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Original at Films of the Golden Age

Contraband (1940)

Directed by Michael Powell
Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger
Cinematography by Freddie Young
Production design by Alfred Junge
Starring Conrad Veidt, Valerie Hobson, Esmond Knight, and Leo Genn
Running Time: 88 minutes, B&W
Released by Kino on Video

Described as "a comedy thriller in the vein of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes", Contraband is a rather pale imitation of those immortal works, but this low-key Powell-Pressburger production sparkles with wit, charm, and an irrepressible elan. Set during the early days of WWII and ranging from a Danish ship to the blackout streets of London (its original US release title was Blackout), the relationship between sea captain Conrad Veidt and provocative passenger Valerie Hobson is so intriguing that memories of Madeline Carroll and Robert Donat reverberate in our brain.

This untrusting couple are kidnapped by a cell of Nazi spies operating out of a basement adjoining a cinema. Shadowy lighting and the wartime restrictions allow Academy Award-winning cinematographer Freddie Young to craft a film noir so dark that when Veidt tries to distract his pursuers by turning on the lights in a murky building, the effect is truly shocking (and nearly blinding!).

The tortured Veidt-Hobson dueling is another reason to savor this underlooked treasure. When Miss Hobson refuses to wear her life jacket, Veidt threatens to put her in irons. Later, believing her to be a spy, he sneaks into her stateroom. Coming upon her dressing table, he disdains searching for encrypted messages. Instead, he caresses her hosiery, smells her perfume, and fingers her ... cigar.

An additional eight minutes added to the theatrical release is probably due to an extensive and wildly grotesque Watusi-white goddess dance number set in an offbeat nightclub. Those cinephile Sherlock Holmes curious to trace the voyeuristic perversity leading to director Powell's notorious Peeping Tom are advised to begin here.

Also of interest is a sequence where our antagonistic duo are hog tied to a post in the Nazi hideaway. As Miss Hobson writhes and Mr. Veidt grimaces, they exchange understated pleasantries that British audiences would translate as love talk.

After an absurd donnybrook between Brits and Nazis in yet another nightclub and a rousing shootout in a storeroom populated by ceramic busts, Veidt and Hobson go into their clinch. With such rapprochement, how could the Germans stand a chance?

This clever artifice is $24.95 from Kino Video, 333 W. 39th St., New York, NY 10018, (800) 562-3330.

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