Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Two Classic Films are Green and Delightful

The "green" in this film has to do with the color coding of oxygen tanks.

"Any classic film you've never seen before, is a new film to you." I think Robert Osborne, of Turner Classic Movies, said that. Since I think that is true, I thought you might be interested in a couple of old films I've seen recently, that were not only new to me, but excellent, and ones I thought you would very much enjoy.

The first is a British mystery called Green For Danger from 1946. It stars Alastair Sim as a Scotland Yard detective called to investigate the death of a postman on the operating table of a rural hospital outside of London.

The film takes place near the end of World War II, in 1944. Every star of the British cinema whose face you know is in this: Sally Gray, Trevor Howard, and Leo Gen are some of the talented people who join Alastair Sim in the lead roles. But the additional stars of this show are the dark, noir setting of a makeshift hospital set on a creepy old estate, and the wartime hazard of "doodlebugs," which were the Vengeance weapons blasted across the English Channel by Hitler.

The V-weapons were early rockets. And after one was launched, it would continue overhead as long as its fuel lasted. As soon as the engine cut, everyone on the ground had learned to duck for cover. For, it was then that the "doodlebug" dropped and killed those on the ground below.

What a terrifying and capricious setting for a murder mystery!

In this dark atmosphere, the director and screenwriter, Sidney Gilliat, manages to break up the tension with the dry humor of Inspector Cockrill, played by Sim. An early exchange between the inspector and the hospital administrator goes like this:

Dr. White: I do hope everything can be arranged discreetly.
Inspector Cockrill: Umm, shouldn't think so for a moment.
Dr. White: Why not? Press? Do they have to be seen?
Inspector Cockrill: Can't keep 'em out.
Dr. White: Oh, dear.
Inspector Cockrill: I don't mind; they always give me a good write-up.

Director/producer/writer Sidney Gilliat also wrote the screenplays for The Lady Vanishes (1938, directed by Hitchcock) and Night Train to Munich (1940). In Green For Danger he uses the intricate plotting, murder and mystery, and humor that can be found in both of those better-known films. This one, created almost a decade later, has better production values as well.

I've seen a lot of mysteries and can usually guess the end (there is a scene of the inspector reading a murder mystery that refers to this particular feature of mystery stories) but I didn't guess this mystery's ending. Inspector Cockrill, with his eyebrow slightly arched, and his black umbrella over his arm, gives little away. Early on he tells us: "My presence lay over the hospital like a pall--I found it all tremendously enjoyable."

I think you will too. (The movie is available on Amazon and from many of the usual suspects--I mean places.)

John Ford (1895-1973) at work: the green of this next film is the green of his beloved Ireland.

The second film I'm recommending is a little-known John Ford film. That right there makes it pretty remarkable. It was shot in Ireland in 1956-57 and is a collection of three Irish tales called The Rising of the Moon (1957). It recently aired on Turner Classic Movies.

Ford was an Irishman born in the United States and whose original name was Sean Aloysius O'Fearna. When his brother (one of his twelve siblings) went to Hollywood in about 1913 and changed his name to Francis Ford, Sean joined him and became first Jack and then John Ford.

As John Ford he won Oscars for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952). Two of his wartime documentaries also won Oscars: The Battle of Midway (1942)and December 7th (1943).

He is one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history: many of the movies that didn't win him Oscars are among the best movies ever made. These include: Arrowsmith (1931); Wee Willie Winkie (1938); Stagecoach , Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk (1939); They were Expendable (1945); Three Godfathers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); Mogambo (1953;) and, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). I've left out quite a few, but I know you can Google him for the rest.

The Rising of the Moon is fascinating because it was filmed in Ireland five years after Ford made his award-winning The Quiet Man there, and it captures the green island at its most beautiful. His film features only two stars you'll recognize: Tyrone Power is the narrator and ties the three tales together. He was in the UK and Europe at the time filming The Sun Also Rises and Witness For the Prosecution and must have been available to help out his friend and fellow Irishman, John Ford, by lending the film a "name" actor. Cyril Cusack is another familiar face. His films include Harold and Maude (1971), The Day of the Jackal (1973), and My Left Foot (1989) among many others.

Of the three tales the first is a very quirky story about a proud man and his brief confrontation with the law. The second is a glimpse of the oddities that happen in a little Irish town when the train stops "For Just One Minute." But it is the third one I liked the best.

That may be because this tale, like all of the best of Irish stories, involves the Irish quest for independence from the British. It is called simply "1921" and is about a young man who is sentenced to hang for his role in some sort of anti-British activity. Perhaps only the Irish could make such a serious subject into a sweet comedy full of lessons: how husbands and wives can still love one another after many years of quarreling; how occupiers of a country can almost never find their way among the locals; and how each person will often come to a day when he will have to choose between his security and his conscience.

Lest you think it is too lofty a tale, there is a donkey in it who eats a policeman's lunch, a nun who wears high heels, and an IRA man who gets away by singing an Irish ballad. When the final scene arrived of the rowboat gleaming against moonlit waters, as the crew raises its voices to sing The Rising of the Moon (" ... with the pike upon your shoulder at the rising of the moon ...") I actually clapped.

The only disconcerting thing about the story involves American advertising. The folks at Colgate-Palmolive long ago appropriated the tune from the ballad "Rising of the Moon" for the soap Irish Spring, and now, with the tune going 'round and 'round in my head, I'm feeling an uncontrollable urge to go out and buy some green-and-white deodorant soap. The original tune, as the police constable says in the film, "had a little treason in it." And that's much more fun than soap suds.

You will have to hunt for this one: I didn't find it available in any of the places I checked. Keep your eye out for it in garage sale bins. It must be out there somewhere.

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Dave said...

Thanks Robin, these sound like great classic films! I will definitely order Green for Danger from Netflix. Due to our cool and wet spring, I shall most certainly have plenty of time to watch it.

Robin Chapman said...

Excellent. Dim the lights and enjoy the spooky atmosphere!