Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 11 April 2007
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Although not released until 1946, Green For Danger bears the scars of a long and bitter war. Ostensibly a work of escapist entertainment, the film slots neatly into that run of pictures which mark the undoubted high point of British filmmaking, those made during the war and immediately after it: A Matter Of Life And Death and A Canterbury Tale, This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter, Passport To Pimlico and Whisky Galore!, among countless others. Films which, no matter what their subject matter, feel infused with the spirit of wartime: fear, restraint and oppression, certainly, but also a sense of unity, perseverance and a charming streak of bittersweet gallows humour.
Adapted from a popular whodunit, Green For Danger marks a rare solo outing for writer-producer-director Sidney Gilliat, working without his equally celebrated partner Frank Launder. Together the pair had penned scripts for Alfred Hitchcock (among them The Lady Vanishes and Jamaica Inn), before moving into directing with two key works about life during the blitz—Millions Like Us and Waterloo Road. Both films were hugely successful, powerful social dramas reflecting the ordinary lives of Britain’s struggling working class, labouring in the shadow of continuous bombardment and imminent invasion. Green For Danger must, at first, have seemed frivolous in comparison: a straightforward character melodrama, with juicy plot twists and a generous helping of murder.
The narrative is enjoyably convoluted. In a remote wartime hospital, six medical professionals – four nurses, a doctor and an anaesthetist – are implicated when a man dies in suspicious circumstances on the operating table. One of the nurses claims to know the identity of the killer, and she too is assassinated. This second death draws the attention of Scotland Yard, and wily detective Cockrill is dispatched to solve the case. The remainder of the film details Cockrill’s attempts to untangle the complex net of interpersonal rivalry and romance between the five suspects, throwing up some surprising (and often rather ludicrous) discoveries.
Gilliat ensures that the tone of the film, particularly in the early scenes, is as oppressive and war-weary as possible. The constant drone of doodlebugs is an accepted part of life, as is the devastation they wreak. Aside from a few shots towards the beginning, the entire film is shot on sound stages, with static, painted clouds and fake, garish sunlight serving to highlight the sense of nervous unreality. We get the sense that these people have been crammed in here for years together, their emotions bottled, their resentments unspoken. The romantic relationships, in particular, seem close to exhaustion, the men half- heartedly pursuing their equally disinterested prey, falling in and out of affection and never forcing the issue. When one character remarks of another ‘you must see it, he’s in love,’ we are given absolutely no sign that such an emotion even exists in this cramped, desolate place.
The characters are, for the most part, well defined. Trevor Howard plays somewhat against type as the jealous, hesitant anaesthetist Barnes, with Leo Genn taking the showier role as the charming but devious Dr. Eden. The women fare less well—Sally Gray is lovely but rather aimless as the object of both men’s affections, while Megs Jenkins promises much but seems, in the end, rather shortchanged in her role as the boisterous Nurse Woods. Indeed, the most interesting and emotive female character, Judy Campbell’s Sister Bates, is dispatched all too early.
But all of these personalities are roughly shoved aside when Alastair Sim’s Inspector Cockrill enters the frame. In casting Sim, Gilliat was making a clear statement of intent: Cockrill was to be no ordinary trudging flatfoot, nor even a Holmesian mastermind. He was to be something entirely new, a sort of wistful deviant, crafty and treacherous but also open, childlike and even fearful, the sort of man who gets equal pleasure from solving crimes and spinning chairs, but also seems to take a sick sort of delight in skewering helpless suspects and watching them squirm. He is a uniquely British eccentric, utterly charming but completely out of place in what has, until now, been a hotbed of melodramatic intrigue. In fact, Sim’s presence is so overpowering that he threatens to turn the film into a comedy: it’s to Gilliat’s credit that this is never allowed to happen.
In fact the film’s tone remains remarkably stable throughout, despite diversions into drama, noirish horror, even a few dabs of slapstick. Gilliat is clearly toying with the form, attempting to distract us with witty asides and outlandish characterisation, and Wilkie Cooper’s shimmering, inventive photography. But the plot remains central, and we’re never allowed to stop questioning the motives of all the central figures. This sense of a shifting moral landscape finds its focus in the character of Cockrill, and stops him from feeling like an intrusive grotesque: this unique crime, in this oppressive, claustrophobic place, requires an unusual, exceptional mind to solve it.
Despite its escapist intentions, Green For Danger is simply too steeped in wartime paranoia ever to work as a simple crime thriller. Which is fortunate, because in the final analysis the film is so much more—an examination of interpersonal relationships under pressure, a rather bleak and unsatisfied romance, a gleeful tribute to wilful eccentricity. What emerges is a sort of Ealing noir, by turns hardboiled and hallucinatory, horrific and hysterical.