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 More The Merrier (1943)

Three’s a Crowd

The More The Merrier represents the screwball genre adapting for the war years however this was at the end of the genre’s original run. I wonder why there were not more screwball comedies made during the war period? Did people become more cynical with the war or perhaps the genre was simply made for the depression era. Instead of taking on the establishment like the genre screwball did during the depression, The More The Merrier is supporting it. It is refreshing to see a propaganda film from the war years which is less gloomy and shows how common folk got on with their daily lives during the war.

My main flaw with The More The Merrier is Joel McCrea. He’s fine but that’s the problem, he’s only just fine; a serviceable actor who doesn’t leave a great impression. He’s the weak spot of a trio of characters who could have been much stronger with a more charismatic actor. Granted this was during the war and most of Hollywood’s big male leads were off in Europe kicking Hitler’s ass. Could Cary Grant have played the role instead, but perhaps a big star like that couldn’t play a role in he doesn’t show up until half an hour in. The trio of characters still manages to be fun with Jean Arthur playing the straight man and Charles Coburn as an immature and conniving old man who still seems like a kid at heart; while the romance between Arthur and MrCrea is still believable and handled very well as they spend the final third of the film quietly denying their feelings for each other.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn are one of the more unconventional screen pairings in Hollywood starring in three films together, just look at the morning schedule scene; comic choreographed brilliance and by far my favourite part of the film. When McCrea enters the picture though I feel it is never as strong. Also after you watch this movie you may find yourself saying “dam the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”, a lot.

Mister Roberts (1955)

No One Can Succeed Like Mister Roberts

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Fonda, Cagney, Powell, Lemon. What more could you ask for? Being a huge fan of all four actors, for me personally, Mister Roberts may be the greatest accumulation of actors ever; thus I will try my best to contain my inner fanboy. Not only do all four play interesting characters but they all share such interesting relationships between each other. Fonda and Cagney share a Bugs Bunny/ Yosemite Sam-like dynamic with Cagney being a frustrated old captain (possibly with a Napoleon complex) in a position of power but with no control over the taller Fonda stepping over everything he does.

Jack Lemon’s Ensign Pulver, on the other hand, hates the Captain but out of total shock, the captain likes the Ensign. I find this dynamic particular funny as I can relate to that situation of being admired by someone you dislike. However, I also relate to the character of Mister Roberts himself in his predicament of being stuck in a rut of which he is desperate to escape from; wanting to leave the navy cargo boat and be right in the action of the Second World War. The entire film effortlessly combines tragedy and comedy with no better example of this being the final scene itself in which the film transitions from the tragedy upon the characters discovering that Mr. Roberts has been killed in action to one more final pay off from a recurring gag; one of my favourite movie endings ever.

The claustrophobic intimacy of the ship, as well as the simply superb dialogue and performances, makes the dialogue-heavy scenes so engaging. Even with two directors on the project which could have spelled disaster, the film manages to come out perfectly fine rather than ending up like a Frankensteinian stitch up. The other scene which always stuck out to me was at the beginning of the film when the men are attempting to get a glimpse of women in a shower and going crazy as hell over it. Would men have the same reaction today because of the internet? Was the prospect of seeing a naked woman more thrilling back then?

Mister Roberts would be William Powell’s final film although one of Jack Lemon’s first, so I see the film as a passing of the torch between two generations of comedic actors. Originally Powell retired after appearing in How to Marry a Millionaire but decided to appear in Mister Roberts after reading the script. A much, much better choice of final film in which he shows that even in this stage of his career the man was still a master of words.

A Majority of One (1961)

Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages

Should an actors’ race limit the roles they can portray on the basis that they are not of that race? Isn’t this essentially a racist argument and an ethno-nationalist one at that? To state that a white actor playing a non-white character is offensive is then one is stating they are offended on the basis of race – this is racist. To state a white actor playing a non-white character is offensive to a culture is to say that culture is tied to race. – This is essentially the argument the alt-right makes. If culture is what matters and race is irrelevant then an actor playing a character of another race should also be irrelevant. There is also the double standard at play in which for a non-white actor to be cast in a role or as a character originally conceived as white it will be viewed as forward-thinking and progressive; for a white actor to be cast in a non-white role then it is considered racist? The only question that should matter is does an actor of one race convincingly play a character of another race? I could write a whole article on this but as I’ve addressed the crux of the matter, let’s talk about A Majority of One.

I’ve never seen another love story like A Majority of One. A story of two elderly individuals who are worlds apart having to overcome their prejudice, as well as being one of the few films in existence about love at old age. These imperfect and flawed characters feel so real and human and while two and a half hours may seem overlong, I believe this time is justified. – I wish more films could have the level of honest storytelling on display here.

Many reviewers can’t buy into Alec Guinness in the role of Japanese businessman Mr. Koichi Asano, but not this viewer – I thought Guinness was marvelous. His character is flawed, he’s not the stereotypical wise old Asian man who is full of otherworldly knowledge which he easily could have been; he makes mistakes and doesn’t have the answers to everything. Unlike many Asian characters in Hollywood films before, he doesn’t talk in broken English or exhibit any other commonly seen Asian stereotypes. Compared to Japanese stereotypes seen in World War II propaganda films 20 years earlier, A Majority of One was certainly a sign of progress.

Rosalind Russell plays a potentially unlikable bigoted character as Bertha Jacoby but she manages to make the role endearing with her lovable nature and witty comebacks. I didn’t see her character as an exaggerated stereotype. I’ve seen far more exaggerated representations of Jews in other films (do I even need to list examples?). Her character has led an ingrown life in Brooklyn, however, the movie shows the younger generation of her daughter and son in law holding more progressive views and are less conservative than their elders, and more argumentative at that. The film also has the greatness that is Eddie (Marc Marno). A whiny little brat but in a funny way who is comically Japanese but not in a disrespectful way, such as when he insists on watching sumo wrestling in the middle of a family crisis. – I love this guy.

A Majority of One highlights westernised trends in Japan such as Alec Guinness wearing a western flat cap to the popularity of American music and Hollywood movies (and Robert Taylor in particular) in Japan, while still acknowledging the anti American sentiment which exists in Japan (“Many people in my country hate the Americans unreasonably because of the war”). This scene in which Asano attempts to bond with Jacoby after their awkward first encounter shows the lack of logic in hating a country based on the actions of its government. Jacoby tells Asano that her son died in battle “All because you [Japan] and Mr. Hitler wanted to rule the world” and Asano responds “My wife and I did not so wish Mrs. Jacoby…what most of us wished for was a happy and peaceful existence”. – The government is not the people.

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.