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.

A Woman’s Face (1941)

Two-Faced Woman

A Woman’s Face is a trashy, pseudo-horror movie like film but one presented as an A-picture melodrama. I’ve watched A Woman’s Face five times as of writing this review and gets better every time I watch it. Within the last year, I’ve felt the motivation to watch the film three times, something which is almost unheard of for me; this movie is that good. I’ve now decided, screw it, this is my favourite Joan Crawford film and considering there’s tough competition from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mildred Pierce and The Women, that’s saying a lot.

Every major cast member in A Woman’s Face is superb. I know that sounds like a generalization but it’s true. Firstly there’s Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring. I adore every second this man is on screen; he’s just so delightfully sinister but in the most absorbingly charming manner – I’m swept off my feet by his presence. I can completely buy into the romance he shares with Anna Holm (Crawford) because he looks past her facial disfigurement and is unbothered by it. Melvyn Douglas is the other great charmer of the cast, whom I’ve yet to see paired with an actress who he didn’t share great chemistry. Ossa Massen, Reginald Owen, Albert Bassermann, Marjorie Main (unrecognisable here) and Donald Meek are also all equally memorable and stand in the strong characterisations of their roles. Likewise on re-watching look out for the moments of foreshadowing (“You love children? I loathe them”).

Then there’s Crawford herself in a once in a lifetime role as a facially disfigured woman, a part few actresses would be prepared to play. Her character of Anna Holm only engages in deceitful acts because of society’s mistreatment of her since childhood but is otherwise good at heart. Anna tries to make the best for herself and doesn’t dwell into a victimhood complex (“I don’t care for pity ether”); she runs her own tavern, pursues different talents and less virtuously is involved in criminality. Regardless throughout the film my heart pours out for the poor woman and yet even with the disfigurement I still find Crawford to be incredibly beautiful in this film, nor does the disfigurement ever take away from the asset that is her stunning body. If anything the moment in which Anna returns from a shopping trip and is wearing a very excessive blouse to take attention away from her face is the one moment in the film in which her character comes off to me as pathetic sight.

A Woman’s Face is one of the few thrillers George Cukor directed with echoes of Hitchcock throughout, such as the shots of the smelter plant and a waterfall in the background (similar to the scenery in films such as Foreign Correspondent), to the film’s suspenseful scenes such as that atop the cable car. This sequence itself is absent of any music, simply allowing the sound of the nearby waterfall and the smelter plant increase the tension while the film’s climax, on the other hand, offers a sort of Ben-Hur on sleds finale. Since I consider this film far superior to Hitchcock’s thriller offering that year of Suspicion, Cukor out Hitchcocked Hitchcock. With Cukor being one of the great masters of his trade, the cinematography of A Woman’s Face is a feast for the eyes. Technically speaking, the scenes at the hospital and Anna’s subsequent unbandaging are my favourite part of the film. Along with A Woman’s Face and the 1934 medical drama Men In White, it makes me wonder if it’s just me or do medical interiors and apparatuses make for some of the best subjects to capture on film.

Being a remake of a Swedish film, there’s something somewhat unconventional about A Woman’s Face for a Hollywood film. The movie does manage to capture the essence of its Northern European setting (despite much of the cast supporting American accents) and offers a slice of Swedish culture with its dancing sequence.

I consider 1941 to be the greatest year in the history of cinema. The output of this single year is the jealous vain of entire decades and A Woman’s Face just adds to this. Melodrama seems to have a bad reputation for no good reason. Like many things, it can be done well and done poorly. A Woman’s Face represents the old Hollywood melodrama tailored to perfection.

All Through the Night (1941)

A Mixture of Action Und Comedy

Bogart: Let’s Get Silly!

Mixing up so many genres into a single movie could potentially be a disaster yet I’ve perhaps never seen a better genre mash-up than All Through the Night. I’m astounded at this movie’s ability to have a bit of everything and pull it off so immaculately; bouncing back and forth between drama, comedy, action, murder mystery and even film noir. All Through the Night is the closest thing to a Hitchcock movie starring Humphrey Bogart in which an ordinary man gets caught up in espionage and becomes a fugitive for a crime he didn’t commit, with moments in the film such as the auction scene or Bogart deliberately getting arrested by police directly reminded me of North by Northwest; likewise the movie even stars Judith Anderson in the Mrs. Danvers hairstyle from Rebecca while Bogart’s exploits against the movie’s Nazi villains gives an urban Indiana Jones edge to the film. Even the movie’s final climatic moment had me on the edge of my seat and thinking to myself “how is he going to get out of this?!”. One top of that the film gets an additional boast with some truly superb use of shadows and lighting; All Through the Night really exemplifies the unique look of Warner Bros. movies of the 30’s and 40’s.

I may sound hyperbolic but the more I think about it, the role of Gloves Donahue may be the greatest performance of Bogart’s career; why you ask, versatility! Just like the tone of the film he is able to continually bounce back between being serious to just downright silly. Bogart has made me laugh during comedic moments in his other movies but I never knew he could make me laugh this side splittingly hard; from subtle moments such as throwing the reserved sign off a table in a nightclub to the more obvious in which he infiltrates and stalls a secret Nazi meeting. At another point he delivers the line “More here than meets the FBI”; I do love me a corny pun but with Bogart delivering it just makes it funnier – All Through the Night makes me wish he had starred in more comedies.

On top of all that, the character he plays is a momma’s boy yet he’s still badass! I find this aspect of his character is hilarious in itself. There’s something adorable about a tough guy who wears dotted bathrobes and loves cheesecake so much; exemplified even more with his mother being played by the ever motherly Jane Darwell. All Through the Night features a large selection of character actors at some of their best work and even features a young Jackie Gleason in one of his earliest film roles; what more secrets does this movie hold? If I was to find any point of contention with All Through the Night I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit romance between Bogart and Kaaren Verne, but with a film that has this much merit, it’s hard to complain.

All Through the Night is an anti-Nazi propaganda film and an effective one at that. I find the satire here is on par with The Great Dictator and To Be or Not Be as the movie pokes fun at Nazi ideology. The leader of the branch of Nazi spies is portrayed by Conrad Veidt whom there was probably no one better at the time to play evil Nazis. Gloves Donahue is also a minor gangster which reflects the attitude of real-life gangsters of the time who worked with the government to infiltrate Nazi spies. One scene in the film involves Bogart giving a chilling monologue on how the Nazis will take people’s freedoms away in an argument against US isolationism in the ongoing war in Europe; all this however without even mentioning the word Nazi once throughout the film. Another interesting aspect of the film is the mentioning of an actual concentration camp Dachau. Being released in 1941 before the true nature of the camps where discovered, this is one moment I found quite chilling. All Through the Night was released in the US only 5 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, although Warner Bros. had already long established themselves as an anti-Nazi studio.

By the time I watched All Through the Night I had already seen all of Bogart’s major movies and figured I was largely finished exploring the actor’s filmography, thus it came as such a delight discovering this obscure gem which satisfied me more than many of his more famous movies. This is the type of movie which makes me want to scream out, “Why the hell is this not more well known?!”, but then again its moments like these in which I live to be a cinephile.