Sidney Gilliat, 1946
Starring: Alastair Sim, Leo Genn, Sally Gray, Trevor Howard
Citizens in the British countryside are rocked by regular bombings from the Nazi Blitz. Meanwhile, a patient is found dead at a local hospital — he is in surgery after being injured by a bomb, but dies due to improper anesthesia. An investigation is opened, because the anesthesiologist, Dr. Barnes, had a patient die the same way in the past. as Inspector Cockrill heads to the scene, a nurse, Sister Bates, is murdered soon after she announces at a village dance that she knows the death was not an accident, but murder. Several doctors and nurses had motive and opportunity and Cockrill rushes to find the killer as more lives are threatened.
Based on a much-read novel by Christianna Brand, director Sidney Gilliat streamlined the novel’s plot into an elegant work of black comedy, murder most foul, and almost unbearable level of sexual tension. Gilliat made a name with his partner Frank Launder as writers on Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, an earlier example of their deft handling of comedy and suspense. They also worked on Night Train to Munich (1940), The Rake’s Progress (1945), The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), and more, often changing up roles as director, writer, and producer. Green for Danger is an example of one of Gilliat’s solo works, without Launder, and possibly as a result it is quite dark in tone.
Though this is often labeled as a film noir or murder mystery, it is really a hybrid of the two, with plenty of elements of horror. Films like this and Dead of Night represent the closest Britain came to cinematic horror during the war years, when the genre was frowned upon if not outright banned The masked and anonymously gowned medical practitioners both serve as a plot function, literally masking the identity of the killer, but they also add to the film’s sense of the weird. There are certainly elements of the Gothic and of German expressionism here, with dark and atmospheric shots of the shadowy hospital at night or the threatening woods, which have a fairy tale-like quality. I can’t help but wonder if this influenced Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage, 1960).
As with later giallo films and Eyes Without a Face, there is a sense of anxious, repressed, and almost predatory sexuality at work. Though there are two key male suspects, the women of the film represent both victims and perpetrators and female hysteria runs rampant throughout the film. Women suffer from current and past traumas, which inevitably return to haunt the present. Everything is tenuous and vulnerable due to the war, the bombing and its aftermath, and the constant proximity to death suggested by the hospital. There’s also a somewhat mean-spirited tone, a sense that love and affection is fleeting, temporary, and many of the female characters become near-psychotic in their attempts to grasp it and hold on to it.
The film succeeds thanks to the strong script and a number of excellent performances. While the impressive female cast includes Sally Gray (The Hidden Room), Rosamund John (Spitfire), Judy Campbell (Sredni Vashtar, mother of Jane Birkin), and Meg Jennings (The Innocents), the men are able to hold their own. The stalwart of British cinema from this period, Trevor Howard, is memorable as the icy, possibly neurotic Dr. Barnes, and Ronald Adam (The Haunting), is undeniably disturbing as his foil, the sexually carnivorous Dr White. Alastair Sim, however, steals the film as Inspector Cockrill (Stage Fright) and injects some much needed lightness and humor. Without his humor voice over and absurd bumbling, this would be a very similar film to Henr-Georges Clouzot’s Le corbeau (1943), a black little film about murder and blackmail in a village in wartime France.
Green for Danger comes highly recommended. It’s an assured blend of horror, whodunit, and noir that plays with the conventions of a traditional British mystery and adds bold elements like a wartime background and hospital setting. Thanks to the black humor and German expressionist-like visuals, this puts a toe over the line into horror and is a highly underrated piece of filmmaking. Pick it up through the Criterion Collection.