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Tag Archives: Thriller

Contraband (1940)

Contraband is a comic romantic spy thriller in the vein of The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. It also marks the second time that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked together. Not as well known as their later films, or as Hitchcock’s early spy thrillers, Contraband nevertheless is an unexpectedly fun film.

Though the film was released in 1940, the story is set in 1939, before Britain was at war with Germany. Captain Hans Andersen (Conrad Veidt) is the captain of a Danish freighter bringing supplies to his homeland. But his ship is stopped by the British Navy. Though not yet at war, the British are in a state of military preparedness and are stopping all ships to check for contraband intended for the Germans. But while his ship is moored near London, Captain Andersen is drawn into the intrigues of several of his passengers, including the mysterious Mrs. Sorensen (Valerie Hobson).

When Contraband was released in America, it was titled Blackout, which Michael Powell later admitted was a more appropriate title. Nearly all of the story occurs during one night, with London subject to a blackout (nightly blackouts which would last for the entire war). All outdoor lights are off, windows are blocked with heavy curtains, cars drive without lights, air raid wardens roam the city looking for any light peeping through windows and warning people not to light matches, traffic signals are a pale fraction of their size, and pedestrians must grope their way through the city. It’s a fascinating look at London during the war, as well as a great setting for a story about German and British spies.

It is also fascinating to see Conrad Veidt – the king of silent German expressionist horror – in a heroic and lightly comic role. He even looks rather dapper and shares an unexpected, zesty chemistry with Valerie Hobson as two people who get a kick out of excitement and danger.

There is comedy in the story, verbal wit (several Nazis responds to Captain Hans Andersen’s introducing himself by saying they are the Brothers Grimm). Captain Andersen’s first mate, Axel (Hay Petrie), has a favorite brother who owns a restaurant in London, which is staffed by a number of Danes ready for a good scrap against the Nazis. The film presents Denmark and Britain as natural allies against the Nazis. Sadly, only a month after Contraband was released in Britain, the Nazis invaded Denmark.

Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson

Both Conrad Veidt and Emeric Pressburger were refugees from Nazi Germany. Veidt left with his Jewish wife in 1933, not long after they were married and Jews were banned from working in the film industry. Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew, though working in Berlin when Hitler came to power, and also left Germany. He would later become a British citizen and would form the extraordinarily creative The Archers production company with Michael Powell.

The plot of Contraband is fairly inconsequential. Like many of Hitchcock’s films, the journey and thrills are what count. It’s a fun film and I would definitely recommend it, especially if you are a fan of The Lady VanishesNight Train to Munich, Conrad Veidt, or Powell and Pressburger. And who isn’t a fan of at least one of those?

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2017 in Movies

 

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Zero Hour! (1957)

“Our survival hinges on one thing – finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner.”

Zero Hour! is the film that inspired Airplane! and much of the dialogue and scenes were lifted wholesale from the earlier film. With such gems as the quote above, I can see how Zero Hour! was a candidate for spoofing (along with disaster films in general), though it is actually not a bad little B thriller. It’s quite tense at times.

Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) was a squadron leader during WWII, but when he makes a poor decision that costs the lives of six of his pilots during a bombing raid, he is shattered. Over ten years later, his confidence is still shot. He can’t settle down to a job, his marriage is in trouble, and he’s never flown a plane since. When his wife, Ellen (Linda Darnell) takes their son and leaves him, he manages to get on the same plane to talk with her.

And then the fish lays waste to half the passengers, as well as the pilot and co-pilot. It’s almost enough to reconcile one to those little bags of pretzels they hand out on flights now.  It’s a potentially fatal case of food poisoning and the only one who can fly is Ted (who, fortunately, had lamb chops for dinner). But not only does he still have a bad case of PTSD, but he’s also never flown a jet. The airline must get someone to talk him through his landing. The man they chose is Captain Martin Treleaven (Sterling Hayden), who knew Ted during the war.

I think what adds a little tension to the film is the fact that literally no one has faith in Ted, including Ted. His wife has no confidence, Treleaven has no confidence. In fact, Treleaven thinks Ted is the kind of guy who always folds up under pressure, but he still has to instill in Ted that confidence he does not himself feel. There’s a lot at stake for Ted. No one respects him, his son could die of food poisoning, and he must wrestle with his sense of personal failure, all during a bad storm.

There seems to have been a whole spate of airplane disaster films during the 1950s: The High and MightyNo Highway in the Sky, and even Julie, where Doris Day notoriously plays a flight attendant who must land the plane after her insane husband shoots the pilot. In Julie, the exact same thing happens, where she has to be talked down by those on the ground with access to radar, who gives her blow by blow instructions via radio.

Perhaps it makes sense, since the 1950s was the first decade where average Americans were beginning to afford flying. We’re so used to flying now, it has less novelty or sense of danger (more like a sense of cramped and disgruntled impatience). Though perhaps that’s not strictly true. There was the recent film Sully, which captured some of the immediacy and potential tragedy of a plan crash. On the whole, I think our fears in regards to planes are more related to terrorism than accidents now. But by pilot error or terrorist, the fear that passengers must feel on a plane, which they cannot control, is still a relatable fear.

I have to comment on how flying is portrayed practically like a holiday (at least until the fish incident). Stryker is able to take his son up to meet the pilot, who gives his son a toy airplane. They serve meals, the seats look roomy, even the airplane bathroom looks about twice the size of the bathrooms today. Since movies tend to err on the side of fiction over fact, I have to ask: does anyone know how accurate that portrayal is? How much has flying really changed over the years?

If you have not seen Airplane!, I would recommend watching Zero Hour! first. I’ve read many people say that after seeing Airplane!, it is impossible to watch this without cracking up every few minutes. I must admit that I have not seen Airplane! yet, but after watching the trailer, laughed so hard that I decided I absolutely had to see it next.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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Dial M For Murder (1954)

dialmformurderposterBecause Dial M For Murder is an unusually close adaptation of a successful play, it does not seem to garner the same attention that other Hitchcock films do. There is simply less to say about Hitchcock as auteur. But as a masterful film of suspense, red-herrings, and the overlooked little things that trip one up, it cannot be topped. I never tire of watching it; there seems to be something new to see each time.

The film begins with Margo Wendice (Grace Kelly), sitting in white at the breakfast table and enjoying a demure kiss with her husband, former tennis star Tony Wendice (Ray Milland). Next, it is evening and she is in a flaming red dress and enjoying a passionate kiss with mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), who is her former lover. They have broken off the relationship and believe that Tony knows nothing about it. He’s changed, Margo tells Mark. He’s a more attentive husband now.

And for good reason. In fairness, I should warn that this post is rife with plot spoilers. If you have never seen it before, it is a stimulating experience to watch the story unfold without prior knowledge. My only warning is that it’s a film you have to pay close attention to. There are a lot of red-herrings.

Tony, it turns out, knows everything about Margo and Mark’s affair. He married Margo for her money and when he realized that she could leave him flat, he concocted a scheme that was a year in the making. He’s going to blackmail an old school fellow from Cambridge, Swan (Anthony Dawson) – a man constantly skating “on thin ice” – into killing his wife for him. He has everything planned down to the last detail and it is a marvel as he calmly unfurls his plan to Swan, a man who is no slouch himself when it comes to criminal scheming, but has nothing on Tony.

But as mystery-writer Mark discusses with Tony and Margo, murders are only perfect on paper. People do not always behave exactly as you expect them to. Owing to a small change in the behavior of Margo earlier in the evening, instead of being murdered by Swan, she manages to kill him in self-defense with a pair of scissors. Tony’s year of planning is a shambles, but he quickly contrives a second plan, which seems to work much better. With the judicious planting of a few telling objects, he make it look like Margo deliberately murdered Swan. The police, lead by Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), seem to fall exactly in line and she is convicted of murder.

Robert Cummings, Grace Kelly, Ray Milland

Robert Cummings, Grace Kelly, Ray Milland – an insincere lot of people in this moment

To me, the most fascinating part of this film is watching people think, especially Ray Milland as Tony. There are moments when he realizes that he has miscalculated, but everything still seems to fall his way. Will he succeed? Will he not? What is going to finally trip him up? The film is full of red-herrings. For example, part of Tony’s original plan was to call his wife on the phone while Swan kills her. But he’s late and we, as the audience, are convinced that his lateness is what is going to save her life. But ironically, it is something that happened earlier, that we’ve already forgotten about, that saves her life.

Earlier in the evening, she didn’t want to stay home alone while Tony and Mark went to a stag party and he had to convince her, suggesting it was an ideal time to paste his press clippings into an album. He persuades her, but as a result her scissors are on the desk instead of in her mending basket, providing her an ideal weapon.

Even Mark Halliday is a red-herring. Because he’s a mystery writer, one keeps expecting him to be the one to bring Tony down. But in what is the finest twist, the police actually turn out to be rather good at their job. As Inspector Hubbard says, “The saints preserve us from the gifted amateur!”

John Williams played the role of Inspector Hubbard on Broadway and reprised it for the film. He initially seems like your stereotypical British officer, conscientious, following his own line of reasoning and apparently missing the important details. The first time I watched this movie I maligned him twice. I thought he was a stupid policeman, began to rethink it as he seemed to be getting at something important and then impugned him again when he appeared to drop it. Williams is perfect, lending the character sympathy and kindness towards Margo, impatience with Mark and complete satisfaction when he gets his man. He even gets the last shot of the film, brushing his mustache with pleased self-congratulation.

John Williams as Inspector Hubbard during the play's Broadway run

John Williams as Inspector Hubbard during the play’s Broadway run

Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings are perfectly fine in the film, but it really belongs to Ray Milland (with Williams coming in second). He’s smooth, sophisticated, and believes he has all the answers…which largely he does. But as much as he might feel like he owns people (as he says he feels about Swan), he doesn’t. He’s awfully good at it, though. He says he puts himself in the place of others to see what they will do.

But everyone does that to a certain extent, which is another part of the fascination of the film. Everyone thinks, realizes, and put themselves in each other’s shoes to arrive at the exact same conclusion at the end. Sherlock Holmes would be proud at how they logically arrive at the only possible solution.

Given all the red-herrings, this last time I was finally able to isolate the three things that undid Tony. They are the scissors, the latchkeys and the money. Three things that seem innocuous and – in the case of the money and the scissors especially – things we completely forget about.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2016 in Movies

 

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