Director: Sidney Gilliat
Last week I watched a mystery in the form of a hospital soap opera that revolved around the use of anesthetic. While that one, The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936), was light fluff, Green for Danger is a hefty bona fide classic of the genre, a darkly comic, more realistic, expertly crafted and executed whodunit set in a country hospital near the end of WW2. In the wartime setting, the usual drama of a murder plot is heightened by the stresses, losses, secrets and devastation of war. Crimes are easier to overlook against mass tragedies and easier to hide, along with questionable pasts, in the wreckage of bombings and the clean slate of relocation. Between personal losses and professional demands, the characters in this film are under constant pressures and “some form of bombardment for years.” Their resentments and pasts converge when a local postman, Higgins (Moore Marriott), is brought in with injuries from a bombing. His recognition of one of the characters’ voices leads to his murder while on the operating table, which is then followed by a chain of crimes and attempts to cover the truth and eliminate those who know too much.
Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) is our guide, narrating from the start through his dictation of the facts, characters and victims of the mystery about to unfold. With his voice over we meet all the masked medical professionals in the OR and then unwinding with chats about their relationships and plans for the evening. Surgeon Dr. Eden (Leo Genn) is a slick heartbreaker applying his practiced and hollow charm to the nurses and caring little for the emotions of the ones who get too attached. Anesthetist Dr. Barnes’ (Trevor Howard) carefree exterior hides his anguish over a broken engagement to Nurse Linley. Barnes is threatened with suspension and inquest over Higgins’ death, which brings forth details of his exoneration in a similar tragedy, and a lasting anonymous grudge against him. Barnes’ fiance Nurse Linley (Sally Gray) is unsure about their relationship and welcomes Eden’s attention. Sister Bates (Judy Campbell), strung along and rejected by and yet hopelessly in love with Eden, perceptive about Barnes’ romantic frustrations and warns him of Eden’s unkind intentions. Bates gets herself killed after she stops a party to announce she knows who murdered Higgins and how. Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John) is high strung and uncomfortable with independence after living so long under her mother’s thumb. Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) is a frank, no-nonsense outsider whose confrontational style masks grief and shame.
Scotland Yard Inspector Cockrill finally appears about halfway into the picture, and thanks to Sim’s brilliant performance instantly becomes one of the movies’ most likable and memorable detectives. With a shark-like smile, informal tone and direct efficient manner, he disarms and disrupts. He clownishly dives for cover when he hears approaching bombers or motorbikes, condescendingly tells everyone he’ll allow them time to cook up their false alibis, and gleefully pulls up a chair to watch as Eden and Barnes brawl. He tightens the screws so he can assess everyone when they lose their cool. His eccentricities are signs of genius and deliberately staged to push people off-balance, like the scene where he spins in his chair, holding his umbrella out so the tip has Barnes dodging every time it circles around.
Cockrill brings a vast store of knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of cases and an addiction to mystery fiction, and loves to tell you so with smug confidence. He’s fast to pick up clues, but his flaw in this movie is far too quickly arranging them into the wrong conclusions. In his narration he admits he overestimated his intelligence and was so “idiotically pleased” with himself that he missed out on preventing another death. That creates more suspense and makes for a powerful scene when those mistakes are revealed and Cockrill’s triumph and his self-image shatter. He’s solved the crime but is so ashamed of his failure that the movie ends by showing us he’s been dictating not only his case file but also his resignation letter.
Green for Danger gives you everything a great mystery should: engaging characters, sparingly but meaningfully distributed pieces of personal background and history by which to construct possible motives, elegantly placed clues and clever red herrings, and enough gaps and unknowns for the viewer to fill. Among the items to piece together or discard: missing drugs, fistfights and hysterics, stab wounds through a gown, Churchill and Shakespeare quotes, a shilling in the gas meter, a mock surgery to reproduce circumstances of Higgins’ murder and draw out the killer, deep shame over acts of treason and plenty of other motives thanks to revenge, rivalry and romantic rejection. There are also many attractive images, like the camera peering through the OR door’s porthole window, those same swinging doors giving us a scary glimpse of the killer in surgical gown and mask, a stylish chase through a garden on a stormy night, and the creative presentation of all the surgical equipment and tools vital to both lifesaving and the murders.
Green for Danger was adapted from a popular novel by Christianna Brand. Director Gilliat also co-wrote the adaptation with Claud Gurney, who died during filming, and produced with frequent partner Frank Launder.
This was another fun opportunity to do a joint view and review of an essential with a fellow blogger, Liz at Now Voyaging. Read her thoughts on Green for Danger here.