Green for Danger
A magnificently sure-handed piece from Launder and Gilliat – Sydney Gilliat receives the director credit, Frank Launder the producer, and Gilliat shares the screenplay with Claud Gurney – that plays superbly as a straight wartime noir murder thriller… until the inimitable Alastair Sim’s Inspector Cockrill is thrown into the mix. He’s an irreverent goofball, sharp of wit and intellect with a wonderfully twisted sense of humour and an abject terror of doodlebugs. The only slight you might lay against Green for Danger is that you’re likely to undervalue it because the duo make it all look so easy.
Cockrill: Yes, I was idiotically pleased at the time. The next morning, my presence lay over the hospital like a pall. I found it all tremendously enjoyable.
It’s been said Gilliat’s inclination was towards quieter satire while Launder favoured broader farce, but like any close-knit team, the lines were blurred (they mixed and matched director duties, when they were directing their work). They’re now best known for the St Trinian’s series, I suspect, which formed the greater part of their later output, but their careers extend back to the late ’20s and take in the likes of Will Hay, Alfred Hitchcock (The Lady Vanishes) and Inspector Hornleigh (with Gordon Harker and Sim as his faithful Sergeant Bingham).
Eden: Are you trying to make me lose my temper?
Cockrill: Mmm, that was only a secondary object.
I think I’m right in saying this was Sim’s second lead (after Let the People Sing in 1942, which was more of a co-lead). Replacing first choice Robert Morley, he makes for a benignly lanky ghoul, showing up a third of the way into proceedings – which have been entirely straight hitherto, and will continue to be, barring Cockrill’s flippant intrusions and commentary – at Heron’s Park Hospital, somewhere in the Southeast, on an August day in 1944.
Barnes: I gave nitrous oxide at first, to get him under.
Cockrill: Oh yes, stuff the dentist gives you, hmmm. Commonly known as laughing gas.
Barnes: Used to be, actually the impurities caused the laughs.
Cockrill: Just the same as in our music halls.
Prior to this point, Gilliat has expertly set the scene with a line-up of likely suspects and an entirely elusive mystery to be solved. Postman Higgins (Moore Marriott of Will Hay fame) dies mysteriously on the operating table (“He should have taken the anaesthetic without turning a hair”), but not before he has cast suspicion on at least two of the attendant doctors and nurses. Dr Barnes (Trevor Howard) is the anaesthetist, whom the postie accuses of having “a nerve” when he learns he’ll be putting him under; Barnes has previous form for operating table mishaps in the form of a cardiac arrest four years earlier. Then there’s rotund Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins), whose voice the postie recognises.
Barnes: Did you get us here just to insult us?
Cockrill: No. I only like to strike an informal note.
Sister Bates (Judy Campbell) certainly thinks something is amiss. We’ve already witnessed her rejection by Mr Eden (Leo Glenn), a womanising hound who has his sights set on Nurse Freddi Linley (Sally Gray, the female lead). Freddi has already suggested things aren’t so tight with fiancé Barnes, and shortly thereafter, Bates catches her in a clinch with Eden. It doesn’t take long for Bates to follow the postman’s fate, subsequent to a particularly unwise declaration before a packed ballroom that she knows the murderer’s identity (if there’s a structural criticism to the generally coherently plotted tale – you don’t dwell too much on the holes until later – it’s that characters do tend to announce that they know something, fail to reveal what they know, and then meet with terminal or near terminal consequences soon after).
Dr White: I do hope everything can be arranged discretely.
Cockrill: I shouldn’t think so for a moment.
This night of stormy intrigue is atmospherically rendered by Gilliat, as Bates runs off, pursued variously by Eden and Barnes before arriving in the hospital, where she is confronted by a figure in a surgical mask (never trust anyone in a surgical mask).
Cockerill arrives the next morning, instantly striking a discordant note as he ducks for cover at the slightest intimation a raid may be coming. He proceeds to announce himself idiosyncratically at the hospital (asked what is wrong, he responds “Just the usual slight discomfort after meals…”), upsets the chief physician (Ronald Adam) who is hoping this can all be handled quietly (“Don’t be fatuous” Cockrill rebukes White, who is sure there’s an innocent explanation), and cheerfully begins throwing accusations and insinuations the way of all concerned.
Nurse Linley: But why should anyone want to murder Higgins?
Cockrill: My dear young lady, how should I know? I’ve only just got here.
Cockrill was the creation of Christianna Brand, with 1944’s Green for Danger the second of six Inspector Cockrill novels (spanning 1941 to 1955; a further collection was published posthumously in 2002). Brand also wrote the Nurse Matilda series, adapted as Nanny McPhee. The manner in which Cockrill cheerfully punctures his suspects’ presumptions is an absolute delight, let loose in this authoritarian setting like a wrecking ball and proceeding to wind up and mercilessly mock those used to calling the shots. He’s on especially good form with smoothy Eden, interrupting his balmy evening’s wooing of Freddi by completing his “romantic” recitation of Troilus and Cressida. Cockrill then continues on his jaunty way, casually pulling back a shrub to reveal the lurking Brand, spying on his ex (“Goodnight, Dr Barnes”).
Cockrill: Well, well, well, a master of surgery mixing it with an NRCP. Ho, ho, what a delicious spectacle. We might arrange a future contest to aid some deserving charity, don’t you think?
When Eden attempts to reproach Cockrill for his offhand manner, the results are similarly devastating (“Someday, Mr Eden, I must try my hand at removing an appendix”). Further, when Eden and Barnes descend into fisticuffs, Cockrill restrains his sergeant from intervening and pulls up a chair to enjoy the spectacle of their rolling around on the floor. Admittedly, it’s highly unlikely that the inspector would go to the lengths depicted of ensnaring the guilty party, imperilling Freddi the way he does in the process (she has feigned a head injury after being gassed, so requiring an emergency trepanation).
It also seems unlikely, having speculated lengthily about the bottles being switched to induce the patient’s poisoning, that he wouldn’t have twigged the likely method prior to the faux-operation. But it’s a nice touch that Cockrill’s fallibility is emphasised at the last hurdle. While he foils the murderer, he cannot prevent her suicide; it’s Eden who proves to be the more perceptive in that regard, only impeded from administering an antidote by the oblivious inspector.
Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John) is obvious misdirection in retrospect, as she’s the only suspect absent of overtly suspicious motivation (well, aside from Freddi, but she’s been ruled out by being gassed). Brand, Launder, Gilliat and Claud Gurney have such a healthy population of suspects that you’re unlikely to notice this until it comes round to the reveal (I have to admit that, while I’ve seen the movie at least three times before, I still couldn’t recall who the perp was).
It’s interesting to see Howard here; he’d already taken the lead in Brief Encounter (the previous year) at the point he played second fiddle to Sim. Of course, in the absence of Sim, he pretty much is the male lead, albeit a suspect one. Howard and Glenn generate commendable friction, Barnes’ unbending rigidity counterweighted by Eden’s slippery caddishness. Woods is also worth singling out (it’s revealed that her twin sister is the voice of “Germany calling”), and her glib “Perhaps we all did it” may well have been a barb hurled in that greatest crime fiction author’s direction (Murder on the Orient Express was published a decade before Green for Danger).
Cockrill: In view of my failure – correction, comparative failure – I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hop that you will not accept it. Full stop.
Green for Danger is nigh on a perfect example of its type, even if its type is surprisingly uncommon. We’re used to quirky detectives, but rarely ones who are so unapologetically disrespectful and downright hilarious. Truffaut suggested Green for Danger “didn’t quite come off” when discussing Launder and Gilliat’s The Lady Vanishes with Hitchcock. But then, he criticised Sim’s presence in Stage Fright (only a witless dullard would fail to recognise Sim as the highlight of that picture). It’s a shame Green for Danger didn’t warrant a follow up (although it was, apparently, a hit), but Sim would grace Scotland Yard again eight years later in the film version of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.