Green for Danger

Director: Sidney Gilliat
Screenplay: Sidney Gilliat & Claud Guerney (based on the novel by Christianna Brand)
Stars: Sally Gray (Nurse Freddie Linley), Trevor Howard (Dr. Barney Barnes), Rosamund John (Nurse Esther Sanson), Alastair Sim (Inspector Cockrill), Leo Genn (Mr. Eden), Judy Campbell (Sister Marion Bates), Megs Jenkins (Nurse Woods), Moore Marriott (Joseph Higgins), Henry Edwards (Mr. Purdy), Ronald Adam (Dr. White)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1946
Country: U.K.
Green for Danger: Criterion Collection DVD
No, I don't remember where the sponge is. Don't you?Green for Danger is part of a long and rich history of English drawing room mysteries (epitomized most clearly in the works of Agatha Christie), but with an original and crucial twist: It takes place in a wartime surgery unit that is, not incidentally, located inside a converted manor house, the traditional location for such stories. The various suspects are therefore not dukes and barons and heiresses, but rather surgeons and nurses working in a rural hospital amid falling German bombs.

The story is narrated by Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim), who will not make his actual physical appearance in the film until nearly a third of the way into the narrative. Inspector Cockrill introduces us to the main characters, giving us their names and occupations while director Sidney Gilliat's camera ironically captures them during surgery while their faces are masked, making each one look unintentionally suspicious. There are two surgeons: the smooth womanizer Mr. Eden (Leon Genn) and the young and blustery Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard), who has a contentious engagement with Freddie Linley (Sally Gray), an attractive nurse. The other three nurses are the rather homely Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins); Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John), who is stricken with guilt over her mother's recent death; and the dark and brooding Sister Bates (Judy Campbell), who is feeling spurned by Mr. Eden. Thus, before anyone dies (and Inspector Cockrill informs us within the first five minutes that there will be three deaths before the show is over), we already have an ugly tapestry of deceit, jealousy, anger, and competition among the principal characters.

The first victim is Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott), a postman who is injured in a German bombing raid and later dies on the surgeon's table despite having non-life-threatening injuries. Suspicion first falls on Dr. Barnes, the anesthesiologist, whose past is already checkered with a surgeon's table death four years earlier. However, Sister Bates opens the door to true malfeasance when she declares at a local dance that evening that Joseph Higgins was, in fact, murdered and she has the proof. At this point, everyone is a suspect, and once Inspector Cockrill arrives and begins his questioning, each character starts looking more and more guilty.

While Green for Danger is a straightforward murder mystery with all the expected twists and turns and convenient red herrings, it is also an eccentric comedy of manners that only a British film could pull off. The comedy emanates primarily from Inspector Cockrill, who is played by the legendary Alastair Sim with a strange combination of absolute confidence and goofy ineptitude. You're never quite sure if Cockrill really has a handle on the situation, even though he puts on airs of being in complete control. The comedic nature of his presence diffuses some of the mystery's tension, but it also heightens the stakes, especially when the final act unfolds and Cockrill's overconfidence leads to a fatal development.

Green for Danger is also intriguing in light of its timing, having been made almost immediately after the end of World War II and the devastation German bombs had brought to England. Setting a traditional drawing room mystery in a wartime hospital had to hit close to home for a lot of British viewers, who were nonetheless being asked to find humor in Inspector Cockrill's awkward reactions to falling bombs. At the same time, though, director Sidney Gilliat (who also cowrote the screenplay from the novel by Christianna Brand) plays the wartime elements seriously, especially in the way he depicts the pressures of being trapped working in a hospital. The suffocating nature of the principal characters' occupation--dealing day in and day out with wounded civilians and soldiers while also dreading their own possible demise under daily German air raids--respects the realities of the war while also serving the pressure-cooker atmosphere of any good murder-mystery.

It isn't surprising that Gilliat is so nimble in balancing comedy and violence. Before becoming a director in the early 1940s, he made his mark on British cinema as a prolific screenwriter, most notably on a pair of Alfred Hitchcock's early films, The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Jamaica Inn (1939). His work behind the camera is never flashy, but it is consistently effective and makes the most of the set-bound production, which emphasizes tight interiors and close quarters. Even though all the clues one needs to decipher this whodunit are presented within the first 15 minutes, Gilliat maintains the mystery right up until end, with its revelation that is one part outlandish, one part poignant, and just slightly bitter so you can't quite forget it.

Green for Danger Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Surround
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Bruce Eder
  • Video interview with British film historian Geoff Brown
  • New essay by critic Geoffery O'Brien and a director's statement
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 13, 2007

    Criterion's new high-definition transfer was made from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master positive, and it looks superb. After being digitally restored, the windowboxed image is virtually pristine, with nary a blemish or age mark to show that the film is more than 60 years old. The black-and-white contrast and detail is outstanding throughout, even in the darker scenes (of which there are several).
    Film scholar Bruce Eder's commentary was originally recorded back in 1993 for Criterion's laser disc of the film, but you can see why they kept it. Despite being 14 years old, Eder's comments are still relevant and insightful, with fine nuance in his visual analysis and a great deal and cultural and historical background. British film historian Geoff Brown provides some additional information in a new 15-minute video interview. Brown talks primarily about the working history of Sidney Gilliat and his producing partner Frank Launder and the production details of Green for Danger (including its budget, right down to pence).

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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