Monday, November 2, 2015

Green for Danger (1946)

Director: Sidney Gilliat                                    Writers: Sidney Gilliat & Claude Guerney
Film Score: William Alwyn                              Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Starring: Trevor Howard, Sally Gray, Leo Genn and Alastair Sim

While this British production has earned a positive reputation in recent years, there’s a reason that Green for Danger wasn’t better known before it was released on a Criterion Collection disc. Even the studio that director Sidney Gilliat worked for had turned down the original novel by Christianna Brand. The hospital setting especially, was deemed to be bad box office. But Gilliat purchased the book before a train trip and found in it the opportunity for cinematic exploration in, of all things, the anesthetics, “with all those crosscutting opportunities offered by flowmeters, hissing gas, cylinders, palpitating rubber bags, and all the other trappings.” Gilliat also didn’t find the detective, played by Alastair Sim in the film, particularly interesting either. And that is one of the drawbacks of the final product. Sim’s performance is a little too flippant, especially when the rest of the proceedings are so serious, and had the potential to build on that gravity throughout the film with a like-minded police detective. Without that, however, the ending wouldn’t have the same strength, because one of the more interesting aspects of the story is the way in which Sim’s lack of seriousness comes back to haunt him at the end of the film.

The film begins as a police report narrated by Alastair Sim about a series of deaths at a local hospital in Heron’s Park. Postman Moore Marriott is the first to die. The suspects are all shown in the operating theater and Sim tells the audience that before long two of them will be dead, one of whom is the murderer. It’s 1945 during the tail end of World War Two, and a German V-1 rocket flies overhead, the explosion from which sends Marriott to the hospital too sick to speak. Head surgeon Leo Genn gives a suspicious look when talking with nurse Megs Jenkins about his past, though it’s clear that head nurse Judy Campbell has a tremendous crush on him. Meanwhile anesthetist Trevor Howard is intent on spending more time with his girlfriend, Sally Gray, but the more he tries it seems the more he drives her away. And it soon becomes clear that Genn would be more than happy to move in and take his place. Genn wants to operate on Marriott’s leg first thing in the morning, and of course he dies on the table. It’s clear that he was killed because of what he knew, but there’s no way to know who is responsible. At the hospital Christmas party, when Campbell becomes jealous to the point of no return, she announces to the entire staff that she knows who killed Marriott, and then of course she is killed herself, compelling the visit of Alastair Sim from Scotland Yard.

It’s at this point when the film turns from what could have been an espionage picture--with the killer working with the Nazis to guide the V-1 rockets that fall throughout the film--to something of a drawing room mystery with Sim acting as the detective who gathers all of the suspects together to announce that one of them is the killer. One of the interesting things about the screenplay is that the story begins in media res, and the viewer only learns of past history and relationships as the film goes on. This makes for a number of suspicious moments, from Genn’s skittishness about his past, and Howard’s prior relationship with Marriott, to Campbell’s failed affair with Genn. The moving camera work by Willkie Cooper is outstanding, with numerous tracking shots that add a lot of technical interest to the film. The sets themselves are highly artificial, but that is the case with most British productions, and the rich black and white photography is somewhat forgiving. Ultimately, however, the film is a mixed bag, part soap opera, part medical thriller, part cozy murder mystery, and none of them are really done to perfection. What stands out most are the performances of the male leads, Trevor Howard and Leo Genn, though the quality of Alastair Sim’s performance is going to be up to how the viewer likes the character. Green for Danger, while not essential, is definitely worth checking out should the occasion arise.

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