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: WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT (1935)

Those who know the Warner Archive Podcast will also know the name Allen Jenkins.  You will also have heard of the Jenkins Awards.  This is an award designed by DW Ferranti on the Warner Archive Podcast to celebrate great actors who have been forgotten by popular culture, such as namesake Allen Jenkins.  Listeners are invited to write in and nominate their favorite actors or actresses for a chance at the Jenkins Award, which I also encourage you all to do.  My personal nominee is one Aline MacMahone, a fabulous actress who is most well-known for playing good-hearted wives and mothers but who is sadly mostly forgotten today.  So imagine my delight when I found a movie that not only stars Aline MacMahone as a crime solving nurse, but that also features Allen Jenkins!  Being that this movie is pretty short, only sixty-five minutes long, and is also a whodunit mystery in an effort to not spoil anything my recap will be briefer than usual.

One stormy night Richard Federie receives a telegram.  The message is brief but the contents are shocking enough to give Mr. Federie a stroke, just as he was reaching for his green model elephant above the fireplace.  He falls to the floor and drops the elephant, and this is where his family finds him.  His clan is full of the usual suspicious characters, a devoted granddaughter (Patricia Ellis) and her lover (Lyle Talbot), a bitter niece (Dorothy Tee), a spiteful daughter-in-law (Helen Flint), an insufferable cousin (Hobart Cavanaugh), a lawyer (Henry O’Neill) and a greedy son (Robert Barrat).  In fact it is the son that will cause the most trouble, as we will soon see.

Through the stormy night comes a car bearing nurse Sarah Keate (Aline MacMahone).  She has been sent for to care for the ailing Mr. Federie and that is just what she intends to do.  Before settling in for the night Federie’s granddaughter, March, comes in to check on her beloved grandfather and his nurse.  After asking if Sarah needs anything else, March requests to be summoned first if her grandfather should awaken as she is certain that he will want to speak to her first before anyone.  She then leaves and is soon followed by Mr. Federie’s son, Adolf.  Adolf also requests to be summoned first if his father wakes up as he is also certain that his father will wish to speak with him first.  In rapid succesion Sarah is accosted by the rest of the Federie clan, all of whom believe that they are the one that will be asked for first when the old man awakens.  By the time that cousin Eustace appears Sarah has had enough, and shoos him from the room after she assures him his name will be placed on the list!

Later that night, while everyone sleeps, March slips through her boyfriend’s room to check on her grandfather.  Her boyfriend, Ross, sees her go through but says nothing and lies back down.  After assuring herself that everything is as it should be, March leaves the room just moments before another visitor enters.  Adolf checks on the sleeping form of nurse Sarah and then hurries to the fireplace to retrieve the green elephant left there by his father.  He takes the elephant and begins to climb the stairs towards Ross’ room when suddenly a shot rings out.  Adolf falls and rolls down the stairs where he is discovered by Sarah.  Awakened by her cries the rest of the family converges on her room where they find Adolf, lying dead.  The family decides to call the police and it is at this moment that Adolf’s wife Isobel, now widow, appears asking what has happened.  When they tell her, Isobel seems slightly surprised but not as upset as you might expect her to be.

Policeman Lance O’Leary (Guy Kibbee) is on the case, along with his right hand man Jackson (Allen Jenkins)!  O’Leary and Jackson have worked with Sarah before, and O’Leary is pleased to be alongside her again.  With a love light in his eye, O’Leary sets about questioning the house staff and various family members.  Each seems more guilty than the next, but Sarah believes that March is the only family member who is above suspicion.  At that moment though, March is out in the rain talking with a mysterious man.  He pleads with her to do as he asks and she agrees before hurrying back inside.  She enters through the kitchen where she runs into Sarah and the cook.  She has also been spotted by the police who are in hot pursuit, and so she quickly slips out of the room.  Sarah, noticing the trail of water on the floor, hurriedly mops the floor just before the two policeman enter the kitchen.  When they ask if anyone has passed through Sarah answers, quite truthfully, that it doesn’t look like anyone has.

O’Leary bemoans to Sarah his surplus of suspects, and the fact that they are all lying so hard to make themselves look innocent that it makes them all look guilty.  At this point, the ballistics expert has arrived and delivers his findings to the detectives.  He believes that Adolf was shot from the balcony above, but Sarah remembers seeing movement behind the curtains just below the stairs.  In fact, she wonders, if Adolf was leaning over the railing at the time when he was shot could it not appear that he was shot from above?  It could!  And Sarah has now remembered something more!  When she discovered the body the little green elephant was lying nearby, the very same little elephant that she returned to the mantelpiece before the rest of the family arrived.  This elephant must be the key to the entire case!  But when Sarah and O’Leary go to retrieve it, they find that it has disappeared!  Where could it have gotten to?  Sarah soon learns that the butler has taken it, but he quickly returns it to her saying that he has felt eyes on him ever since he took it.  O’Leary now believes that the butler is the most likely suspect but he is forced to reconsider when the butler is also found dead at the hands of the unknown assailant.

This is such a fun film, I really enjoyed it!  It is based on a character created by American author, Mignon G. Eberhart, who was thought to be the equivalent of Agatha Christie.  Sarah Keates was featured in several novels, two more of which have been made into feature films from the Warner Archive.  They each feature Ann Sheridan as Sarah Keates, and I am definitely planning on checking them out.  But I will say that I am sad that this is the only time that Aline MacMahone took on the role.

Aline MacMahone is really an underrated actress, and not one that many people know today.  My first time seeing her was alongside Ann Dvorak in HEAT LIGHTNING and I was blown away immediately.  After seeing her in other films, such as HEROES FOR SALE, I was convinced that this was a great actress.  Some have called her homely or plain, but I think she is beautiful and real.  Her acting is always a wonderful combination of sharp wit, humor, pathos, and intelligence.  Her banter with O’Leary is quite funny and you get a good sense of what the relationship between these two characters is. The supporting cast is also terrific with Guy Kibbee putting on a great performance as the quick talking detective, Robert Barrat (reuniting with Aline MacMahone from HEROES FOR SALE) as the duplicitous son, and Allen Jenkins at his Allen Jenkins-iest as the right hand man who just wants to make captain!  This preview clip gives a good sense of what this movie is:

If you get a chance to see this film I highly suggest you do!  If you like Agatha Christie you will most likely be charmed by Sarah Keate and Detective O’Leary, I know that I was!