Classic movie lovers in the U.S. probably know Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in the perennial holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol, the 1951 version. He is also memorable for his supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) but, more importantly, British comedy fans adore Sim specifically for his eccentric comedic characters in such popular films as The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), Laughter in Paradise (1951) and Innocents in Paris (1953). Less familiar to American audiences but guaranteed to turn you into an Alastair Sim fanatic if you’re not one already is Green for Danger, a 1946 suspense thriller starring Sim as the sly-as-a-fox Inspector Cockrill.
Based on the novel by Christianna Brand, Green for Danger should have inspired a detective series featuring Cockrill but it didn’t despite Sim’s devilish charm in the role. He’s a piece of work, this Cockrill. Arrogant, self-amused and seemingly immune to insults and uncomfortable social situations, his performance in Green for Danger gives the film a jolt of subversive comedy that runs beneath its dark plot and brooding melodrama, bursting forth at unexpected times and temporarily relieving the tension.
Brand was inspired to write the original novel after accompanying her surgeon husband to a hospital operation and talking to an anesthetist about the effects and dangers of anesthesia. Director Sidney Gilliat happened to read the book, which is set during WW2 when German V-1 rockets were bombarding London, and became much more fascinated by the anesthesia angle of the plot than the murder mystery or subsequent investigation. The fact that the murders were occurring amid frequent power outages caused by the Blitz also gave it a heightened sense of tension.
Gilliat often collaborated with fellow screenwriter/director Frank Launder and together the duo had penned such renowned British films as Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940). For Green for Danger, Gilliat decided to go solo and the tone of the film is much more macabre and creepy than any of the Gilliat-Launder outings.
First, Gilliat went to work on a screenplay with Claud Gurney but production was temporarily halted when Gurney was killed in a car accident. Gilliat soon forged ahead on his own and initially considered casting Robert Morley in the role of Cockrill. Sim won the part in the end and Green for Danger is notable for being one of the earliest movie productions filmed at Pinewood Studios, which is about 18 miles west of London.
When first introduced in the film, Sim’s Cockrill appears somewhat skittish and silly, frantically searching for shelter from what he believes is an approaching German “buzz-bomb” and is, in fact, a motorcar. But as soon as he begins his investigation of a nurse’s murder and what appears to be the unconnected death of a mailman during surgery, we see the real Cockrill – an almost maniacal pursuer of the facts who approaches his suspects like a mongoose stalking a cobra, fixing them with his baleful eyes and slightly sadistic smile.
His “techniques” are just as distinctive in their own way as Peter Falk’s methods as Columbo or Basil Rathbone’s as Sherlock Holmes. For one thing, Cockrill is particularly gifted at creating an atmosphere of paranoia and disharmony among the suspects. In fact, he revels in it. Sensing immediately that there is an intense romantic rivalry between the anesthesiologist (Trevor Howard) and the surgeon (Leo Genn) over Nurse Linley (Sally Gray), he provokes them into a furniture-smashing fistfight and pulls up a chair, pipe in mouth, to watch, exclaiming, “What a delicious spectacle!”
Another time he observes a lover’s spat caused by his interrogation and drolly comments “Another punctured romance!” as the couple parts, breaking their engagement. Even Cockrill’s occasional private thoughts rendered as voice-over comments reveal his delight at making everyone uncomfortable: “Voices were hushed and all eyes turned upon me. Who was the guilty one? When will he be arrested? Who will be next? That is what they were thinking. I found it all tremendously enjoyable.”
Yes, Cockrill offers no comfort or sympathy as he goes cheerfully about his business informing the suspects, “No need to be alarmed. We’re only searching your rooms.” And his wicked sense of humor never lets up, even in casual conversations such as this one:
Dr. Barney Barnes: I gave nitrous oxide at first, to get him under.
Inspector Cockrill: Oh yes, stuff the dentist gives you, hmmm — commonly known as “laughing gas.”
Dr. Barney Barnes: Used to be — actually the impurities cause the laughs.
Inspector Cockrill: Oh, just the same as in our music halls.
The last laugh is on Cockrill though and it’s one of director/screenwriter Sidney Gilliat’s brilliant little touches that puts Green for Danger in a class of its own. Without spoiling the mystery for you, there is even a foreshadowing of it in a short, dialogue-free throwaway that shows Cochrill in bed reading a murder mystery. He is at the beginning of the novel but from his facial expression you can tell he’s identified the killer and jumps ahead to the last pages of the book to prove he’s right. The stunned look on his face indicates otherwise and also reveals Cochrill’s Achilles heel – his unshaken sense of his own brilliance.
Most British film critics gave high marks to Green for Danger with the Daily Telegraph calling it “slick, witty and consistently entertaining” while Leslie Halliwell in his popular Film & Video Guide labeled a “classic comedy-thriller, with serious detection balanced by excellent jokes and performances, also by moments of fright.” The New York Times review was equally complimentary if a bit confused: “Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder have laid deftly humorous hands on the subject of murder. And, while they manage to keep the spectator chuckling most of the time, they never for a moment lose sight of a mystery film’s prime purpose—that is, to intrigue and startle the onlooker. What more could one ask? In the case of Green For Danger one could reasonably request just a bit more justification for the solution, which, truth to tell, is bewildering.”
One thing to mention if you are planning on having surgery that requires anesthesia, don’t see this film before that or you might change your mind. Gilliat’s depiction of the anesthesia ritual in several scenes is truly nightmarish with its cross-cutting between the patient’s point-of-view and oppressive overhead shots, all of it made worse by close-ups of masked doctors and nurses, oxygen level flowmeters and the noise of hissing gas. It was probably the most unnerving glimpse of anesthetists at work until 1978 when Michael Crichton’s Coma became a box office hit. It was based on Robin Cook’s best-seller about an organ-harvesting plot by a murderous anesthetist in a Boston hospital.
If Green for Danger entices you to sample more Alastair Sim, you might try some of his other “detective” roles which are equally captivating such as The Green Man (1956) or An Inspector Calls (1954) or any of the Inspector Horn films in which he plays Sergeant Bingham. His most famous collaboration with the Launder-Gilliat director/screenwriter team is probably The Belles of St. Trinian’s, in which he played both Clarence Fritton and his sister Millicent, the headmistress of an all-girls school. What is it about British actors playing female roles in movies? Is it a drag tradition left over from the days of Shakespeare? Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness and the members of the Monty Python comedy troupe are just a few examples of famous Brit thespians who played women in films and television.
As for other Alastair Sim movies on my “must see” list, The Anatomist (1956), a made for TV thriller, is at the top of the list. It was a rare horror role for the actor and based on the infamous Burke and Hare body snatching murders of 1828 Edinburgh. Another title of interest is Murder on Diamond Row aka The Squeaker, a 1937 film version of the popular Edgar Wallace mystery novel (It would be remade as a German thriller in 1963).
Green for Danger was released on DVD in February 2007 by The Criterion Collection but is currently out of print. It is quite possible that Criterion might remaster the film in the future on Blu-Ray.
Other links of interest: