A late addition to the dog days of this series, Green for Danger was added after I watched School for Scoundrels only two weeks ago. I was reinded of its virtues by watching Alistair Sim, whose first film appearance this was, as Inspector Cockrill.
I have a very old memory of watching part of this film when I was young, young enough to have been sent to bed before its ending, enough to have been very frightened and spooked by the film without thoroughly experiencing the comic aspect that Sim embodied. And whilst laughing at it today, I was also well aware that Sim’s humour, and its underlying sinister side, would have been as far over my little head as the moons of Jupiter.
Green for Danger appeared in late 1946 and was one of Britain’s most popular films the following year. It was adapted from the 1944 novel of the same name by crime-fiction writer Christianna Brand, a prolific writer, and was the second of seven novels to feature Cockrill. It’s set in 1944, in a rural hospital in south east England, in the time of the V1 rockets, the doodlebugs. It’s about a murder.
The film sets things up by having a voiceover from Sim, dictating a letter to his superiors about this case. This serves to introduce a central group of six hospital members, seen around an operating table, figures in white with tight-fitting hoods revealing only their eyes. The voiceover is an old technique that works wonderfully through Sim’s delivery, slightly pompous, slightly facetious and foreshadowing the fact that before the case ends, two of these six people will be dead.
Things begin with local postman Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriot) delivering letters to Heron’s Park Hospital, an old estate converted for wartime use. Higgins is also the local ARP chief (Air Raid Protection). Their HQ is hit by a doodlebug whilst they are listening to a Lord Haw-Haw type broadcast by a slightly-accented woman’s voice and he suffers a broken leg and shock.
For much of the night he is treated by Nurse Esther Sanson (Rosamund Genn) who is still deeply stressed from the death of her mother in an air raid three months ago. The operation is to be perfprmed by Surgeon Mark Eden (Leo Genn), a womaniser with his eye on Nurse Freddi Linley (Sally Gray), whose engagement to anaesthetist Dr Barney Barnes (Trevor Howard) is not going well. Also in the theatre are Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell), an old flame of Eden who is still in love with him and Nurse ‘Woody’ Wood (Megs Jenkins).
Before the operation we are allowed to see that there are undercurrents to life at Heron’s Park, and these continue after Higgins dies on the operating table. We see enough hints, hints we recognise as clues but clues without, yet, meaning. They are clues, however, because Higgins’ death is not natural causes: the operation never begins because the postman dies under the anaesthetic, failing to respond to pure oxygen.
The death is a scandal and Hospital Superintendent Dr White (Ronald Adam) looks like wanting Barnes as a scapegoat. Four years earlier, a young girl died under anaesthetic administered by him. He was exonerated, but there was an anonymous letter…
The film, being made for an audience with longer attention spans than the present day, takes an inordinate length of time to reach its point, spilling out clues in a nicely natural way. It’s the old ‘as you know’ thing turned on its head: these people, this sextet, know the things that have happened before. They don’t recite them for the audience, they refer to them as you and I and him would refer to things we all recall. The clues pile up, step by step, and we sift them in anticipation: what will indicate a motive, the motive, the one that lead to a murder?
Sister Barnes knows. She’s seen, and preserved, the clue that explains not just how Higgins was kiled, but who. Unbalanced by her jealousy of Eden, making up to Freddi, she hysterically interrupts the Hospital dance to announce this to everyone, and then runs off. She has the secret, hidden where only she knows.
And she runs off throught the gardens, at night, with moonlight and winds and both Eden and Barnes about, to the cold, deserted, spooky Operating Theatre, and this is where I as young am sitting, trembling at what might happen, and then there’s another presence, a figure in white surgical gear and mask. And Sister Marion Bates screams. And this is where my instinctive memory of the film is locked in forever. I was too young then.
The film was at its most effective here, letting our imaginations in to terrify us more than any depiction could. Sister Bates is killed, stabbed twice, the first through the heart, with a surgical knife. It’s now 35 minutes into a 96 minute film. Now is the point. Enter Scotland Yard. Enter Inspector Cockrill. Enter Alistair Sim.
Sim transforms the film. Without ever letting go of the fact that it is a murder mystery and that we have been told that one more of these five survivors is going to die, Sim brings a subtly comic aspect to his performance. I vividly remember, that first time, my Dad brightening up at Sim’s arrival and ready for fun.
And Cockrill provides it, his gentle eccentricities of approach to the suspects, the glint of amusement in his eyes, his switching back and forth from suspect to suspect, never letting anyone settle, pulling threads that lead towards a solution.
Another attempt is made on another life, the lovely Freddi (Sally Gray was a very attractive woman). Asleep after night shift in the nurse’s home where the gas has run out abnd no-one has had a shilling for the meter, she is set up to die when Woods pops in a bob and the unlit gas fire in Freddi’s room starts pumping gas.
She is only saved when Nurse Sanson arrives and discovers her, smashing a window and calling for help, dragging Freddi out but dropping her head first down the stairs. A fractured skull is the outcome, Inspector Cockrill says to his four remaining suspects, an emergency operation at which all will attend and perform as they did with Higgins. The murderer will try again.
Except that Freddi is alive and well and has agreed to risk herself in an effort to bring the murderer out into the open.
All present, all masked, everything duplicated very carefully. Down to Freddi’s unexpected collapse, her laboured breathing, the approach of death, and a smear on Nurse Woods’ gown that gives Cockrill the final clue. Green stands for danger. The cylinders used by Barnes are colour-coded. Black for Nitrous Oxide, black and white for Oxygen, green for carbon dioxide. Unless a green cylinder has been repainted black and white…
A switch to the reserve oxygen saves Freddi. Who has repainted the CO2 cylinder? The clues point to Mark Eden, who is quietly preparing a hypodermic. Did he kill Higgins? He must have. But he didn’t.
Cockrill turns on Esther Sanson. Nurse Sanson, whose possessive, jealous mother was buried in the rubble of their bombed house. The search was called off after three days by the ARP Chief, Higgins. Mrs Sanson was found alive on the fourth day, but only for an hour. Esther has acted in the twisted belief she is executing the man who killed the mother she never got away from.
Eden wants to talk to her alone byut Cockrill refuses, o he grabs her, pushes her through into the other room, bolts it. He corners her, approaching her with the hyopdermic. Barnes breaks in, Cockrill strikes the hypo from his hand. Esther confirms herresponsibility, and that she wa right to do so. he feels faint, asks for water, collapses. She is dead. Four poison pills have gone mising. She had taken them. Eden recognised the signs. The hypodermic Cockrill prevented him from administering held the antidote.
That is one hell of a twist ending.
So all is done. Cockrill returns to Scotland Yard to complete his voiceover report. In view of his failure – no, make that comparative failure – I am hereby tendering my resignation… in the firm and confident expectation that you will reject it. Cue credits.
Green for Danger is an old and old-fashioned film, and all the better for it. It’s an old-fashioned murder mystery that conceals its mystery well, allows for moments of genuie fright and yet applies a level of comic genius, otherwise known as Alistair Sim, that doesn’t disturb or unbalance the film’s serious aspects. It’s a perfect example of things we’ve lost in our film-making. The only thing wrong with it is that I’ve not watching it on an old black-and-white television in the afternoon, with a solid roast beef dinner slowly digesting, at peace with the world and untroubled by nothing. It’s still bloody good on Sunday mornings as yet unfed.