Contraband (Michael Powell / United Kingdom, 1940):

Genre residue from The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and Young and Innocent can be readily noted, but this is fundamentally Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger getting closer to becoming The Archers by grabbing the formal perfection of The Spy in Black and tweaking it. The all-business tone of the spy thriller is scrambled with quirky jibes and odd detours, the heroine (Valerie Hobson) is introduced as the one guest at a wartime freighter missing a lifejacket, the Danish skipper (Conrad Veidt) suggests bondage knots. Hobson vanishes ashore once the ship is stuck in contraband control, Veidt hops a train to London and catches up with her, and with the secret spy ring she's involved with -- the coastal airiness of the first passages becomes the metropolitan blackout where gas masks are sold along with flashlights, a restaurant out of a Mitchell Leisen comedy becomes their sanctuary. Veidt is knocked out so that Caligari can be evoked over a frontal close-up, on which Powell superimposes "the Brothers Grimm" goons (including Leo Genn and Peter Bull) in full jack-o'-lantern lighting; the phony governess is named Lang, the hero slowly awakens to German agents and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The story traces the gradual erosion of the Dane's neutrality in the face of menace, but Powell's freewheeling camera can't be stilled by patriotic piety -- what other propaganda film has Hay Petrie hopping around playing both sidekick and his own brother, or a nightclub featuring "White Negro," "Do You Know the Muffin Man," and a chanteuse with banjo and basso pipes? The couple's romance is picked up where they started it, Hobson drops her lifejacket for a kiss as Powell dissolves to the raising of the anchor: Onwards to 49th Parallel, North by Northwest, The Spy Who Loved Me. With Joss Ambler, Raymond Lovell, Phoebe Kershaw, Esmond Knight, Charles Victor, Harold Warrender, and Bernard Miles. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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