Freddie Robbins (Leslie Banks) wait anxiously outside.  Though initially skeptical the millionaires, lead by arms dealer Grellier, finally agree to back the Tunnel Project.

Years pass and the tunnel construction moves head, now improved by the newly invented radium drill.  McAllen is a celebrity but is constantly pulled away from spending any time with Ruth and their growing son Geoffrey.  In fact he cannot even attend Geoffrey’s birthday because he is summoned to New York to take part in a publicity promotion lead by Varlia Lloyd (Helen Vinson), daughter of one of the Tunnel Project backers.  Varlia has been in love with McAllen for years and the photos of the two together plant doubts into Ruth’s mind.  Feeling increasingly isolated and distant from her husband, Ruth decides to join the Tunnel Project as a nurse without letting McAllen know.  While working there she becomes affected by the mysterious tunnel gases and begins to go blind.  Not wanting to be pitied and tired of playing second fiddle to the Tunnel Project, Ruth takes Geoffrey and leaves her husband with no explanation.  Heartbroken at this turn of events, McAllen throws himself into his work and even begins to alienate Robbins.

Still more years pass and the project begins to take its toll both in funds and in lives.  The leaders of America and Great Britain (Walter Huston and George Arliss respectively) continue to promote the project and the peace that they hope it will bring.  McAllen is now just a shell of the man he used to be, Robbins is losing his patience, and Ruth lives in the countryside with Geoffrey who is now trying to get a job in the tunnel alongside his father.   The project is nearing completion when disaster strikes.  While digging the men hit an underground flow of fire and lava, causing the deaths of hundreds.  When the smoke clears and the situation is assessed, it is discovered that they are digging straight towards an underwater volcano.

This film was based on the 1913 novel Der Tunnel by Bernhard Kellermann, which sold 100,000 copies in its first six months of publication and became one of the most successful books from the first half of the twentieth century.  The book had been filmed several times, the first being in 1915 as a silent film directed by William Wauer.  The other three versions were all filmed at roughly the same time (from 1933-1935) in German (Der Tunnel), French (Le Tunnel), and English (The Tunnel).  This was not uncommon as at the time the studios didn’t have the technology to dub dialogue for different languages and so just filmed a movie multiple times in multiple languages.  The films would utilize the same sets and locations but different actors and directors.

THE TUNNEL is what I would call a curio.  It is not a fabulous film but it is certainly an enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half, especially if you like British melodrama (which I do).  The fact that it is set in the future makes it interesting as the sets and props are unique interpretations of what the movie makers felt the future would be like.  It is a combination of 1930s fashion and design mixed with imagined futuristic technology, transport, and architecture.  Combine that with the engaging dynamic of Richard Dix and Leslie Banks, and this is a film that is at least deserving of a look.