(1940) director Carol Reed
The facts that it was directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man (1949), Our Man in Havana (1959)) and released by the Criterion Collection were enough to get me to queue this 1940 English wartime thriller. And quite frankly, I didn’t know much else about it going in.
The film stars Rex Harrison and Margaret Lockwood and is most interestingly set in 1939 in and around the events leading up to the beginning and expansion of WWII, which obviously, was still a deep and significant part of the present. So this is a thriller set in the wartime of the present of its production, a yet still ongoing war, far from close to conclusion. And to an extent, this is a piece of propaganda, playing out as an adventure film. Which actually struck me as interesting in and of itself. It might be worth a good investigation to not just the English films of this period but perhaps all films relating to WWII while the war was still ongoing, much less, still so young as in 1940.
Written by the duo Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, the film features, among everything else, the recurrent characters known as Charters and Caldicott, played by Basil Radford and Nauton Wayne, who went on to show up as popular cameos in several films and who eventually seemed to have etched themselves into the English national consciousness. They had first appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes (1938), also written by Gilliat and Launder. The characters are two humorous cliches/ideals of the wandering, bumbling Englishmen, obsessed with cricket, commenting rather unrealistically on the state of German operations while traveling by train in Germany at the start of the war, and ultimately stepping up and doing what’s necessary to help our heroes fight the good fight.
Outside of those angles, the film has some nice design elements going for it in what I “read” to be models of towns, villages, camps, hills (little miniatures like Godzilla might have stomped on), in lieu of spanning real-world vistas of the Alps and other places. I’ve always had a soft spot for the “matte paintings” that were used in old films to suggest fantastic backdrops, and I think you could file these designs alongside of those.
The film has much humor and is certainly entertaining enough, though it’s highly silly and implausible. I was reminded as the high adventure comes to what was meant to be a dramatic climax, that this film is only about 10 years out of the silent films and that the exciting finish with its challenging designs (a cable car in between two alps, separating Germany from Switzerland, with a rather gaping chasm below), really has as much to owe to those popular traditions as it does owe itself to a more grounded and believable landscape and ending.
In all, it’s a much less polished or dramatic film than Reed’s later works. But it’s a fun time and an interesting time, perhaps especially if taken into the considerations that I mentioned, looking at it as an artifact of the War Era or even more in what it says about the English or the English’s perception of what it means to be English. National character indeed.