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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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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!
The story concerns a Dane, Captain Anderson (Conrad Veidt) on a freighter that is stopped for inspection by a British warship. He asks for passes for himself and his first officer, but when he is ready to leave, he finds that the passes have been stolen by two passengers, Mrs. Sorenson (Valerie Hobson) and Mr. Pidgeon (Esmond Knight). He rows to shore and finds Mrs. Sorenson and decides to stick to her like glue. Before long he's involved with a German spy ring.
This is a good film with both Veidt and Hobson giving wonderful performances. They have good chemistry and the script gives them the opportunity for some repartee.
The background of the movie is interesting. One message was to to elicit compassion from the Scandinavians, as they emerge here as the heroes. Obviously it was before Denmark was invaded, and the British hoped to have their help.
The last scenes are quite exciting. This doesn't come up to a 39 Steps but it's still enjoyable.
Veidt is a Danish sea captain who is not real happy about being neutral and the risks it imposes on people like him trying to earn a living transporting trade goods. After a British inspection of his ship, two passengers fly the coop with his ship's log and landing clearances. One of them is Valerie Hobson and Veidt makes an unauthorized landing of his own to apprehend Hobson and her partner.
Soon enough he's up to his Danish ears in all kinds of intrigue concerning smuggling. He and Hobson pair off well, very much like Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps. Veidt who was known in America primarily for those smooth villainous roles like The Thief of Bagdad, Escape, and Casablanca could easily have transitioned to an all purpose continental leading man like Charles Boyer had be immigrated to America in time of peace.
It's not a Hitchcock like classic. But Contraband was a film pleasing enough to British audiences back in the day.
Beneath Nightclubs with Gaudy Fashions and Cuisine and Floor Shows Like "White Negro" that are Quite Bizarre, as is a Musical Group of Female Banjo Pickers with Artificial Glass Legs. It is All Rather Surreal.
Our Heroes get to Engage Banter with Some Sexual Innuendos and a Bondage Scene as They Combine Efforts for an Entertaining Romp that May be a bit Heavy on the Humor but the Thing Works Wonderfully.
It is Michael Powell's Inventive Camera Work and Expressionism that Makes this Stand Out and One can See that the British were Developing, as were Their American Cousins, a Seemingly Unconscious Style of Filmmaking that would Become Known as Film-Noir in its Various Degrees of Genre Bending and Definition.
1940 saw the release of "Contraband", also featuring the same stars, as well as director and screenwriter. Technically, this film is superior to "Spy in Black", but if one is expecting a Hitchcockian romance-thriller laced with sparkling wit, a la "The 39 Steps" or "The Lady Vanishes," one is in for a big disappointment. Conrad Veidt, only three years away from death, looks much older than forty-seven in "Contraband". It is sad to see him cast as a 'romantic lead' having to occasionally spout some inane, undignified dialogue. Try to imagine Humphrey Bogart playing the lead in "Casablanca" in 1956 instead of 1942, and you have the idea. Even between "The Spy in Black" and "Contraband" Veidt had aged considerably.
The acting, direction, and camera-work are superb---diminutive Hay Petrie steals every scene he is in, as he did in "The Spy in Black" and "Knight Without Armour" (1937). Had he worked in Hollywood, he would likely have been a successful character lead, as was Claude Rains. It is Emeric Pressburger's script which ultimately sinks "Contraband". There are many potentially dramatic moments which are undermined by campy dialogue and situations, so much so that one cannot take the film seriously at all. The same occurs to a lesser degree in the otherwise excellent "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" and "A Matter of Life and Death". Pressburger, a Hungarian emigrè, also ham-fistedly telegraphs an appeal for sympathy towards all non-Brits in the aforementioned UK films.
I much prefer the Korda-produced films to the work of The Archers for the above reasons.
Veidt discovers that two of the passengers have entered his cabin and lifted papers allowing them to go ashore. One of them is Valerie Hobson, the other Esmond Knight. He himself rows ashore at night and tracks them to London, where he hooks up with Hobson, who he believes is in cahoots with Knight. It's lucky for him that he found Hobson. She's very attractive, tall, willowy, cheerfully cheeky. I mean, if he had to choose Hobson or Esmond Knight, Veidt might as well get Hobson.
They are now roaming the streets of London, two illegals, searching for the missing Knight whose character is named Pidgeon. ("The pigeon has flown!", announces a ship's officer.) Well, this is Hitchcock territory. A man and a woman being pursued while trying to unravel a mystery -- "Saboteur", "North by Northwest," and hints of others.
The narrative isn't at all dark. It's mostly comic and buoyant. There are small comic incidents involving minor characters -- a crowded passenger on a bus, a Welsh restaurateur, a sinister pair of brothers named Grimm (Peter Bull and Leo Genn). The director, Michael Powell, even anticipates Hitchcock's later use of point-of-view shots.
That the adventure ashore turns into a frolic is somewhat surprising, considering that this was released in 1940, a troublesome year for Britain. But who knows? Maybe chuckles and smiles are what a distressed audience needs.
The film begins with a Danish* ship awaiting inspection by a British naval patrol. After all, WWII has begun and the Brits are just making sure nothing is getting in or out of the country that would help the Nazis. The Captain of the ship (Conrad Veidt) is cooperative and things seem just fine. However, and here's where the film starts to get stupid, a couple passes which would have allowed him and his first mate to go ashore suddenly go missing--and so do two passengers. Obviously the pair had taken the passes and went ashore. Now anyone with at least 1/2 ounce of brain would think to contact the British authorities to let them know. After all, the two might be German agents. But, since it's a propaganda film, the Captain and his mate sneak ashore and the Captain goes in search of the pair (don't worry, it's only London and it's not like it's one of the largest cities in the world!!! Finding them should be a snap). Does the Captain NOW find a cop or some other authority for help? Nah, he goes out and almost immediately tries to find them....and he DOES find the lady! She almost immediately tries to give him the slip--and yet he STILL does not seek police help!!! This is pretty much what happens throughout the rest of the film-- even when the Captain DEFINITELY discovers a Nazi spy ring. Why bother telling the police when you can take on a group like Nazi spies?! Illogical from start to finish but also find of exciting and fun.
*This film is set in 1939--before the Germans took over Denmark. So, when the film occurred, the Danes were still neutral and not involved in the war.
While Denmark remains neutral in the Phoney War-stage of WWII,Danish captain Anderson is surprised to receive an order from Lt. Commanders Ashton and Ellis to go to a British Contraband Control Port,so that an inspection can be carried out. Getting set to go ashore as the inspection is done,Anderson's pass (and boat) is taken by secret agents Mrs. Sorensen and Mr. Pidgeon,who set sail to give the government info that the Nazis want blacked out.
View on the film:
Known for the immortal nightmare image in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt gives a delicious performance as Anderson,with the romantic glances Anderson gives Sorensen allowing Veidt to show a romantic flamboyance with a real relish. Running with a dashing Esmond Knight as Mr. Pidgeon, Valerie Hobson gives an enticing performance as Sorensen. Coming faced to face with the Nazis,Hobson gives Sorensen a considerate thoughtfulness,that unrolls itself as Sorensen tries to get contraband under the Nazis noses.
Originally planned as a follow-up to The Spy In Black, the screenplay by co-writer/(along with Emeric Pressburger & Brock Williams) director Michael Powell sails on creepy Spiv espionage and playful Caper romance. Making their first title for the WWII effort,the writers present a surprisingly unsettling view of Britain,where Nazis and British spies lurk on every street waiting to spot a weakness. Staying away from going too grim,the writers give Sorensen a patriotic slickness that undermines every attempt from the boo-hiss Nazis.
Hitting the high seas with most of the crew from The Spy In Black,director Michael Powell & cinematographer Freddie Young cast a chilly atmosphere with thick smog allowing the contraband to be kept from the eyes of the enemy. Whilst being very early in the Powell/Pressburger relationship,Powell displays a remarkable confidence in smashing the budget/sets limit in an ultra-stylised manner,as shot statues,overlapping eyes and invisible ink notes reveal Sorensen's contraband.
It soon becomes evident that a Nazi spy ring is in operation in London headed by Herr Van Dyne, Raymond Lovell, who just happens to be at the home of Sorensen's aunt where both her and Capt. Andersen are headed. It was Capt. Andersen who earlier tracked her down at the 3 Viking restaurant that's run by Axel Skold's twin brother Eric,also played by Hay Petrie, who's trying to make ends meet with the war, and nightly blackouts, cutting in on his profits. Taken prisoner by the Nazis all Sorenson and Capt. Andersen can do is twiddle their thumbs and bide their time trying to figure where the Nazis are by listening to the music and banjo playing at the night club that the Nazis are using as a front to their spying operation.
****SPOILERS*** It restaurateur Erik Skold and his employees of cooks and waiters who come to both Capt. Andersen and Mrs. Sorenson as well as Pidgeon's, who was later kidnapped by the Nazis, rescue, with pots and pans and tubs of boiling water they use in fighting the Nazis. More like a comedy then a serious wartime movie that in all the fighting the only one person who got killed was the one that deserved it most Nazi spy ring leader Van Dyne. The movie was filmed before the Nazi invasion of Denmark in April 1940 which in a way, if taken seriously, warned the Danes what the Nazis had in store for them. The film also showed how serious the Nazi threat to the free world was at that time early in the war in them willing to go so far as tricking the British future allies the USA to go to war against each other! That in a series of planned false flag attacks on US shipping and miking it look like the British were behind them!
This film has an alternate title of "Blackout" and it's very significant seeing that you can't see what's going on during several scenes. It's a shame because it's an engaging spy story. Conrad Veidt is excellent in the lead he is very much his own man, and manages to draw some humour out of his arrogant portrayal making him likable. He is loyal to his principles and that is to be admired. He gets some funny dialogue as well as throwing in some nice touches such as when he rows ashore to begin his chase, and he keeps repeating the name of Mr Pidgeon. With each pull of the oar we hear "Mr Pidgeon". It's funny and you know that it is really annoying him! However, set against this, the film is marred by silly comedy sections that always seem to include Hay Petrie in a dual role of brothers. The film really did not need him, yet alone two of him. Aaargh. Lose points for that, I'm afraid.
You can tell that this is a fun, spy story with some tense moments. However, the tension is taken away because you can't see the blasted thing and there is way too much comedy.
It is nothing of the sort.
If Hitchcock had made this film, smooth, suave Cary Grant would have had the lead, and he would have been opposite a cool, sophisticated blonde. Before the film had ended, Grant would have melted her coolness for a final kiss or, as in "North By Northwest," an implication of sexual surrender.
Here we are asked to accept Conrad Veidt, at age 47 and looking every year of it just three years before his death, in the Cary Grant role and Valerie Hobson, twenty-four years his junior, in the cool blonde part. There is just about no one further removed from Cary Grant than Conrad Veidt. However, it was interesting to see him playing someone other than a villain, but at the same time, I realized that such roles were his forte.
Of course, Valerie Hobson isn't blond. And here she looked like Merle Oberon and acted as stiffly. There were absolutely no sparks between Hobson and Veidt, to say nothing of the dialogue which was totally unwitty and without any double entendres. I suspect that Kino's publicity about the Hitchcockian touch had in mind Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps," where Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll must put up with each other against their wills.
I cared nothing for the characters. The film had no narrative thrust (what happens next?). It was a total waste of my time.