Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

In GREEN FOR DANGER, Alastair Sim Mines a Deep Vein of Wartime Fear

During World War II, lots of filmmakers turned their lenses toward the battlefield, churning out glorious tales of valor and heroism. But two Brits chose instead to mine the greatest hopes, the deepest dreads and the biggest sacrifices of those who remained behind.

The writer/director team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, who produced films under the banner of Individual Pictures, were sort of a workingman’s Powell and Pressburger. Time and again, in more than 40 movies across four decades, they cannily captured the current mood of their country—always with wit and brains to spare, but never quite the same way twice. “Versatility was always our curse,” Gilliat once mused, reflecting on why they never fell into fashion with the film-school set.

By 1940, the pair had already written the screenplays for two classic thrillers: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich. But as the war closed in, their work hewed much closer to home—anticipating the rise of what’s condescendingly called kitchen-sink realism—with films such as Millions Like Us, set in an aircraft factory, and Waterloo Road, a gritty portrait of the homefront in south London.

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But it was one of their post-war films, Green for Danger, that most vividly crystallized their country’s wartime anxieties, thanks to an insightful script, the moody camerawork of Wilkie Cooper, and a cast and crew still deeply unsettled by the events of the preceding years. Trevor Howard had been honorably discharged from the British Army in 1943, due to unspecified emotional issues. Sally Gray was working on only her second film after a five-year hiatus following a breakdown. And Leo Genn, a Cambridge-educated barrister before he became an actor, had fought valiantly with the Royal Artillery, earning the French Croix de Guerre. He then helped investigate and prosecute Nazi war criminals—which required him to visit the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.

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Shot mostly at Pinewood Studios in 1946, Green for Danger—adapted from a novel by Christianna Brand, whose husband was a military medic—was the first commercial film made there after the war. But it’s set in August 1944, when “Doodlebugs” or buzz-bombs were still falling all over southeast England.

Early in the film, the local postman is strafed by an air attack and brought to the hospital with seemingly treatable injuries—but dies mysteriously on the operating table. The ensuing investigation targets the anesthesiologist, Barney Barnes (Howard), who’d earlier lost a patient under similar circumstances.

But then things get even more complicated: At a local dance attended by hospital staff, a nurse sprints up to the balcony, tears a record off the turntable, and calls out to the crowd that the postman’s death was no accident—and that she knows who killed him. Then she bolts off into the windy night to retrieve the evidence. In a genuinely harrowing scene worthy of Val Lewton, she frantically slips in and out the shadows until finally, one overtakes her.

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Now, with at least one confirmed murder on its hands, Scotland Yard sends Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) out to investigate. In stark relief to the deepening anxiety all around him, this is a man who coolly lives in his head, believing it’s the smartest place on earth. Wry and sardonic, he takes guiltless glee in his unnerving effect on the doctors and nurses.  “My presence lay over the hospital like a pall,” he confides to the viewer. “I found it all tremendously enjoyable.” And just like that, we find ourselves falling for a character whose smugness would be off-putting in the hands of almost anyone else. We even feel for him when, while up in bed reading a murder mystery, he breaks into a self-satisfied grin at guessing the killer—only to peek at the last page and discover he’s wrong.

Time and again, Cockrill’s droll irreverence cuts through the mounting tension, as bombs fall outside, suspicion grows claustrophobically thick within the walls of the hospital, and the two lead physicians, Dr. Barnes and Dr. Eden (Genn), spar over the affections of nurse Freddi (Gray). When they finally wind up brawling on the floor, the good inspector pulls up a chair and lays odds.

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The undercurrent of loathing between the two men runs through the entire film, pitting the blue-collar Dr. Barnes against the former Harley Street surgeon at every turn. (But then it wouldn’t be a British film without class issues bobbing up somewhere…) And the smoothly predatory Dr. Eden has no scruples about taking advantage of the growing unease to press his advantage. In fact, his honest compassion toward an emotionally fragile nurse whose mother was killed in a bomb attack is pretty much the only thing that rescues him from total heel-dom.

But somehow, with his soothing bedside-manner baritone, Genn makes even smarm seem elegant. And his skirmishes with the rougher-edged Howard, whether the two are on their feet or on the floor, make us want to pull up chairs ourselves.

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Of course, amidst all this romantic intrigue, there’s still a murderer at large, against an irresistible backdrop: What should be the safest place in the world has become the most dangerous. “What appealed to me was… the rhythmic ritual, from wheeling the patient out to putting him out and keeping him out (in this case, permanently), with all those crosscutting opportunities offered by flowmeters, hissing gas, cylinders, palpitating rubber bags, and all the other trappings, in the middle of the Blitz, too!” Gilliat told Geoff Brown in his book Launder and Gilliat.

This potential for mayhem was precisely what terrified the British censors: They sent a letter to the producers advising against making the film, worried that wounded soldiers would avoid military hospitals out of fear that killers were running loose among the staff. Through the grace of the movie gods, that letter was never received (or perhaps it somehow… disappeared). The censors then banned the completed film on the same grounds. But in both cases, their qualms were rooted in Brand’s original novel, which is set in an army hospital, whereas the film moved the action to civilian turf. That seemed to calm the guardians of the gates, and the movie was released with only minor cuts. What’s left is 85 minutes of near perfection.

21 Comments

  1. A fabulous film! Sim is superb in it. I have been watching it every year or so for 40 years.

  2. I recently saw this for the first time and loved it. So right about the Lewton-esque scene, Sim’s great performance and the perfection of it–fabulous movie and post. Thanks so much for joining us for this event!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words and for co-hosting this huge event, Kristina!! You have a busy week ahead!! ❤

  3. Ha ha – yes, it is something to “make smarm seem elegant” – a talent in both a real person and an actor.

    I love that you pointed out British filmmakers focussed on “greatest hopes, the deepest dreads and the biggest sacrifices.” So true, and you see it in so many British war films. These are the important things in a war, and every bit as important as heroic deeds on the battlefield.

    Thanks so much for joining us, and for writing this wonderful post. This is a movie I’ve GOT to see!!

    • Thank you so much for all your kindness, Ruth! And yes, the Brits did have a way with creating wonderful portraits of the people on the homefront, so compassionately and realistically.

  4. Terrific post. I have seen this film twice and love it, but had no idea about the controversy surrounding it. Thanks so much for participating in the Blogathon!

    • Thank you for your kind words, Aaron, and for hosting an amazing blogathon!! You and Ruth and Kristina should be so proud!!

  5. Congrats on winning a daily award! Great post and you were in good company!

    • Wow, thank you so much, Aaron!! That is really fabulous!! And thank you for this wonderful event. ❤

  6. Well worth the kudos. Great movie. Great article.

    • Thank you so much, Keith! You’re very kind!!

  7. Congratulations on winning ‘The Criterion’ for Most Original. I’ve enjoyed “Green for Danger” and the sight of two doctors rolling on the floor fighting without using their hands is a hoot. The British’s take on things is always so unique. This is a good mystery and I’m lovin’ Alistair Sim. ( I’ll put him up against Colombo any day ). Nicely written, Janet.

    • Thank you so much, Theresa!! I first discovered this movie — and I know you’ll identify with this!! — the New York PBS station years ago… they’re responsible for my addiction to classic British film. And yes, I must admit… Alastair Sim is another of my movie husbands!! 🙂

  8. Ch. 13. Haah! I remember it well. And Million Dollar Movie, and Chiller Theatre and… oh well. Another movie husband for you? LOL! Welllll…I can only imagine what a busy little bee YOU must be. 😉

    • At some point we should grab a drink and talk about the old days of movies on television in New York… remember the CBS Late Movie, and the theme? Da dum dum DUM dum dum da da…

  9. Nice review, Janet…you make this sound well worth checking out!

  10. Really great writing and astute insights. I see why you got one of the judge’s prizes!

    • Wow, Kelly, thank you so much!! You’re extremely kind!!

  11. I recall trying to guess the killer right to the very end (and then I was wrong!…). You’re so right about Alaister Sim, how he makes oddly disturbing people so charming and likable. Fascinating background info on Gilliat and Lauder, who seem overdue for a critical re-evaluation.

    • Yes, I hope they get one soon! It seems the people who are the least stylized, who let their work speak for itself — whether they’re directors, actors, writers, or other artists — are the least celebrated and appreciated…

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