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Contraband (1940)

British Film Institute

Main image of Contraband (1940)
35mm, 91 min, black & white
Directed byMichael Powell
Production CompanyBritish National Films
Produced byJohn Corfield
Story / ScreenplayEmeric Pressburger
Scenario byMichael Powell
 Brock Williams
PhotographyF.A. Young
Music Composed byRichard Addinsell

Cast: Conrad Veidt (Captain Andersen); Valerie Hobson (Mrs Sørensen); Hay Petrie (Axel Skold, Mate of S.S. 'Helvig' / Erik Skold, Chef of 'Three Vikings'); Esmond Knight (Mr Pidgeon); Raymond Lovell (Van Dyne)

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When a neutral Danish merchant ship is forced to put into port after trying to evade British wartime contraband control, its captain becomes involved in a beautiful British Naval Intelligent agent's efforts to capture a group of German spies operating from a London cinema.

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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's second collaboration neatly captures the darkness and disorientation (both literal and metaphorical) of London during the early stages of the war, while also explaining the importance and working methods of the British contraband controls. Although made as a propaganda piece with the support of the Ministry of Information, Contraband never sacrifices storytelling to dry and instructional factual detail.

Instead, the film falls more obviously into the genre of the comedy spy-thriller, of which Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) are prime examples. The attraction between the stubborn but charming Captain Andersen (Conrad Veidt) and the feisty Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) is sophisticatedly handled as the pair fall into various tricky situations throughout the course of the film. Touches such as Hobson's cigarettes, which carry a coded message, and the 'Patriotic Plaster Products' busts of Chamberlain ("They always said he was tough" comments Veidt as he uses one to knock out the German spy) all add a sense of playfulness despite the film's serious purpose.

Although the distinctive joint credit, 'Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger', was yet to be created (this would happen with 1943's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), Contraband features several members of the Archers production team that Powell and Pressburger would form in 1942. John Seabourne would edit four more Powell and Pressburger pictures before the end of the war, and production designer Alfred Junge relished the opportunity to create dazzling cabaret club sets on a fraction of the budget he was given for E.A Dupont's classic silent films Moulin Rouge (1928) and Piccadilly (1929). Actors Esmond Knight, Raymond Lovell and Hay Petrie provide sturdy and memorable support and would all go on to work with Powell and Pressburger again.

Contraband also sees a reprisal of the sparkling chemistry between Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, following their successful pairing in 1939's The Spy in Black. In both films, Pressburger created roles for Veidt that allowed him to escape the stereotyping that often plagued German actors in British films, particularly during this period. Veidt was grateful for the opportunity to move away from the image of the dour and menacing German, and is as appealing as Contraband's Danish captain as he was as an honourable U-boat commander in The Spy in Black.

Nathalie Morris

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Video Clips
1. London in the Blackout (2:48)
2. Captured (4:27)
3. Nightclub pursuit (2:42)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Noose (1948)
Hobson, Valerie (1917-1998)
Junge, Alfred (1886-1964)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)
Veidt, Conrad (1893-1943)
Young, Freddie (1902-1998)