Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Film revivalism in the DVD era has made culture heroes of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Criterion now presents Green for Danger, one of the better pictures from the English filmmaking team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. The original authors of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich made popular thrillers that were less challenging to English tastes than the work of The Archers.
Green for Danger is a cleverly designed murder mystery in the novel setting of a provisional country hospital caring for victims of V-1 bombs. Expressive camerawork and precisely drawn characters enliven what could easily have been an ordinary detection yarn. A patient and a nurse have been murdered, and any of the operating room staff could be the culprit.
A postman (Moore Marriott) dies mysteriously on the operating table at Heron's Park hospital. The surgery staff dismisses it as a fluke while sorting out various romantic complications. Chancing upon Dr. Eden (Leo Genn) kissing Nurse Freddie Linley (Sally Gray), nurse Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) goes into a jealous rage, interrupts a party and claims she'll bring forward evidence of murder. But only a few minutes later she herself is killed. That cues the arrival of the eccentric Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim), who immediately shakes up Heron's Park by proclaiming that any of five people could be the killer: Dr. Eden, Sally Linley, Nurse Esther Sanson (Rosamund John), Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) and Dr. Barney Barnes, the anesthesiologist (Trevor Howard). Administering ether when the postman died, Barnes is the other corner of the love triangle with Eden and Linley, his fiancée. Nurse Sanson has been suffering from nervous exhaustion. And before he died, the postman was alarmed at the sound of Nurse Woods' voice.
Green for Danger has a dark undertone, an uneasy quality that works against the surface order of the standard wartime English movie. Under the leadership of the strict Nurse Bates the hospital runs like the bridge of a warship. The staff members move with perfect posture and address each other in the appropriate clipped phrases; nobody buckles under pressure of the bombs that rain from the sky without warning. And the wounded civilians are a constant reminder that there is indeed a war on.
But the private lives of the staff are anything but orderly. The womanizing Dr. Eden exploits an upset in the engagement of Dr. Barnes and nurse Linley. Earlier Eden conquest Sister Bates can't control her jealousy. Nurse Sanson pretends that her troubling nervous condition has subsided, and the nosy Nurse Woods seems to be hiding a dark secret. Sidney Gilliat and Claud Guerney's screenplay emphasizes the pressures on these people to keep their personal problems hidden. Eden as much as accuses Barnes of the murder, yet both men maintain a testy civility. Novelist Christianna Brand's original setting in an army hospital was changed so as not to imply that unstable medical personnel were attending to wounded servicemen. But the war is still closely connected to the mystery, and Heron's Park comes off as a medical disaster area.
Alastair Sim's amusingly abrasive Inspector Cockrill wastes no time getting down to the business of separating four medics from one killer. His bold insinuations and cheeky manner are intended to force the truth into the open. Cockrill trots about sniffing at clues and snapping back at anyone who dares try to talk their way off the suspect list. Cockrill isn't personally without flaws; he panics whenever anything sounding remotely like a buzz bomb is heard.
As a murder mystery Green for Danger is above average, a slick whodunnit of the Agatha Christie type. It's a bit better as a movie thanks to technical details and excellent atmospherics. The hospital has been set up in a country mansion. In the freshly constructed operating theater, we're shown the mechanics of administering anesthesia before surgery. The wards are partially tented, providing ample opportunities for noir-ish mood lighting.
In an exciting and stylish cat-and-mouse sequence, an unseen menace stalks Nurse Bates through the garden and into the antiseptic operating room, with camera angles and movement that predict the Italian giallo thrillers of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Writer Geoffrey O'Brien cites Disney's Snow White but a more direct influence on Gilliat may have been the RKO thrillers of Val Lewton, particularly the night-time voodoo walk in Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie. According to Michael Powell, prints of Lewton's films were brought to England in the middle of the war, and were keenly appreciated by directors like Carol Reed.
Green for Danger begins with its cast of suspects virtually indistinguishable behind surgical masks. By the end they've become five distinct, flawed individuals. Their 'secrets' relate directly to the war and include the shame of collaboration with the enemy. Alastair Sim's entertaining Inspector Cockrill wraps up his case with the theatrical gimmick of restaging the crime scene, and the culprit is finally identified. But with so many untidy secrets now revealed, will Heron's Park clinic continue to function smoothly?
Criterion's DVD of Green for Danger is another blemish-free B&W transfer with crystal clear audio -- we're made keenly aware of the buzz bombs that sputter overhead, even when we cannot see them. William Alwyn's elaborate orchestral score adds greatly to the film's atmosphere, frequently reminding us of his score music for The Rocking Horse Winner.
The informed commentary is by Bruce Eder. Geoff Brown's interview docu tells the story of the Gilliatt and Launder production team. Along with important industry figures like Michael Relph and Basil Dearden, Gilliatt and Launder were commercially popular but not exalted as great filmmakers, and were ignored when the next generation of filmmakers swept onto the scene in the late 1950s. The wartime thriller I See a Dark Stranger bogs down with the curious need to present Irishmen as disloyal and stupid; The exciting The Ship that Died of Shame is based on a faulty fantasy premise. Gilliatt and Launder are actually best remembered for comedies like the "St. Trinians" series.
Criterion's insert contains Geoffrey O'Brien's interesting analysis of Green for Danger; Heather Shaw is the disc producer. A handsome graphic treatment is used for the menu and package artwork.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Green For Danger rates:
Supplements: Audio Commentary with Bruce Eder, interview docu with film historian Geoff Brown
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 9, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson