BLACKOUT aka CONTRABAND (1940)
Running Time: 92 mins. Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Michael Powell
Distributor: United Artists
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Valerie Hobson, Hay Petrie, Joss Ambler, Raymond Lovell
A delightful wartime romantic romp, with just a touch of healthy S&M
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 standoffish 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 that 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, o mores.
The action can be a little more than the merely concocted. As in farce, people do certain things in certain ways; it seems, just to keep the story moving along. So there are massive plot holes. It’s 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 that 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 much 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.
If you like this recommendations: