A Forgotten Film to Remember: Green for Danger (1947)

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To view Green for Danger click here.

One of the advantages of streaming is having an entire catalogue of films at your fingertips to explore titles that would otherwise go unnoticed. This summer I decided to focus my viewing attention on British films, partly because so many of them were unknown to me and partly because British movies are my least favorite national cinema. I thought that I would apply the Man Ray Challenge (see my post dated July 24) to some of the British films in the FilmStruck library: What can I find to recommend in a body of work I am predisposed to dislike?

So far, so good. Over the summer, I dusted off two forgotten films that I thought movie-lovers might enjoy (All Night Long [1963] and Obsession [1949]), and, while I was sorely tested to find something to recommend about Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), eventually I did in the previously mentioned Man Ray Challenge post.

Green for Danger(1947), a taut mystery thriller based on the novel by Christianna Brand, has moved to the top of the list. The film was produced and released after the war, but, it takes place in August 1944 when England was subjected to V-1 bomb attacks by Nazi Germany. V-1 bombs, which were launched from the French coast, were propelled by gasoline motors. They were aimed in the general vicinity of British cities, and when they ran out of gas, they crashed and exploded. The bombs, which are called doodlebugs in the movie, were noisy, like a sputtering motor. When the motor stopped, the silence signaled their free fall to the ground, and residents knew to find cover immediately. Within a few weeks, British Civil Defense Systems figured out that V-1s were easy to shoot down by using air cannons and airborne fighters. However, during the late summer of 1944, before the CDS found a solution, the sound of sputtering V-1 bombs added incredible stress to the daily lives of the British.

Green for Danger begins after a V-1 attack has injured the local postman in a rural village. He is taken to the hospital for what should have been a routine operation, but poor Postman Higgins dies on the operating table. The two doctors and three nurses involved with the operation are all suspects. One of the nurses announces that she knows who is responsible for the fatality, but before she can reveal a name, she becomes the killer’s next victim. Inspector Cockrill, an eccentric yet cocky detective, is sent from Scotland Yard to solve the crimes. The solid cast of recognizable British actors worked well together. Trevor Howard, fresh from Brief Encounter (1945), and Leo Genn costar as the doctors, who compete for the attention of one of the nurses, played by Sally Gray. Alastair Sim, who American viewers know as Scrooge from the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, chews the scenery as the good Inspector.

I read a handful of recent reviews of Green for Danger to see what kind of reputation it had. I was surprised at some of the descriptions, which ranged from a “dark comedy” to “a subversion of the classic mystery tale.” None of that is accurate; the film is a fairly typical classic detective mystery as defined by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as well as the novels of Agatha Christie. In a classic mystery, the detective figure is eccentric or unusual but also highly intelligent, with a talent for observation and deductive reasoning. The story is presented as a puzzle with the clues doled out like pieces, which will fit together logically so that viewers can play along. A tight-knit group of characters make up the pool of suspects, who interact in a limited setting. The most famous convention is the conclusion in which the detective brings all of the suspects together to unmask the killer and explain how the crime was committed. When the detective solves the crime, order is restored to the world of the film.

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The narrative of Green for Danger fits neatly into the classic mystery formula, from the limited setting in a rural English village to the group of suspects gathered in the operating room at the end so that Cockrill can reveal the killer. Sim successfully balances the opposing characteristics of whimsy and arrogance in his interpretation of Inspector Cockrill, giving viewers the expected eccentric detective. The good Inspector insults the suspects when he firsts meets them, generously giving them “30 seconds to think up an alibi,” which he will then rip apart. He is not humble about the fact that he is two steps ahead of everyone else, but Sim’s physical bits of business and lightness of tone make Cockrill’s insults and manner humorous. Some contemporary reviewers have pointed out that whimsical Inspector Cockrill “subverts” the standard serious-minded detective as does the mistake in calculation he makes at the conclusion. But, neither aspect of his character is unusual enough to be deemed “subversive.”

Produced by partners Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, Green for Danger is enjoyable because it is so well crafted. Gilliat, who also directed and coscripted, was an old hand at classic detective tales, having penned The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Jamaica Inn (1939) for Hitchcock. Aware of German Expressionism, Gilliat gets a lot of mileage from low-key and high-contrast lighting. Bar shadows entrap the characters, foretelling their fates, as they scurry down the walkway outside the hospital doors, or wander the maze-like hedgerows nearby. Gilliat adds energy and urgency to his scenes through the tracking and panning of the camera. Interiors and exteriors were shot inside the Pinewood Studios, which had just reopened after the war. Constructing the interiors and exteriors inside a studio proved to be expensive but it gave the film a sense of atmosphere and mood.

Gilliat also enriched the film by using conventions from other genres. The love lives of the main characters are depicted like melodrama at the beginning, setting up the existing tensions. Nurse Bates (Judy Campbell) loves Dr. Eden (Genn) who has his sights set on Nurse Linley (Sally Gray) who has just broken her engagement to Dr. Barnes (Howard), while hospital gossip Nurse Wood (Megs Jenkins) takes it all in. After the first murder, the narrative leaves behind the echoes of melodrama, and the mystery begins. The film could also be considered an example of that unique British subgenre known as the home-front movie, in which ordinary people exhibit extraordinary courage as their daily lives are disrupted by bombings and other threats. The frequent falling of the V-1 bombs not only resonated with British viewers, who had just survived the war, but also provided an added layer of tension to the narrative.

I highly recommend Green for Danger. I learned something about Britain during the war, while my respect for the British film industry increases with each new film discovery.

Susan Doll

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8 Responses A Forgotten Film to Remember: Green for Danger (1947)
Posted By Doug Miller : August 28, 2017 2:28 am

Well done! I’m putting this one on my list. Ironically, I probably would not have read this post if I had correctly identified the actor in the first photo: glancing at my phone, I mistook him for George Sanders. I don’t see any mention here of Trevor Howard’s acting. His character in Brief Encounter is almost hyper-sensitive. Did he ever play tough guys?

Posted By swac44 : August 28, 2017 8:21 am

Haven’t seen this film in years, but remember enjoying it as an above-average mystery, with Sim in a nice change of pace role from his usual dithering fools, or Scrooge. It’s a shame he didn’t return to play Cockrill in another film, but I see he has the title role in the film adaptation of J.B. Priestly’s An Inspector Calls, which I hope to track down one of these days.

Another name for the doodlebug was “buzzbomb”. There’s one on display in our local war museum, not sure how it got to Halifax

Posted By swac44 : August 28, 2017 8:22 am

Maybe it was plucked from the English Channel by a Canadian Navy ship.

Posted By swac44 : August 28, 2017 10:15 am

I’d say Howard got to see some action in early thrillers like They Made Me a Fugitive and The Clouded Yellow. In later films he tended to play the superior officer, who ordered others to do the dirty work.

Posted By Roberta : August 28, 2017 10:23 am

Request: New TCM Bookstore? Please consider offering books which have been adapted to film. I realize that most of these books are out of print. Surely, TCM can arrange republication. There are many such books from England that we can’t get in the states.

Posted By Emgee : August 28, 2017 3:13 pm

” Did he ever play tough guys?”

How about as Captain Bligh in Mutiny On The Bounty? Or as a manhunter in Run For The Sun? And Major Calloway in The Third Man was no pushover either.

Posted By Doug Miller : August 29, 2017 12:41 pm

Right, about Trevor Howard. I had forgotton those other films. In my mind, that was some other actor, because he was so different. Interesting to read on Wikipedia about some alleged misrepresentations of his war record (and a story about him being arrested during the filming of The Third Man — because he rushed to a bar for a drink, still dressed as Calloway!)

Posted By kingrat : August 30, 2017 1:06 am

Christianna Brand’s novel GREEN FOR DANGER is even better than the film, though the film adaptation is very good. If you have a taste for this kind of film, you’re almost certain to have a grand time.

Brand’s novel should be available through Amazon or AbeBooks, and if you like this one, she wrote several others, almost all first-rate.

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