Produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger for their Archers company (and released in the UK via Rank), The Silver Fleet was a propaganda film meant to stir up international revulsion for the Holland's Nazi occupiers and drum up a nationalistic fervor and/or sympathies for the Dutch Resistance movement, and with the exception of one lone caricature – SS Commander Von Schiffer (Esmond Knight) – the film still holds up pretty well as a compact WWII thriller.
Basically centering around shipbuilder Jaap van Leyden's efforts to play double-agent and foil Nazi attempts to have his firm build submarines for German use, van Leyden is frequently surrounded by German officers who seem almost banal – a far more believable, frightening, and critical poke at occupiers than the cartoon Von Schiffer, who talks from the side of his mouth, eats like a dribbling pig, and prances like a wafer-thin wannabe prizefighter.
Von Schiffer is never perceived as a threat – he's actually quite fond of van Leyden and never beholds any suspicions of the former's anti-Nazi activities – and when he drafts up plans for punishment, he's a reluctant SS swine who'd rather sit and take it easy than deal with a populace he regards as mostly really annoying people – a far contrast from Paul Verhoeven's own resistance thriller, Soldier of Orange / Soldaat van Oranje (1977).
Ralph Richardson (who also co-produced the film) plays van Leyden as a confident businessman whom the Germans find useful, intriguing, and share a bit of respect, but he also shows a fair amount of unease which humanizes the character, and makes his decision to become more directly active in the Resistance movement more potent - particularly since his wife Helene (Googie Withers) is kept in the dark, and grows to loathe her husband for cozying up with the Nazis.
There's very little attention given to Nazi cruelty, but the script makes up for those shortcomings by upping the Resistance's desperation in ridding their country of its villains, and involving them in two elaborate plans: seize a Nazi-held sub and ferry it off to England, and pack as many German officers into another, and give it an explosive send-off.
The pacing is well-tempered, and there's a clever sequence that has a collaborator getting marked (a la Fritz Lang's M ) so the Resistance can settle a score. Allan Gray's score is a bit of a weirdly emphatic thing with varying use of blaring horns apparently meant to follow the Resistance movement's trials and tribulations, but the more subdued cues do a nice job in enhancing some tense montages, and accentuating van Leyden's conflicts with his wife, and affection for his young son (whose class lesson instilled the father into becoming a tactical fighter).
Actors Googie Withers also appeared in Powell and Pressburger's prior Dutch Resistance thriller, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942); Ralph Richardson popped up in the (melo)dramatic episodes in The Lion Has Wings (1939); and Esmond Knight appeared in Contraband (1940) and Black Narcissus (1947).
Co-director/co-writer Gordon Wellesley's other directorial venture is the Vera Lynn wartime romancer Rhythm Serenade, whereas Vernon Sewell went on to direct a string of B-movies, including green-tinted Barbara Steele in The Curse of the Crimson Altar / The Crimson Cult (1968).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan