Green for Danger

On Film / Essays — May 11, 1993

Green for Danger is a welcome twist on that most venerable of English concoctions, the drawing-room thriller. In this instance, the drawing room is instead a hospital not far from London, where surgery is conducted under a cascade of German flying bombs. Production on the film did not commence until the Nazis had been defeated, and director Sidney Gilliat was obliged to peer into the murkiest territory—the recent past. It was an unusual picture for the British to release in 1946: escapist fare which didn’t shrink from the devastation of the blitz.

The expert screenplay was adapted from a serviceable whodunnit in the Agatha Christie mold, and the bones of its plot are faithfully preserved. After the unaccountable death of a local postman on the operating table, and a grisly murder in the same hospital the next day, Inspector Cockrill arrives urgently from London to inform the surgical staff that one of their number is guilty of murder, news which brings an immediate stiffening to no fewer than five upper lips. Mr. Eden (in England surgeons are always just plain Mr.) is a Harley Street rake, played with his usual suavety by Leo Genn, who tries not to let the ravages of war interfere too greatly with his amorous pursuits. His rival Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard) has been anesthetizing under a cloud since the unfortunate death of an earlier patient in similar circumstances, leaving many to suspect that perhaps he should not be administering potentially lethal gases. The glamorpuss Nurse Linley (Sally Gray) effortlessly shifts her affections between them—not even a cardiac arrest could muss her lacquered coiffeur. Nurses Sanson and Woods are both crumpling from the weight of their guilty secrets. It’s a bit of a stretch, but all the suspects possess motive, means and opportunity.

The stakes are raised by the black-clad figure of Sister Bates (Sister just means Head Nurse). Already somewhat shrill from Mr. Eden’s heartless rejection (“It was only a fling. We both knew that.”), her normal gloom gives way to an outburst of hysteria when she twigs the killer’s identity. This is the kind of mystery where each murder covers up the one before, so we know that Sister Bates is about to cash in her chips, but the Grand Guignol gruesomeness is something of a surprise. Almost a pity, because she’s played with such modulated stridence by Judy Campbell (Jane Birkin’s mother).

Inspector Cockrill trawls through a net of red herrings, untangles the matted web of coincidence, blithely ignores the implausibilities of a lurching plot and commits errors of detection which cast grave doubts on the quality of his training at Scotland Yard. Against all odds, he nonetheless manages to devise a trap to expose the murderer. His confident bumblings result in a regrettable increase of the body count in the denouement.

Green for Danger was produced by Individual Pictures, a company formed at the end of the war by Gilliat and his longtime collaborator Frank Launder. Starting out as screenwriters and going on to produce and direct, they were a prolific duo whose enormous contribution to British movie-making has never been adequately acknowledged. Unlike their more celebrated contemporaries Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Launder and Gilliat often worked apart. Launder alone initiated the St. Trinian’s cycle, set in a girls’ boarding school whose headmistress was Alastair Sim in a light drag.

Green for Danger was Gilliat’s personal project. The novel had been rejected by the Rank Organization’s story department, but when Gilliat picked up a copy to read on a train journey he found himself drawn to the notion of anaesthesia as another kind of big sleep. He co-wrote the screenplay with Claud Gurney, who died in a car accident during production, and directed it himself.

There’s only a slight trace of humor in Christianna Brand’s novel. The ironies begin with the title itself: green is not the color we’d normally associate with danger. Gilliat’s considerable achievement was to transmute this unlikely source into a true comedy. He has fashioned a thoroughly entertaining thriller which takes itself seriously and sends itself up at the same time. It’s a deft balancing act and Gilliat manages to carry it off—the comedy and the suspense aren’t allowed to undercut one another. His success undoubtedly owes much to the casting as Cockrill of Alastair Sim, who offers a comic version of the generic detective he would go on to play in An Inspector Calls (1954). His impenetrable body language and distinctive delivery of dialogue are used to priceless effect.

But the comic grain is more than a matter of casting. There’s ample evidence of the wit which Launder and Gilliat brought to their adaptation of The Lady Vanishes for Alfred Hitchcock. Gilliat has accurately described Green for Danger as “a film presented in quotation marks.” He allows the viewer to share his evident discomfort at trading in stereotypes, but without nudges or winks he establishes a bond with the audience and never breaks faith. The flair he brings to his mise-en-scène is on occasion worthy of Powell. In particular, the set pieces in the operating theater reward repeated viewings, with hearts stopping, gas cylinders hissing, rubber bags deflating and surgical masks making the eyes of the actors all the more expressive. Gilliat steadfastly refuses to condescend to his material and by sheer imagination transcends the genre.