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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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Foreign Correspondent (1940)

1138Foreign Correspondent was the second movie that Alfred Hitchcock made in American, following the Gothic, psychological romance Rebecca with a WWII thriller. Actually, the film is only somewhat a WWII thriller. Take out the epilogue and one would hardly know, though there’s a lot of talk about a coming war in Europe.

The editor of the New York Globe – Powers (Harry Davenport) – is frustrated with his foreign correspondents in Europe. All they can give him is speculation about the coming of war with no hard facts. It’s driving him nuts, so he chooses Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) to go to Europe, a scrappy journalist who got into a fight with a policeman in pursuit of a story and has no particular agenda or political bent.

“What Europe needs is a fresh, unused mind,” Powers observes. So Johnny Jones is sent to Amsterdam with a new name – Huntley Haverstock, provided by Powers – and orders to interview a Dutch politician named Van Meer (Albert Basserman), who is central to the negotiations for peace. Johnny is also put into contact with the British Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who is head of the Universal Peace Party, which is about to hold an important conference. In the meantime, Johnny also falls in love with Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day)

In many ways, Foreign Correspondent feels similar to North By Northwest. Simple American gets mixed up in foreign intrigue and is on the run. Van Meer is assassinated….no, wait… he’s actually abducted. There is a secret clause to a peace treaty that the villains (it’s not mentioned, but they are understood to be Nazis) wish to know from Van Meer. The plot is, however, unlike North By Northwest in that there is a lot of it, a lot of characters and it’s a bit confusing at times.

But the film itself is extremely entertaining, full of wit, with some terrific thrills and memorable scenes and a cast that has a lot to offer. I’ve always loved Herbert Marshall’s voice and as Fisher he makes an excellent, unexpected villain. The secret is that his character is really German (was his name originally Fischer…he just dropped the c?). But he’s a villain with one, glaring weakness. He loves his daughter and in some ways, he’s one of Hitchcock’s least evil villains. He even gets to have a heroic end.

George Sanders also gets to play against type…this time as a good guy. Scott folliott (when his ancestor lost his head to Henry VIII, his ancestor’s wife dropped the capital letter to”commemorate the occasion”). He’s a journalist, too, one of those daring young British types who always makes a joke in the face of danger.

Edmund Gwenn gets a delightful role as Rowley, a cockney assassin who keeps trying to kill Johnny without sucess. Robert Benchley makes an appearance as a dyspeptic correspondent who is now reduced to drinking milk and taking pills and Albert Basserman is the heartfelt voice of the little people against the fascists (his speech in defiance of the Nazis in the middle of the film always drew applause in 1940).

Joel McCrea is one of those actors I seem to like the more I see him. He’s not a flashy actor – I’ve heard him called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, which seems unfair – but he has a central integrity, charm, capable of snark, but also of sweetness…also sincerity, without ever taking himself too seriously. He always seems willing for a joke to be at his expense and to look a little silly. He’s more of an every man than Cary Grant, but a bit more articulate than Gary Cooper.

Laraine Day is not your typical Hitchcock blonde heroine, but the film’s all the better for it. She’s one of the most normal, well-adjusted of all Hitchcock’s heroines (despite having a Nazi for a father)  and the romance between McCrea and Day is unusually sweet for a Hitchcock film.

There are also some wonderful scenes that are very unique to Hitchcock. An assassination in the driving rain, on the steps to a building, then darting away underneath a sea of umbrellas. Sneaking around the inside of a curiously expressionistic windmill. A plane crash in the middle of an ocean. Escape from assassins through a bathroom window in nothing but underwear and a robe.

There are a few moments that mark the film out as having been made specifically during WWII, such as Albert Basserman’s role as Van Meer. But the prevailing ethos is that of Johnny and Scott ffoliott as reporters out for a scoop…somewhat like His Girl Friday. Theoretically, they’re doing it for patriotic reasons, but mostly their just doing it because they’re reporters and they’ve happened on the biggest scoop short of a declaration of war (which does come in the middle of the film). It is Carol and her father who are the ones motivated by patriotism (though admittedly patriotism to separate countries).

The ending, however, is the most striking example of a wartime message. It was added after the end of the film’s shooting and when real-life London was under attack from German air raids. In the film, Johnny is giving the news via radio to America when an air raid occurs and the lights go out and he is forced to modify his message, exhorting America to keep the lights burning, so to speak. It is a direct appeal from Britain to America in 1940, though America wouldn’t get into the war until the end of 1941.

This post was written for The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon. Thanks so much to Coffee, Classics, & Craziness for hosting!!! Be sure to read all the other posts on Hitchcock.

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Posted by on August 13, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Voice of the Turtle (1947)

MV5BMjMzMzc4NjE5OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTgzODcxMzE@._V1_SX214_AL_The only reason I even came across this film was because I was looking at Eleanor Parker’s filmography. Eleanor Parker herself is a somewhat forgotten actress today, except for her role as the Baroness in The Sound of Music, and The Voice of the Turtle seems somewhat forgotten even compared to her other films. But it is a sweet, gentle, funny romance that I think would be much better known if it contained bigger stars (Ronald Reagan is certainly well-known, but no so much his movies).

The movie was based on an extremely successful play that ran during the war and was still running when the film was released in 1947. The story, however, is still set during the war. Quirky Sally Middleton (Eleanor Parker) is a young actress who takes love too seriously, or at least so she is told by producer Kenneth Bartlett (Kent Smith). He just wanted them to be able to have a good time together, but she fell in love and he feels in all fairness he must break it off. She, in turn, determines never to take love so seriously again. This has happened to her before.

But Sally has a friend, Olive Lashbrooke (Eve Arden), who knows exactly how not to take things too seriously and has a string of men in quick succession, or sometimes at the same time. She has a date with Sergeant Bill Page (Ronald Reagan), who she knew years ago and is in New York on leave just for the weekend. But when another man Olive knows shows up in town – who has a higher rank – Olive determines to ditch Bill and go with him (Wayne Morris).

Bill comes to Sally’s apartment to pick Olive up, but Olive spins him a rather feeble story about how her estranged husband has suddenly appeared and she simply must have dinner with him, but Bill realizes he’s being dumped. Olive leaves him and Bill asks Sally if he can borrow her phone. He calls every girl he knows in New York. Some are married, some are out on dates and he can’t find a single person to spend his weekend with. In slight desperation, he asks Sally out to dinner.

Ronald Reagan and Eleanor Parker

Ronald Reagan and Eleanor Parker

The rest of the film deals with how these two people discover that they have a lot in common and tentatively fall in love. They’ve both been in love before and were hurt and are now cautious. There’s a housing shortage in New York (The More the Merrier deals with the comic results of a housing shortage in Washington DC – this was a common problem during the war and made its way into several films) and since it’s so late at night and unlikely that Bill will be able to find a hotel, Sally invites him to sleep at her apartment. Meanwhile, Olive has become disenchanted with her date (he’s put on a little weight since she last saw him and shaved his mustache) and keeps calling Sally’s apartment to check up on them. She doesn’t at all appreciate Sally going out with him. She calls it beau-snatching.

You can tell the movie is based on a stage-play. Much of the action occurs in Sally’s apartment, but I didn’t find it too stagy or house-bound. It made it intimate, more closely focused on these two people who found each other in the midst of a big world.

Eleanor Parker is the heart of the film and plays a rather different role for her. I’ve mostly seen her as poised and sophisticated, but in The Voice of the Turtle she is quirky, not exactly flighty or scatter-brained, but definitely quirky is the best word I can come up with. She’s sensitive and hates to have anything alone, like a radio playing with no one to hear it or a coffee pot boiling with no one in the house. It makes them seem to her to be lonely. Her favorite question to ask is if Olive or Bill was in love with someone they mention. She can’t bear to have a phone ring and not answer it. If there are two glasses of milk or champagne or anything, she takes a sip out of one to make sure their are both equally full. One suspects the reason she offered to let Bill stay in her apartment was so she wouldn’t be so alone, not so much because she was looking to kindle a romance.

Eleanor Parker takes all these quirks (and she has more) and makes Sally adorable and sweet. Ronald Reagan is also good here. I haven’t seen him in many movies, but this is my favorite of his by far. Bill’s essentially a really nice guy and he and Parker have a sweet interaction. I keep using the word sweet, but that is the best word for this film. But not in an overly sentimental way. Eve Arden usually played the best friend to leading ladies, offering blunt and caustically funny advice that is usually ignored, but never resented. In this film, she’s more of an acidic flirt, but a welcome character, all the same.

Sally keeping live out of the kitchen while Bill hides behind the door

Sally keeping Olive out of the kitchen while Bill hides behind the door

There’s not a lot of physical comedy or slapstick. There is one very funny scene when Bill and Sally are having breakfast together when Olive comes over and Bill must hide in the kitchen while Sally tries to keep Olive out. Sally does have a lot of eccentricities, but Bill never makes fun of her. Another thing I liked about the film is that there are no artificial obstacles or misunderstandings to create unnecessary tension. The film is simply an exploration of how these two people fall in love and the main obstacle is Sally’s fear of being hurt again. But what’s nice about it is that Bill understands and is willing to address the issue; there’s none of this talking at cross purposes with the man stumping off hurt and leaving me yelling at the screen that if they’d just talk about the issue everything would be fine.

It’s a delightful film and I enjoyed it far beyond my expectations. Incidentally, the title of the film is a reference to a verse in the Bible. It’s quoted, or paraphrased, by Bill and comes from Song of Solomon 2:12: “For behold, the winter is past, The rain is over and gone. The flowers have already appeared in the land; The time has arrived for pruning the vines, And the voice of the turtle has been heard in our land.” The turtle actually refers to Turtledoves.

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2015 in Movies

 

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