Green for Danger: Laughing While the Bombs Fall

Feb 13, 2007

Green for Danger is an escapist entertainment made just after the close of World War II—a classical whodunit with an impeccably droll Scotland Yard inspector in charge of the proceedings—and it is at the same time a film pervaded by the war just ended, whose wreckage was everywhere evident to the film’s audience. Indeed, the terrors of German air raids provide both the occasion and the motive for the murder around which the plot is built, and the defection of a British citizen to the Nazis plays a small but crucial role in the narrative. (To say more would be to betray too much of a very elegantly constructed screenplay.) The film remains a thoroughly entertaining mixture of suspense and eccentric comedy, but it carries a deeper emotional weight as a remnant of the British wartime experience, all the more effective because it steers clear of anything like overt nationalism or morale boosting in its evocation of the trials just passed. Life must go on, so it becomes something like a patriotic duty to keep up two distinct national traditions: the Agatha Christie–style detective novel and the zany comic mode represented by the incomparable Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill.

Christianna Brand’s novel, published in 1944, was an above-average specimen of the classic English murder mystery, managing to adhere faithfully to the genre’s gamelike rules while incorporating a higher-than-usual quotient of realistic detail. Brand creates a hothouse atmosphere as she tracks the interactions of a contingent of doctors and volunteer nurses at a provincial hospital, and manages with skill—and with a good deal of forensic bluntness—a plot in which swirling sexual frustrations and resentments find expression not in bed but on the operating table, in a series of apparently motiveless murders. Like most such novels, Brand’s book thrives on false leads and complications within complications, often hinging on the minutest (and least filmable) of clues; in reducing it to a ninety-minute movie, Sidney Gilliat provides an object lesson in the elimination of technical detail, backstory, subplots, and unnecessary characters, leaving him with a quite austere emotional drama that does not sacrifice any of the book’s certified moments of high drama.

With his sometime partner Frank Launder, Gilliat epitomized many of the special qualities of British film from the 1930s through the 1950s. They had shown what they could do with the unsurpassable screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), with its blend of comedy and suspense and the razor-sharp concision of its storytelling. In subsequent films as different as Night Train to Munich (1940), The Rake’s Progress (1945), State Secret (1950), The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953), The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954), and The Green Man (1956), Launder and Gilliat—whether as directors, writers, or producers—embodied what might be called Britain’s “cinema of quality,” a cinema not so much about personal expression as about perfectly controlled narrative, regardless of genre. The care for details—of dialogue, of acting, of visual design—was not incidental but the essence of what was being expressed.

Green for Danger is Gilliat for once without Launder, and it is notable for a darkness of tone that creeps into even its comic moments. From the moment Leo Genn, as the suave Mr. Eden, announces—in the midst of yet another German night raid—that “nobody’s nerves are quite what they were,” we are plunged into an atmosphere of cheeriness and professionalism just barely sustained under intolerable pressure. But the attacks from without are mirrored by those from within, as previously hidden emotional dramas enact themselves in the emergency hospital that has been set up (in a detail not found in the novel) in a shadowy Tudor manor house, the perfect symbol of old England.

At the center of the hospital is the aptly termed operating theatre—the altar where rituals of life and death are played out by anesthetized patients and masked medical practi­tioners. The tracking shot of the ceiling, from the point of view of the bombing victim being wheeled toward his surgery, taps into the most basic of fears, with William Alwyn’s surging, intensely dramatic score magnifying every stage of the patient’s trajectory. The tense exchanges of glances among the masked faces in the operating room, set among expressionist shadows, take us from the realm of the matter-of-fact into a more Gothic domain. In the novel, the masks are a device necessary for the plotting, making it conveniently possible to suspect virtually every character; in the film, they take on an expressive power akin to early Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau, a Germanic weirdness erupting in the heart of a British place of refuge.

Green for Danger combines from the start two distinct tendencies of British filmmaking in this period: one, an emphasis on the depiction of banal everyday realities, in the spirit of genre painting; the other, a self-conscious exploration of film as a sealed, parallel world marked by theatricalism and fantasy. The hospital routines, the repartee among the staff, the casual coping with disastrous circumstances partake of a world little different from that of the spectator and per­fectly consonant with many other wartime films; at moments we are only a step away from documentaries like Humphrey Jennings’s Fires Were Started (1943). The wonderfully extended dance-party scene, on the other hand, creates a world within that world, a place of temporary escape from the war, a densely packed, exaggeratedly festive space in which precarious erotic connections are made as a matter of course.

This scene, in its cozy way, powerfully evokes the sexuality stirred by an awareness of surrounding danger. (That sense, so prevalent in British films of the forties, was doubtless nurtured by the wartime experiences of both filmmakers and audiences working and watching under siege; the magic kingdom is perhaps better appreciated when you know it might be reduced to rubble in an instant.) But the coziness gives way soon enough to hysteria and dangerous jealou-sies that flare up in theatrical fashion, as Trevor Howard gazes down at Sally Gray in the arms of Leo Genn, and Judy Campbell makes use of the interior balcony as the podium for an operatic outburst.

As Campbell rushes from the party, into the garden that leads to the operating room, she enters what is now a stormy dreamscape of animated menace—we are now very close to the stylization of Snow White lost in the forest. The sequence—worthy of an Italian giallo from the 1960s—culminates in the delicate horror of the masked surgeon clasping a scalpel, glimpsed for only an instant through a swinging door. At this point, Green for Danger feels very much like a horror movie, a genre little practiced in England in that period, because of the dim view taken of it by the British Board of Censors (in fact, imports of American horror movies were banned between 1942 and 1945).

Then, oddly—or not oddly at all, in terms of the British tradition of unexpected injections of humor—the film becomes something like a comedy. With the entrance of Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill, we are in the comedy of native eccentricity, as no actor better than Sim could embody it. Into the middle of a psychological drama comes a character beyond psychology, at once mocking and self-mocking, capable of diving for cover at what he mistakes for the sound of a V-1 bomb overhead (though he will later affirm with due gravity that “such trifles [that is, the bombs] did not, of course, for a moment distract me from my purpose”); or spinning inanely on a stool while quizzing a suspect about medical techniques (“I’m a child in these matters”); or smiling knowingly as he anticipates the solution of the mystery he is reading in bed, then making a face as he realizes he’s gotten it wrong (“I must be getting old . . .”). Inspector Cockrill is both clown and sage, a source of comic relief who puts the other characters’ passions and jealousies in an appropriately detached perspective and finally emerges as a stern figure of justice. Sim was, of course, an actor who could turn on a dime—one need only study his enacting of Scrooge’s moral transformation in the last reel of the 1951 A Christmas Carol—and here he is able to play the buffoon while suggesting depths of pity and anger.

There is an unforgettable scene in which Genn is reciting Lorenzo’s speech to Jessica from The Merchant of Venice to his latest conquest, Gray—“In such a night as this, / When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees . . .”—when Sim emerges from the dark shrubbery to chime in with Jessica’s skeptical reply to her lover. As in so many British films of the forties, Shakespeare (or, in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, Chaucer) serves as an emblem of the deepest national identity, and the use of his words lends a mysterious gravity to the scene.

All that we have been watching is theatre: the characters speak as self-consciously as actors on a stage, performing for one another in a way that, if it has not always been typi-cal of British life, has certainly been typical of British theatre and film. It seems the most natural thing in the world for a character to say, “Alms, for the love of Allah,” in a direct echo of Alexander Korda’s Thief of Bagdad. Indeed, it takes a highly developed sense of theatricality for an actor like Trevor Howard to lend absolute conviction to a line like “The mere thought of losing you drives me absolutely dotty.” The stylization of manners and modes of speaking is not just on the screen; it’s a reflection of a culture that believes that the play must go on even as the bombs are falling.