Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Q PLANES (1939)


Released just before the outbreak of World War II, this is a delightful little anomaly: a cross between spy thriller and screwball comedy. Ralph Richardson is a slightly eccentric Scotland Yard secret agent who is investigating the problem of why experimental test planes are taking off and disappearing, never to be found. Though his superiors aren't convinced that there's a problem, Richardson gets word that there may be a spy working at Barrett and Ward, the aviation company producing the planes. When a plane carrying something called a Supercharger takes off, we see what's behind the disappearances: men on board a salvage ship called the Viking use a secret new ray to disable the plane and cut off its communications; they pull the plane out of the water, put the pilots in the hold, and steal the apparatus. Except this time, Richardson had the Supercharger taken off at the last minute. Meanwhile, a hotshot pilot (Laurence Olivier) also suspects sabotage at the plant, and he's suspicious of Valerie Hobson, a young woman who works at the plant diner. But it turns out that Hobson is a reporter, and also Richardson's sister. Soon, the three of them are working together to catch the saboteurs.

"Delightful" is the perfect word for this. The breezy tone reminds me of the wonderful NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH; the characters are likeable, the actors seem to be having fun, and despite the dangers the characters face, we know they'll come out unscathed—which might not have been the case if the film had been made a couple of years later after the war had taken its toll on Europe. Richardson, who had a penchant for a wee bit of overacting later in his career, is absolutely right as the almost whimsical agent; Olivier (pictured behind Richardson), who also did his share of going over the top, seems to realize there's no competing with Richardson so he plays it fairly straight; Hobson keeps up with them both, doing a nice job with some rapid-fire dialogue. I don't want to push the "screwball" comparison too much, but if an American version had been made, William Powell and Myrna Loy would have been great in the Olivier and Hobson roles, though no one comes to mind to replace Richardson—maybe a young Edmund Gwenn? Very fun and highly recommended. [Criterion streaming]

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