To Judge Paul Corupe, green means a greenlight for thriller fans on this mystery favorite.
"In view of my failure—correction, comparative failure—I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it."—Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim)
Set against the nerve-racking backdrop of German V-1 bombing raids against the British, Sidney Gilliat's Green for Danger is a fine whodunit that features a striking counterbalance of gothic atmospherics and sardonic comedy. It may not be art, but I like it—and apparently so do those cineastes at Criterion, who have delivered this all-but-forgotten mystery on DVD in typically fine form.
Facts of the Case
Wounded in a bombing run, a postman arrives in an emergency hospital and is whisked away to the operating theater for a minor procedure. Before Dr. Eden (Leo Genn, Circus of Fear) can pick up his scalpel, his patient inexplicably expires while anesthesiologist Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard, The Third Man) and nurses Sanson (Rosamund John, Operation Murder), Woods (Megs Jenkins, The Innocents), Linley (Sally Gray, They Made Me a Fugitive), and Bates (Judy Campbell, Kung-Fu Master) watch helplessly. When Bates announces that evening that the death was in fact a murder and she has proof, her lifeless body is soon discovered in the theater as well. Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim, A Christmas Carol) is called in to investigate and lands in the middle of a love triangle between Nurse Linley and the two male doctors that may be at the root of this perplexing crime.
A prolific screenwriter and director, Gilliat had largely built his reputation for thrillers from penning The Lady Vanishes and Jamaica Inn for Alfred Hitchcock, so it should come as no surprise that Green for Danger, adapted from the novel by Christianna Brand, is a tautly written affair, brimming with intrigue and baffling puzzles.
The initial third of the film, in which the two murders are set up, have Gilliat operating in full thriller mode. He plays the first act with deadly seriousness, laying out the potentially scandalous romances of the staff as bombs decimate the countryside outside the hospital walls, setting the stage with both menace and melodrama. After the antiseptic sterility of the first murder, which carefully avoids any possibly offensive footage of the hurt postman on the operating table, this brooding atmosphere really pays off in Nurse Bates's death—a moody, expressionistic piece of filmmaking that plays out in classic horror film imagery. Running through the hospital's heavily wooded garden as thunderbolts crack overhead, Bates is relentlessly pursued by the unknown killer. As she makes her way to the operating theatre to dig an incriminating clue out of a cabinet, she is confronted by a shadowy figure in a surgical cap and gown, brandishing a scalpel.
The real pleasure of the film, however, is when the tone switches from thriller to straight-up whodunit, mostly due to Sim's portrayal of Inspector Cockrill of the Kent County Police, a recurring detective character that appeared in several of Brand's novels. Although Cockrill doesn't actually appear until 35 minutes into the film, Sim's presence is so commanding and charismatic, however, that he easily overshadows the rest of the cast. Slyly badgering the suspects with deadpan accusations and twirling his umbrella, he takes immense pleasure in his work, occasionally getting a little too cocky for his own good. Instead of the steel-trap mind of Sherlock Holmes or the reserved but precise wisdom of Charlie Chan, Cockrill is portrayed as a detective who's not above making a few mistakes as he conducts his investigation. In one of the film's famous scenes, Cockrill lies in bed with a mystery novel and smirks as he uncovers what he believes is the revealing clue—only to turn to the back of the book and be disappointed. This fallibility, which figures greatly in the film's surprising conclusion, not only differentiates Cockrill from his fellow screen detectives, but also gives him a more palpable humanity—the viewer really gets the sense that he is solving the mystery along with the inspector rather than trying to compete or keep up.
For this release—featuring an absolute stand-out cover by Geoff Grandfield—Criterion has done a nice job with the slightly window-boxed 1.33:1 transfer, cleaning up almost all of the obtrusive nicks and scratches. Generally, images appear crisp, with impressive contrast, making for a pleasant viewing experience. Likewise, the mono soundtrack is just fine. We get only a few extras on this disc, however, starting with an informative commentary track by Bruce Eder, which was originally recorded for the film's laserdisc release. Eder gets deep into production details, discusses the differences between the film and the book, and offers comprehensive filmographies of the cast and crew involved. There's also a good 15-minute interview with fellow film scholar Geoff Brown, who gets into Gilliat's connection with Hitchcock and helps put the film into post-war context. There's also an extensive booklet, featuring essays by Geoffrey O'Brien and Geoff Brown.
Don't mistake Green for Danger for anything but well-made, light entertainment, but it's still a more than satisfying treat for the mystery fan. It's a shame that Inspector Cockrill didn't take off and receive his own series of films, since Sim's characterization of the eccentric detective is really what makes this whodunit film so much fun.
Not guilty, guv'ner.
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• Commentary by Bruce Eder
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