Whether Contraband was conceived to exploit a surfeit of stock footage featuring the Royal Navy examining passing vessels off the coast of Britain or as a genuine wartime espionage thriller, it all becomes a moot point after one has passed the film's first third, because director Michael Powell and co-writer Emeric Pressburger end up pulling a bit of a sneaky trick by laying the foundations for a docu-thriller, and then stopping the film cold so the pairing of a Danish Captain Andersen (Conrad Veidt) and double-agent Mrs. Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) can evolve into a romance, replete with sophisticated, attitude-drenched banter.
There are echoes of Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps (1939) in Pressburger's script –a secret MaGuffin a collection of spies (cheekily dubbed ‘the Brothers Grimm') will do anything to acquire from the unlikely romantic couple – and a bit of Fritz Lang's comic book spy elements - a hidden prison room with a mirrored peephole under an exotic cabaret house – but neither Powell nor Pressburger (nor the actors, for that matter) take Contraband too seriously; it's a pulpy yarn that's deliberately silly.
When Capt. Andersen sings a Danish victory song, it's hardly an anti-fascist protest nor blatant salute to an independent Denmark ; the song is used to woo Sorensen, coax a chef and his staff to help search for the mystery cabaret theatre, and to stir emotions in a theatre brawl that ultimately sets up the film's final chase scene.
Putting the breaks on any further plot advancements in favour of character nuances is what more or less happens in A Canterbury Tale (1944), although Contraband eventually kicks back into gear and goes through some fantastical Hitchcockian and Langian riffing instead of remaining in some peculiar fantasy state so characters can discover each other while the chaos of a warring world feels like a distant light show.
The slow-brewing romance does displace Capt. Sorensen from a looming morning deadline to return to ship without discovery from the bureaucratic RAF, but the pair's travels by train, London streets, bomb shelters and buses provide some candid wartime protocol, including buying some flashlights and compact gas masks from a profiteering street vendor.
Veidt is fun to watch as a romantic lead, and Hobson is smooth as the rebellious woman who refuses to follow the rules on Andersen's ship or at the fickle whims of her captor, but the real scene-stealer is Hay Petrie (a longtime Powell-Pressburger regular) who plays the dual roles of Andersen's first mate, and his mate's brother – the chef who helps the couple foil the villain's plans. (Petrie, incidentally, bears a striking resemblance to Claude Rains, both in physical stature, and voice.)
Kino's source seems to be from a PAL transfer; the NTSC conversion is adequate, but the actual print is pretty beat up, and has serious contrast issues, with most bright whites blown out. This is the uncut UK version, which includes the slow-moving restaurant banter between Veidt and Hobson, and the, uhm, “White Negro” club scene.
The mono audio is standard, and the music score is kept sparse for sound effects and ambient noises (since the cabaret club can only be found by finding the right combination of singers and musicians).
It's a lesser effort from the filmmaking team, but of note for re-teaming Veidt and Hobson after The Spy in Black (1939), and for some distractions and indulgences atypical to the espionage thriller, particularly when the aim was often to instill patriotism in audiences during gloomy WWII. Perhaps the dramatic failings and factual fibbing in The Lion Has Wings (1939) convinced Powell that propaganda and a ripping yarn make for dull bedfellows.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan