Contraband [Blackout] (1940)

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Contraband holds a number of similarities to All Through The Night (released by Warner Bros the following year). Both films are Hitchcockian thrillers and (as the title of the latter suggests) take place all through a single night in which a romantic hero inadvertently infiltrates a Nazi spy ring (even though the word “Nazi” is never used in ether film). On top of that, Conrad Veidt appears in both films, although he is cast as a villain in All Through The Night. I love films that effectively play out within a condensed time frame and Contraband is simply enormous fun to watch – one of those films which I felt like I had to tell someone about it afterwards I was left that thrilled. Contraband would be renamed Blackout for the US release, but I think Contraband is the cooler title.

Contraband would offer Conrad Veidt the rare role of a hero as Danish seaman, Captain Anderson. Veidt doesn’t have the looks matinee idol but he is very suave and pulls of the romantic hero with ease (sadly this great actor would pass away only three years following the release of Contraband from a heart attack aged 50). The bane to Captain Anderson, Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) is introduced defying the captain’s orders and not wearing a life jacket despite what the chattering gossips around her say. This defiance and Hepburn-esque, free-spirit attitude establishes Mrs Sorensen as a real badass.

The chemistry between Veidt and Hobson has shades of William Powell & Myrna Loy, with the two sharing moments reminiscent of screwball comedies. For example, the scene in which Sorensen calls for a taxi in a feminine voice after multiple taxis ignore Anderson is similar to the hitchhiking scene from It Happened One NightContraband makes reference to bondage on a number of occasions from Anderson’s early foreshadowing asking Sorensen “Have you ever been put in irons?” to the rather erotic, James Bond-style scene in which they attempt to break free after being tied up by their Nazi captors. All this sexual tension culminates by the film’s final scene in which Anderson directs Sorensen to drop her life jacket as it hits the floor and they go into a clinch, followed by phallic symbolism of a dripping wet anchor in the final shot – as steamy as a film from the 1940s can get.

Contraband is set in November 1939, the phoney stage of World War II. Like Powell & Pressburger would do in their subsequent film 49th Parallel, Contraband is clearly a rally call to other nations against neutrality in the war. Although a British film, Contrband is one which should ignite the patriotism in any Dane as Captain Anderson and his fellow Danish patriots from the Three Vikings restaurant in London work together to infiltrate the London based Nazis. Contraband offers an insight into life in London during the blackout as people try to go about their lives as normal, using torches to navigate their way in the street (they must be pointed down or else the blackout warden will call you out) and closing their eyes for ten seconds before going back outside. In one scene two wardens approach a man lighting up a cigarette in the street to which the man angrily responds “Why don’t you do something to earn your 3 quid a week and leave taxpayers alone”. With this portrayal of the restriction of liberties as well as the aforementioned refusal of Mrs Sorensen to be compelled to wear a life jacket, I can’t help for Contraband to directly remind me of recent world events as of writing this review. Due to the blackout setting, much of Contraband is visually dark and makes great use of chiaroscuro lighting and expressionist visuals – appropriate considering that the film stars the most notable cast member from the granddaddy of German Expressionist films, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Unfortunately Contraband has yet to receive the special edition, 4K re-master treatment, with the film only being available in a scratchy print on an old Region 1, Kino DVD.

I do have to question if escapade off Captain Anderson’s ship and into London by Mrs Sorensen and her accomplice Mr Pidgeon (Esmond Knight) was part of a mission or a spur of the moment decision since we are lead to believe the British interception of the ship was unplanned.  It’s never made clear who or what Sorensen or Pidgeon are working for however it is reveled their aim is to find out under what neutral names, German vessels sail across the Atlantic, so in all likelihood, they’re probably British spies. Thus I do theorise that Sorensen and Pidgeon had a part to play on the British authorities stopping the ship and forcing it to dock overnight. This theory is backed up by the film’s ending in which one of the British authorities gives Anderson what he is told is a box containing painkillers to help him with his illness. Afterwards Mrs Sorensen tells him to look in the box only to find it contains the pocket watch which he lost in London, proving more or less she is working for the British authorities.

Adjoining the Nazi’s London layer is a warehouse full of busts of then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by a company known as “Patriotic Plaster Products”. Why does a Nazi spy ring have a warehouse full of busts of Neville Chamberlain? Likewise, I can’t tell whether or not the film is trying to denigrate Chamberlain. After Anderson knocks out one of the Nazi ring leaders using one of the busts which simultaneously smashes it to pieces, Anderson responds “They always said he was tough”. Chamberlain left office on May 10th, 1940 and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister –Contraband was released in UK theatres the following day.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Strangers on a Train

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Lady Vanishes is often imitated but never equaled. Many movies have done the “person vanishes but their accomplice finds out they apparently never existed” plot; but never has it been done as immaculately as The Lady Vanishes. Likewise, the train is the perfect cinematic device; there are an infinite amount of possibilities for scenarios based on trains and Hitchcock sure took advantage of this throughout his career.

The Lady Vanishes is a movie with a great sense of adventure to it, traveling through the picturesque mountains of a politically unstable Europe. It’s never identified what country the movie is set in, only that is “one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners”, letting the viewer’s imagination fill in the blanks. I also love the charming miniature of the train station and hotel in the opening, making no attempt to disguise that is it just that, complete with little moving figures and a car driving with no one in it.

Once the lady vanishes, is it a head-scratcher, leaving me to hope this better have a dam good outcome and not cop out. The intensity ramps up to crazy levels as the mystery deepens with the atmosphere created by the train sound effects and the impending claustrophobia increases. On further viewings all the elements of the mystery make sense; the couple lying to avoid scandal, the cricket fans lying so they won’t be late and the relevance of the serenading man, genius! My favourite scene in the move is the sequence in the cargo bay in which Redgrave and Lockwood investigate magic props and start doing impressions; it’s such a fun scene to watch.

The film’s first act in the hotel could be a movie by itself; a sort of screwball comedy set in a hotel full of characters slightly off their rocker. Michael Redgrave reminds me and even looks like Errol Flynn here. Playing an adventurous free spirit and a character who could have come right out of a screwball comedy as evident by the manner in which he infiltrates Margaret Lockwood’s room, creating a ruckus in order to “put on record for the benefit of mankind one of the lost folk dances of central Europe”. Lockwood herself also plays an adventurous, free spirit (“been everywhere and done everything”), yet it takes the two of them some time to realise they have more in common with each other than they think.

The two English gentlemen who talk about nothing but cricket, on the other hand, showcase the British turning a blind eye to the spread of fascism in Europe. They are the only two who would stand to another country’s so-called national anthem and dismiss a newspaper article on England being on the brink of war as sensationalism. On a lighter-hearted note, they even discuss how baseball is referred to as rounders in the UK in a still relevant joke (“Nothing but baseball you know. We used to call it rounders, children play it with a rubber ball and a stick”). Of course, it wouldn’t be an unashamedly British movie if someone did mention tea (“What you need if a good strong cup of tea”).

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Proper Action and Sh*t

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Hot Fuzz is my favourite comedy of the new millennium as well as in my top 5 favourite films of said era. I already thought Shaun of the Dead itself was a perfect film yet Hot Fuzz is even better. There are so many film and pop culture references, inside jokes and foreshadowing ranging from the subtle to the more obvious. Just how long does it take to write a movie this layered? It’s like Bad Boys meets The Vicar of Dibley meets The Wicker Man. British comedy has long been about quality over quantity, just look at the small episode count of British sitcoms or films by Aardman Animations which employee a similar style of humour to Hot Fuzz; there is more comedy in this one film than several Hollywood comedies combined. The pacing and consistency of the jokes in Hot Fuzz are perfect, never is there more than 10 seconds that I’m not laughing. For me, the best laugh was saved until the end when the swan attacks the police officer in the car.

Those moments when Danny (Nick Frost) asks Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) about films he has seen; just how many times have I been in this situation in real life when someone names films one by one (usually junk food films) and when you say you haven’t seen one they keep going onto you about it. Angel himself manages to be a likable character despite his overt political correctness but for me, Timothy Dalton steals the show. He really is one of the last of his kind as a Shakespearean trained actor who can play these types of debonair villains; here he just has the smuggest look on his face.

It’s easy for a film to mock bureaucracy but this seems to be one film which speaks in its favour, then again how many films can make the act of filling out paperwork look exciting. The film’s use of fascism and the concept of “The Greater Good” (the greater good!) as a theme surprisingly is highly thought-provoking.

Hot Fuzz satirizes action movies by being grounded in reality and with Danny’s misconceptions between fantasy and reality yet at the same time also celebrates them. Having an action movie with British police officers, set in a small English town and full of Hollywood action movie tropes; the concept works on so many levels – likely because there doesn’t exist a tradition of cop movies in the UK. Plus having the bad guy’s hideout being an outlet for an actual British supermarket chain is another stroke of brilliance. There’s just something refreshing and satisfying watching these Hollywood clichés spoofed in a British manner. Action movies have never been a favourite genre of mine, especially this brand of shaky cam, fast cut action, but the action scenes here are legitimately edge of your seat thrilling. The film’s use of CGI blood is my only complaint but when a film is this amazing I can look past this one flaw. Thank you, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg for improving the greater good of British cinema (the greater good!).

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Heathcliff and Cathy’s Other Film

The Divorce of Lady X stands out from other screwball comedies for several reasons. Firstly it’s one of the few screwball comedies filmed in Technicolor which is complemented by the complimented by the luscious set design and brightly coloured ladies costume design. I do love that night club with its dreamlike painted backdrops as well as the miniature work of Trafalgar Square for the film’s opening shots (even if there are a bunch of empty buses driving). Second, it’s the only British screwball comedy I’ve come across to date, putting a British spin on this distinctly American genre. It’s fun watching typical screwball situations with an entirely British cast, set in Britain and with very British lines of dialogue (“You got marmalade all over your newspaper”).

Third and by far most importantly in what has to rank as one of the most bizarre of pre-stardom roles, it stars Laurence Oliver. Yes, the master of Shakespearean tragedy, perhaps the most respected and dignified actor of the 20th century as a stuffy gent who at first is delightedly full of himself but soon gets into all sorts of crazy shenanigans at the mercy of a screwy dame.  Merle Oberon plays one of the most ruthlessly manipulative characters I’ve seen in any film as she is able to weasel her way to get anything out of this man – the type of dame who destroys civilisations. Thus it doesn’t come as a surprise that Oliver goes head over heels for her despite all the anguish she causes him, likewise her previously having four husbands doesn’t help matters (also, that improvised cape made from a bedsheet she wears is such a brilliant touch). The chemistry between the performers works seamlessly and is aided by the sexual tension and undertones.

The first act of The Divorce of Lady X is one big farcical sequence centered around the sexual politics of the time; the fact that an unmarried man and woman sleeping in the same room was considered scandalous, even if there are two separate beds. This ties in nicely with how film critic Andrew Sarris defines the screwball comedy genre, “a sex comedy without the sex”.