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What a delightful film this is. It's true that this film is concocted
out of the same ingredients of contemporary Hitchcock film - spy
suspense and romance between stand offish lovers wrapped up in a crust
of a comedy of manners but it's interesting to see the results from a
different chef. There is even a climactic scene in a factory which
makes busts of Neville Chamberlain. The little sexual mushrooms that
Hitchcock likes to strew through his films are here even more perverse
with particular emphasis on bondage and pain. Here is Conrad Veidt at
his most affable and most romantic, hardly the same man who pisses ice
cubes he was in Casablanca, his most indelible role. Valerie Hobson is
the perfect combination of repressed middle class woman and devil may
care adventuress. They have a brilliant chemistry together, sort of a
neo-lithic Steed and Peel. It remains to be seen if any film today can
ever capture this type of pairing, with the forthcoming MR. & MRS.
SMITH (itself an old Hitchcock title) promising a cartoon like special
effects and martial arts based attempt at mutual destruction. O tempes,
The action can be a little more than the merely concocted. As in farce, people do certain things in certain ways, its seems, just to keep the story moving along. So there are massive plot holes. Its the old John Ford story, about why he didn't have the Indians simply shoot the horses in STAGECOACH (if they did there wouldn't be a movie!). There was another reason d'etre for CONTRABAND - wartime British propaganda.
CONTRABAND was made with the co-operation of two British Government ministries including the Office of Economic Warfare. It would seem that one film's goals was to create a positive sympathy among Scandinavians by having the lions share of defeating the Nazi spy ring accomplished by the hereto neutral Danes handily recruited from a restaurant evocatively named The Viking. This British hope of support was before the German invasion of Denmark and the instantaneous crumbling of Danish military defenses. The climactic fight in the factory making heroic busts of Neville Chamberlain was not meant to be ironic (a bust is used to knock out a spy followed with a Bond like quip "They said he was tough."). It is doubtful that two government ministries would have co-operated with a film which made fun of the Prime Minister during wartime. In fact all Civil servants and serving military men are seen as competent, thoughtful efficient and humane. But all of these elements are held subtly in the background, as is a virtual encyclopedia of ordinary life in London, especially the demands of the blackout.
However all these are subsidiary interests to the real focus of the film, the relationship between Veidt and Hobson. In many way this was a repackaging of their pairing in a previous Powell film, THE SPY IN BLACK, which ends, in romantic terms, unsatisfactorily, i.e. she goes back to her husband and he dies. Here they go on together, no doubt spending the next few years giving the Jerrys conniption fits, in and out of bondage. Oh yes. There is bondage, perhaps even freakier than in a Hitchcock film. There is no mistaking the B&D complete with a pillar.The good old days when you could get right to the edge and it would be read as merely the hero and heroine being tied up but no mistake, this is the real thing.
The plot is well paced and fun, although a bit convoluted. But, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson are the hidden pleasures in this film. She's beautiful and witty. He's tall (very), handsome, and debonaire. Together they're very sexy: their relationship here is reminiscent of that of William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man and Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North-By-Northwest. The scene in which they break the bonds in which the villains have tied them is wonderfully erotic. Above all, Contraband demonstrates how film makers (outside of Powell and Pressberger) missed the boat in not taking advantage of Veidt's sophisticated persona, understated acting skills, and comedic flair.
I bought this movie because it was directed by Michael Powell, scripted by Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and starred Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson (a great important British director/producer/writer and two great stars). I knew this hailed from just before Powell & Pressburger hit their stride as THE ARCHERS. Boy, what a pleasant surprise; this is FIRST-RATE suspense/spy thriller which takes place in the early days of wartime Britian but before Pearl Harbor. It's about a Danish sea captain who's forced to follow two missing and suspicious passengers while his ship is being temporarily held by the British. What follows is a spy mystery through London during the days of Blackouts....and is ever bit as clever, amusing and suspenseful as any of Hitchcock's superb British sound films. I URGE you to check out this great and little seen British film classic.
Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson had appeared together with surprising
effect in 'The Spy in Black'. They were reunited in this splendid
comedy thriller with a Hitchcockian mode the following year.
Lots of action and wry humour, with a pleasing spy story set in a London blackout. Hobson plays a spy who needs to get information to the Admiralty. To do this, she steals the landing pass of the ship's skipper (Veidt) whilst the ship is in harbour for a contraband check.
Veidt follows her to London where they encounter a Nazi spy ring intent on obtaining this information. They are tied up, but Veidt escapes, and with the help of fellow Danes (Veidt is Danish in this film, and a good guy!), foils the plot.
Funny, charming, sexy and thrilling (with just a little bit of bondage!), and with a great chemistry between the two stars.
This is a follow-up to THE SPY IN BLACK (1939) - utilizing the same
director, writer and stars - and even better! It's described as a
Hitchcockian comedy-thriller - though still every bit an "Archers"
product - which only goes to show that the Master Of Suspense lost
something by going to the US (the English films being more deliberately
stylized); the second of 5 collaborations by the Powell/Pressburger
team designed as propaganda for the war effort - each more ambitious
and uncharacteristic of the typical British effort than the one before!
It's fast-paced and plot-packed, with several marvelous suspense scenes, but also excellent characterization all around - and a splendid cast: Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson are supported by a wonderful dual role from Hay Petrie, Esmond Knight, and even early villainous turns by Leo Genn and Peter Bull (dubbed "The Brothers Grimm" by Veidt's Captain Hans Andersen!) - with bits by Torin Thatcher and an especially nice one involving Bernard Miles; The Archers also take care to provide the chief villain (played by Raymond Lovell) with a speech impediment - though not as a means of ridiculing him.
The London locations (shot by the great Freddie Young) are superbly deployed - given an extra Expressionist edge by being largely set during a blackout (actually, the film's title in the US). The Archers would come to be known for their occasional drop in taste, already evident here in an interracial cabaret number entitled "White Negro"! The terrific climax involves a chase intercut with a free-for-all.
I had long wanted to purchase the R1 DVD but kept postponing it due to the utter lack of extras and the prohibitive price (only managing to get it through Deep Discount's recent sale on Kino products!); still, the transfer is disappointing (and yet the only way the film is available for the moment!): bright, soft and probably PAL sourced (given that the running time is only 87 minutes against the official 92 - the sleeve notes thus making the mistake of stating that it's 8 minutes, rather than 12, longer than the version originally shown in the US!).
Just watched this on TCM, where it appeared in their day-long tribute to Veidt - parenthetically, their August programs featuring one actor per day have unearthed some marvelous stuff (eg, early Ann Dvorak). TCM aired it as "Contraband", the original British title - and it's a very British piece indeed. The plot is complex & often nonsensical, but I don't think one ever watches Michael Powell films for tidy screenplays. Veidt and Hobson encounter one another on his ship, and then whiz across London, first pursuing/eluding one another, then working together to undo a German spy ring. Much hugger-mugger, with a multitude of British character actors working in blackout darkness and then brightly-lit, often chaotic interiors (train compartments, restaurants, ship's lounges, nightclubs, elevators ....) Veidt and Hobson are charming in tandem, with a grownup sexual tension that for this viewer was a striking contrast to the more standard youthful leads of that time (and ours). As other commenters have noted, the filmmakers include a subtle thread of delight in bondage, mild fetishism, etc (eg,Hobson's shoes & feet during her captivity). Ah, the British. Clearly made on a budget, the entire production nonetheless looks & feels terrific - gritty shipboard all-male scenes, a couple of nightclub production numbers that have to be seen to be believed, a swell Art Deco townhouse - and underneath it all, maneuvering through the London blackout as a necessary given, a condition of life that the Brits seem to take for granted as the darkest days of the war approach. I had never seen Veidt so sympathetic - here a memorable leading man, versus his more well-know villains..And I was until now unfamiliar with Hay Petrie, here in a double role as Veidt's shipboard second-in-command, and that character's brother, a volatile (& hilarious) Danish restaurateur (don't ask!) All in all - a delight.
"Contraband" has been frequently compared to the works of Hitchcock,
which is no surprise. There is an air of suspense and danger as the two
main characters, Captain Andersen (Conrad Veidt) and Mrs. Sorensen
(Valerie Hobson), traverse a British city in the darkness of a wartime
blackout. The viewer is asked to accompany them, never quite knowing
what forces are at play or who are the "good guys". The film also feels
a little like "Casablanca", with shadowy, nefarious forces at work
while the couple is drawn together emotionally.
Also, like Hitchcock, there is a very playful side to the action. The manners of society are observed while threatening subtexts are played out. Andersen and Sorensen, likewise--in the early part of the film--play a cat-and-mouse game that is enjoyable to watch.
The mechanics of the plot don't seem to matter much, like one of Hitchcock's McGuffins, and the photography seems more about style than substance. Filmed in B&W, of course, the story slinks in and out of darkened passageways, foggy ports and backrooms.
This film is a lot of fun to watch, especially if one just enjoys the action without trying to decipher the finer points of the intrigue.
This film, released both as CONTRABAND and as BLACKOUT, is a highly superior suspense and espionage film of the immediate pre-War period. The stars are Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, and the chemistry between them is almost as good as that between Bogart and Bacall in CASABLANCA (1942, in which, by the way, Veidt also appeared). Little can anyone have realized when this film was made, but Veidt had very little time left to live. He dropped dead while playing golf in 1943 at the age of only 50. Veidt and his third wife, who was Jewish, fled Germany to escape the Nazis in 1933, and settled in England. Germany's loss was England and America's gain, for Veidt, as a famous German star, had an effortless magnetism and enormous talent on screen. He lent gravitas to many a shaky part. Here he plays a Danish ship's captain, thus excusing his accent, which was of course really a German one. But the English public had little familiarity with the Danes since the Danish Vikings departed several hundred years earlier, so they did not notice the difference. (Lots of very blond people in the north-east of England are what the Danish Vikings left behind.) In the film there is a large Danish restaurant called Viking in the middle of London, where people dress in white tie for dinner and eat lots of herrings and have exotic haute cuisine and excellent wines. I wonder if any such Scandinavian gastronomic outpost ever really existed in London at any time. For a passionate herring-lover like myself, if only! (The best way to cook a herring is Scottish-style. And I bet you don't get many recipes in IMDb reviews, but here goes. Dip it in milk, roll it in organic oatmeal, gently pan-fry it in a modicum of pheasant fat, or if you can't find any then use goose fat. Allow to become brown and crisp. After eating, skin and oats and all, have tranquillizers ready to help you recover from the ecstatic culinary experience. And that is enough food for today.) This film was made before Denmark was invaded by the Nazis, so there is a great deal of Danish patriotism on display, including all the waiters and the proprietor of the Viking joining up to help Veidt and singing a patriotic Danish song. Valerie Hobson plays Mrs. Soerensen, a British divorcée whose ex-husband is Danish. In reality, she is an intrepid British spy. Veidt's Danish ship on its way back to Denmark is diverted into harbour in Britain for contraband inspection, and Valerie Hobson and a spy accomplice steal Veidt's landing permits in order to make a dash for London on their secret business. Veidt is annoyed and chases after them, but has no British money with him, which means he cannot even pay for a taxi when he arrives in London. He and Hobson end up becoming entangled first in complex spy activities, being captured and tied up by Nazi spies in London, and then become romantically entangled as well because they are irresistibly attracted to one another. So the ingredient of romance, tinged with irony, runs through the action. Valerie Hobson really shines in this film. She was amazingly beautiful at that time and what is called 'an absolute charmer'. And she has the most intense bedroom eyes, to which Veidt is far from indifferent. This film featured a number of interesting early appearances and non-appearances. Deborah Kerr got her first job in a film playing a cigarette girl, but her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, which must have added to the attractiveness of the floor, if not to the elevation of the young actress's expectations. Leo Genn and Peter Bull, such sturdy stalwarts of the British film business over decades, appear in supporting roles. Countless of us knew Peter Bull from his astrology shop in Notting Hill Gate, where until his death in 1984, it was always amusing to go in and browse and engage him in conversation about all the old movies he had been in and hear his bombastic and witty exposes of the foibles of his colleagues and racy tales of calamities on the set and on location. He was never a shy person and relished being drolly gay. Bernard Miles fixes a pipe in this film and Milo O'Shea is an air raid warden, his first film appearance, and more fortunate than Deborah Kerr in that he was not cut out. The blackout scenes in London are very informative and interesting, being entirely accurate. One learns, for instance, that the traffic lights at night shone only through small crosses cut in the centres of the shades in front of the lights (this can be seen in a scene where Veidt and Hobson are crossing a street). The film is thus remarkably informative about the conditions of early wartime London, and thus has a considerable historical importance. For those who like shots of old naval ships, there are plenty of those to see steaming around. The snappy editing of this film is by John Seabourne, Senior, skills which were later to be used to heighten the eerie dramatic power of THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER (1949) in particular. He is certainly an under-appreciated talent of the period, who left the industry in 1959 (born in 1890, no date of death is recorded for him on IMDb) after editing 39 films, several of them classics such as I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING (1945) and A CANTERBURY TALE (1944). This film was directed by the talented Michael Powell and the original story and screenplay are by his Romanian/Hungarian/Jewish collaborator Emeric Pressburger. They would go on to make together 49th PARALLEL (1941, see my review), several films with the editor John Seabourne, and would become world famous with THE RED SHOES (1948), along with countless other films which are fundamental to British cinema history.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One of my favourite P+P outings - but then there are so many of 'em!
Where to begin? A delicious feast of a film. A perfectly seasoned mix of pace, humour and suspense - not to mention a surprisingly strong undercurrent of bondage/S+M eroticism for a 1940s British product. (WARNING - SPOILER) A mere 5 minutes in, and in the very first verbal exchange between the two central characters, Captain Andersen (Conrad Veidt) says "Tell me, Mrs Sorensen: have you ever been put in irons?" (/SPOILER)
From there on, their fractious, edgy relationship - essentially a battle of wits to find out which shall be the dominant partner and which the submissive - carries a smouldering erotic charge that drives the story and makes it compellingly watchable. Veidt and Hobson make a brilliant double-act: move over, Steed and Mrs. Peel!
I won't go on at length about the quirky, typically P+P story elements, the expressionist camera/lighting work or the distinctly Hitchcockian touches (look out for the conversation on the bus, folks), because others have said it far better than I could. Instead, I'll just say...
WATCH THIS FILM - YOU WON'T REGRET IT!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A gem of early war propaganda, this adventure/comedy is a light-hearted
but serious look at Nazi espionage and smuggling. Cast against type,
Conrad Veidt plays a heroic Danish ship's captain, a seemingly sinister
fellow who is actually a humorous chap on the side of peace. He is seen
early in the film harshly admonishing a passenger for not wearing a
life preserver. Teaming up with beautiful Valarie Hobson, he finds
himself involved in exposing nasty Nazi's, much like his own spy in the
brilliant "All Through the Night" where his suave character tried to
blow up an American Navy ship.
The amazing Veidt is a German actor worthy of a movie biography because of his anti-Nazi sentiments while playing many of them, being married to a Jewish woman and escaping his homeland because of his love for her. With a sinister voice and demeanor hiding his true persona, Veidt here is as suave as Cary Grant and as courageous as Bogart. As the Captain, Veidt expresses a love for his homeland that he sadly realizes has been taken over by a monster. Outstanding photography and witty dialog add to the excitement of the film.
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