My trifecta of romantic comedies is It Happened One Night (1934), Roman Holiday (1953), and Contraband (1940). I love all three, but truthfully, I might love Contraband best.
The plot: Captain Andersen (Conrad Veidt) and his neutral ship get held up by England’s navy, early in the second world war. The tedious delay turns nefarious when two unassuming passengers, including one beautiful divorcée Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson), steal landing papers and sneak ashore to London. Not a man to be trifled with, Andersen is quickly in pursuit of the pair he’ll be held accountable for, and just as quickly caught up in the deadly cat-and-mouse espionage game they’re playing against the nazis. Thrills, comedy and romance ensue!
Contraband is the second movie collaboration between legendary director Michael Powell, legendary screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, and legendary actor Conrad Veidt (the first being Spy in Black, in 1939). In his autobiography Powell describes first approaching Veidt and being utterly intimidated by and terrified of the man who, as Powell very aptly puts it “was the great German cinema.” And Veidt was truly an intimidating figure, a living icon primarily famous for playing villains. In fact anyone who’s taken a film history class will know Veidt’s most iconic work: Cesare, the sleepwalker/murderer in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), the first feature length horror film and a watershed work in the creation of modern cinema (you might also know him as the inspiration for The Joker). Veidt used to joke that he would never escape Caligari– right from the moment it premiered it was that big, and Veidt carried on being that big a presence in film through the next two decades, in Germany (until the nazis took over), England and (briefly, before sound + thick German accent = unlikely future career) in Hollywood. That’s the background for this actor who all of a sudden teams up with a then very young and unproven Powell and Pressburger to play the romantic lead in a rom-com spy thriller.
So, right off the bat no ordinary light entertainment then. But Contraband was never meant to be ordinary light entertainment, anyway. Remember that release date: 1940. That’s only one year into WWII, well before the conflict was certain, and what Powell, Pressburger and Veidt really wanted was to win over allies for Britain, buoy the nation, and send a pointed message to Germany. Powell’s autobiography lays it out explicitly, as the director describes wanting to prove that cinema could be a weapon of war, and in particular to make it clear to Nazi Germany and her allies that Britain’s naval forces were going to stop enemy supplies and arms from getting through, and, equally, no matter the bombs or deprivations of the war effort, the British people could not be broken. What Contraband really is is propaganda at it’s best, propaganda on par with Casablanca in 1942 (which Veidt would also star in, as the villainous Major Strasser, because the man literally dedicated his life to stopping nazis). Contraband is still light, it’s still entertaining, it’s still funny and romantic and thrilling, but it has a steel spine made up of fuck you‘s to the nazis. Which makes it utterly badass.
Now you know the background, on to the film itself! There are so many little things that make this movie cool and fun to watch, most famously that it was the first film shot in the blackout (which explains the original title: Blackout). The blackout was exactly what it sounds like- heavy light restrictions that would hide bright cities like London under pitch black, making them harder targets for nazi bombers. It’s fascinating to see all the adjustments required to eliminate outdoor light in a functioning, huge city, from double-curtained business entrances to paint jobs that reduced traffic lights to dim X’s, to night patrols ready to stop anyone flashing an open flame too long trying to light a cigarette.
Powell uses the natural conditions perfectly to enhance the drama of his spy story, staging shootouts, chases and abductions in the dark city. The blackout conditions also showcase that famous stiff British upper lip and game sense of humour in the face of adversity (take that, nazis!). But drama and thrills are only one side of this aforementioned triple threat: it’s also silly as hell, when it’s not being serious.
First and foremost really, Contraband is a comedy. I realize I haven’t exactly set up that feeling with all the war and chase talk, but you’d be sorely prepared for this movie if you’re expecting something like The Third Man (1949), say, and really, the best propaganda wields humour as it’s weapon of choice. Here’s where you’ll understand why it’s in a league with It Happened One Night and Roman Holiday– it’s totally a screwball comedy. This is where we get to see Veidt’s austere figure put to amazing use as the straight man in endless goofy shenanigans, with the equally stoic if more bemused Hobson at his side, and a host of zany characters alternately helping and getting in the way.
Even better is the snappy dialogue and ongoing battle of wits between Mrs Sorensen and the Captain, with Sorensen deftly taking the stern authoritarian down a few pegs as he butts his nose in where it’s bound to get tweaked (or worse), while the intrepid Captain sees through every ruse and stays ahead of every curveball the expert spy throws. And so we hit our romance, as these two loners discover in each other an equal intellectual and adventurer. It’s damn refreshing when you get a love story like this, and intoxicating at that. The Captain isn’t interested in the beautiful Mrs Sorensen until he comes to know her, and she him- they’re actually attracted to each other, mind and heart, not prize or object. Goddamn this movie is good.
One more interesting behind-the-scenes bit: Powell, Pressburger and Veidt formed the distribution company Anglo-American Films to help secure distribution of their work, and Veidt personally crossed the Atlantic with the film to get it into American theatres (and hopefully convince the yanks to join the war). Once stateside, he stayed to work in Hollywood (where he’d had success at the tail-end of the silent era, as aforementioned) which put him in the right spot to snag his epic role in Casablanca, possibly the greatest propaganda film of all time, imo, with Veidt playing one of the great villain roles of his career. Veidt would die the year after Casablanca came out, of a heart attack, age 50. He’d given his entire fortune to the British war effort, dedicated his career to making anti-nazi films, escaped an SS hit squad for his activities and seen himself reduced to persona non grata status in his homeland, where his films were burned. This is why you might not recognize the name- the man died before the war was even close to finished, on the cusp of breakthrough stardom in Hollywood, with so much of his incredible work burned and buried at the time of his death. He’s one of my favourite actors and a huge inspiration, so I’m making it my personal mission to bring Veidt back to his deserved stature in film and history. Contraband is the man who played villains getting to play the funny romantic lead, the hero, and it’s a perfect illustration of his principles, talent and grit. Obviously it’s a great film all on it’s own, no backstory needed, but it’s also a wonderful bit of work by a forgotten icon and activist who deserves to be remembered. So raise a glass to Veidt while you watch this one!
*Michael Powell’s autobiography, mentioned a few times: A Life In Movies: An Autobiography (Michael Powell)
*Conrad Veidt’s biography, for more on his legacy and badass life: From Caligari to Casablanca (J. C. Allen)
*and if you’re looking for a good copy of Contraband, Kino has a nicely restored release!