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  Contraband Shipshape
Year: 1940
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Valerie Hobson, Hay Petrie, Joss Ambler, Raymond Lovell, Esmond Knight, Charles Victor, Phoebe Kershaw, Harold Warrender, John Longden, Eric Maturin, Paddy Browne, Henry Wolston, Julian Vedey, Sydney Moncton, Leo Genn, Peter Bull
Genre: Thriller, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The Danish cargo ship Helvig is sailing off the coast of Britain, and there is a problem with one of the passengers, one Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson), because unlike the others she is refusing to wear her life jacket. The captain, Andersen (Conrad Veidt), orders that she be sent to his cabin to explain herself, yet by the time she turns out and refuses to give anything away, there is a matter to be dealt with when a British ship orders the Helvig to stop so it can be boarded. Andersen is indignant, but after the Brits fire shots across his bows he has to relent, little knowing of what he really has onboard...

After the comparitively dour The Spy in Black, the filmmaking team of director Michael Powell, writer Emeric Pressburger and stars Veidt and Hobson reunited the following year to make the far breezier Contraband. The Second World was a few months old, and many of the films being turned out by British studios were designed to either boost the war effort with propaganda or provide escapism - or in the case of this, both. There are Nazi spies involved, but there's a definite tension in the casting of Veidt and you get the impression if Powell and Pressburger could have made Andersen a decent German rather than a Dane, they would have done so.

Veidt shows what a magnetic screen presence he had once again, and there's a different side to his more usually serious personality here in that he is almost playing for comedy in this. In a few scenes there's no "almost" about it, and he proved he could carry what is essentially a wartime romp with great flair. The more depressing implications of the conflict are largely glossed over in the service of a typically eccentric adventure from this celebrated filmmaking duo, leaving something that could have easily been a story in Boy's Own, complete with action, derring-do and great escapes.

After Andersen's ship is held by the Navy, he finds that two of his passengers, including Mrs Sorensen, are up to no good and after they abscond he sets out on his own to catch them from under the noses of the British security forces. He does manage to follow Sorensen, although her partner Mr Pidgeon (Esmond Knight) gets away, and if he's not one hundred percent sure of what they are up to he feels a duty to his ship that he should do his level best to find out, so there's no way his new lady friend is going to get away from him as easily as she escaped the authorities.

Of course, all is not as it seems and Andersen ends up seeing eye to eye with the woman. They are led a merry dance through the novel locations of a nighttime, blacked out London, and Pressburger's script keeps things moving at a fair clip, making sure that our hero is appropriately harrassed throughout, though with Veidt you never get the feeling he is entirely losing control, even when he is captured. If anything, Contraband showed that Alfred Hitchcock's signature couple on the run manner of thrillers were not a medium exclusive to him, and Powell handles it all with great skill and a touch of kinkiness that his contemporary would surely have approved of. With vividly quirky characters, a tour of nightclubs that includes what appears to be the prototype Hot Gossip, and a shootout amongst a huge batch of plaster Neville Chamberlains, this might not be the weightiest of wartime suspense pieces, but it is among the most amusing. Music by Richard Addinsell and John Greenwood.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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