Murder and sleuthing in war time
By Zeke Trautenberg
Just before it begins its descent, the roaring motor of the V-1 or “Vengeance Weapon 1” rocket shuts off. It falls silently for a few seconds before exploding upon impact. This monstrous weapon heralded the advent of new and frightening technologies of death. Nazi Germany fired thousands of V-1 and the even more fearsome V-2 rockets against targets in the United Kingdom and Western Europe in the final two years of World War II. In his 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon captures the abject terror and hopelessness of those at the mercy of these flying missiles: “There is no way out. Lie and wait, lie still and be quiet. Screaming holds across the sky. When it comes, will it come in darkness, or will it bring its own light? Will the light come before or after?”.
The imminent threat of the V-1 hangs over Heron’s Park Hospital, a requisitioned Elizabethan manor that is the setting of Sidney Gilliat’s 1946 mystery thriller Green for Danger. The doctors and nurses of the makeshift hospital treat a steady stream of victims of the “buzz bombs." Life in the hospital maintains a semblance of normal life, with office romances and parties, but it is also a closed-off and stressful place where casualties might arrive at any time, day or night.
The film opens with a shot of an Underwood typewriter and the voice-over-narration of Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) who begins to dictate a report on his investigation of a series of mysterious deaths at the hospital. The inspector’s investigation is set in motion by the death of the post office worker Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott), who is interned at the hospital after suffering injuries from a V-1 rocket. The unfortunate postal worker meets his demise in the operating room while undergoing anesthesia. His death prompts an inquest and the investigation of the sharp-tongued inspector from Scotland Yard.
At the time he made Green for Danger, Sidney Gilliat was already an established screenwriter, director, and producer. Together with Green for Danger’s co-producer, Frank Launder, Gilliat wrote the screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery film A Lady Vanishes (1938) and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940), a prescient thriller set in Nazi-occupied Prague. These three films all feature byzantine plots and use psychological tension of their characters and confined settings to generate suspense. Among these films, Green for Danger stands out for the deft camera work by Director of Photography Wilkie Cooper. One notable scene is a point of view shot from the injured post officer as he is wheeled prostrate into the operating room. The camera, slightly out of focus like the disoriented patient, points upwards to the ceiling where the bright lights and air ducts deprived of their functional capacities, become strange and disturbing sources of piercing light and disembodied conversation, respectively.
The disorientation and confusion experienced by the mumbling patient Higgins permeates the film. From the very beginning, Gilliat keeps the viewer off balance. The main characters (and suspects) in the film are introduced in a long take in the operating room. As the inspector recites their names, the camera pans counter-clockwise, presenting a close-up of each suspect wearing a surgical gowns and face mask. In the context of the film, their uniforms are not just markers of their profession, but also cloaks of anonymity to hide behind.
The identities and personalities of the men and women first seen in the operating room are revealed as the body count piles up. They are the playboy surgeon Doctor Eden (Leo Genn), the brooding Doctor Barnes (Trevor Howard), the traumatized Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John), the distraught Nurse Bates (Judy Campbell), the gregarious Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins), and the charming Nurse Linley (Sally Gray). Like Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (1939), the film derives suspense from the mutual suspicions and conflict among this coterie of colorful characters in close quarters. They are bedfellows and neighbors living together under the stress of war and the deadly parabola of German rockets.
Although he does not appear until the film's second act, the supremely self-aware Inspector Cockrill is the film's most captivating character. In his voice-over narration, he delights in his powerful and disruptive role: “Voices were hushed and all eyes turned upon me. Who was the guilty one? When will he be arrested? Who will be next? That is what they were thinking. I found it all tremendously enjoyable.” Like a cross between Inspectors Dupin and Maigret, Cockrill mixes enlightened reasoning with a keen social awareness. However, it is his passion for detective fiction that enables him to solve the murders. Fashioning himself into an author of the mystery novels he so enjoys, Cockrill restages the initial crime. Although he solves the crime, the results are tragic. The inspector's intervention precipitates a final spasm of violence that demolishes the characters' façades of stoic endurance and calm. Beneath the V-1, there is only naked fear.
Director: Sidney Gilliat
Running Time: 91 minutes
Photos: Individual Pictures
* Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Viking Press, 1973.