Sunday, 5 May 2013

Contraband (1940)


World War Two must have been Powell and Pressburger's bread and butter for 7 years. From 1939-1946, all they made was war movies. War thrillers, war propaganda, war romance, A Canterbury Tale, and war battles. They would revisit the genre later on, but during those 7 years, they pretty much had one subject on their mind. They also weren't the only ones. Hitchcock and Reed had Hitler on their minds for that period as well, and all three accomplished directors at one point made a very strict kind of film. Reed made Night Train to Munich, Hitchcock made The Lady Vanishes and Powell and Pressburger made Contraband, among others. All these films adhere to a very strict formula. There is a dashing anti-hero at the core, a tough woman for him to fall in love with, British spies, a couple of witty sidekicks, an evil Nazi for him to battle, and a time limit in how long his exploits can continue for.

Here, the dashing anti-hero is Danish sea captain Conrad Veidt, the tough woman and the British spy (what a combination!) is Valerie Hobson, the witty sidekicks are Hay Petrie and his troupe of waiters, the evil Nazi is Raymond Lovell and the time limit is that his ship leaves at dawn. All these elements come together well, and provide for an entertaining 90 minutes. So why does the film feel lacking? Well, because it feels formulaic. I've seen this all before, and I've seen it done much better. It's like when you watch a romantic comedy. If it adheres to the formula at all, it's going to feel tired. While this kind of film belongs to a much smaller niche, it still belongs to one.

It isn't really the fault of the actors. Veidt is a solid leading man, and he does well in the part. He manages to convey a sense of heroics while still managing to almost alienate the audience with the demeanor. However, you can't help but feel like he's just filling in for someone like Michael Redgrave or Rex Harrison. Veidt is a great actor, but I feel like he is a much better character actor than leading man. In a film like Casablanca, he excels in a supporting role. Here, his performance feels a little half baked.

In the female role is Valerie Hobson. She gives the performance that Margaret Lockwood gave, or that most female actresses at the time were regulated to. The "tough" woman who falls for the manly male lead, without so much as a line of dialogue. Sure it's unbelievable, but it's part of this movie's charm. The film doesn't feel like it's set anywhere but in a kind of fantasy world. All of these war thrillers have no realistic stakes, but they give the audience enough enjoyment to have them not to think much. Basically, it's like the forties version of superhero movies.

Anyways, back to Hobson. She does well, but there is nothing to write home about. She gives a really average performance in a really average movie. That's the gist of it. In supporting roles, Hay Petrie plays an eccentric chef in London who helps Veidt to beat up some Nazi's. His role is also quite typical of this film, but that does very little to diminish the enjoyment of it. Raymond Lovell plays the evil Nazi in London who kidnaps Hobson and Veidt, and he does it well, but I again hasten to use the word "average".

The screenplay, written by Emeric Pressburger, is really nothing special. It feels like it was done quickly, and Pressburger didn't really care about it, injecting the film with  the typical standards of the time and then just dashing off a throwaway plot with it. He never feels to have invested much in the film, and the end result is just average. Pressburger was an amazing screenwriter when he wanted to be, but it appears that here he didn't want to. The score of the film is really nothing special at all, and it's actually kind of boring, but I guess this kind of film doesn't really need a good score.

However, it should have good cinematography. Perhaps it was just the copy I had, but the visuals on mine were scratchy and hard to see. As most of the film takes place at night, the film is dark. However, in some scenes I couldn't see what was going on. I could sometimes see Conrad Veidt's shoulder, and I could here him walking, but other than that I had no idea what was going on. It was kind of frustrating, and it made it a bit hard to see exactly what was going on. However, what I missed visually I got through the audio, as the characters had a tendency to explain exactly what was going on when it happened.

The direction by Michael Powell was nothing but average, and he feels at points like he is just going through the motions. He shoots his film in a boring way, and this has an impact on the audience as well, as we too can get bored during long scenes. Powell never seems invested in the film at all and it definitely shows on the final product. He does nothing to improve on the formula from which he draws his material, and thus it begs the question "what was the point?" The point, was to make a movie.

Overall, this film is entertaining, but quite average. Nothing here is special, but nothing here is bad either. This film is just a straight shooter, and it aims not for greatness, nor for mediocrity. Instead, it's just okay.

Starring: Conrad Veidt, Valerie Hobson and Hay Petrie,
Directed by Michael Powell,
6/10 (C-).

1. A Matter of Life and Death
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
3. 49th Parallel
4. The Small Back Room
5. The Red Shoes
6. The Tales of Hoffman
7. The Spy in Black
8. Contraband
9. A Canterbury Tale
10. The Battle of the River Plate
11. I Know Where I'm Going
11. One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing