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Cottage To Let (1941)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Cottage To Let (1941)
35mm, black and white, 90 mins
Directed byAnthony Asquith
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
Produced byEdward Black
Screenplay byAnatole De Grunwald, J.O.C. Orton
Original play byGeoffrey Kerr
PhotographyJack Cox

Cast: Leslie Banks (John Barrington), Alastair Sim (Charles Dimble), John Mills (Flight Lieutenant George Perry), Jeanne De Casalis (Mrs Barrington), Carla Lehman (Helen Barrington), George Cole (Ronald Mittsby), Michael Wilding (Alan Trently)

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A Scottish estate is home to a brilliant inventor at work on classified military projects, a shelter for refugee children, a military hospital, the location of a country fair, all offering rich pickings for Nazi spies.

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Initially a 1940 stage hit, Cottage to Let was adapted for the cinema by Anthony Asquith the following year, retaining Alastair Sim and the fifteen-year-old George Cole from the West End cast and playing them alongside screen stars both established (Leslie Banks) and up-and-coming (John Mills, Michael Wilding).

It's an amiable piece, not quite a comedy-thriller as such, but consistently amusing nonetheless. Not least amongst the pleasures on offer is a well worked-out whodunit in which almost everyone comes under suspicion of being a Nazi spy, loyalties are constantly shifting, and two major plot twists neatly undermine audience expectations. Released in August 1941, two years into World War II, it sketches out a world that would have been all too familiar to contemporary audiences, with food rationing ("it's not marge!" insists a note accompanying a present of purloined butter), blackouts and the mass evacuation of children.

Aside from script and setting, the film's main strengths lie in the well-chosen leads. Leslie Banks gives an amusing character turn as the scientifically brilliant but socially and organisationally hopeless inventor John Barrington, and Jeanne de Casalis virtually steals the show as his scatterbrained wife. Charles Dimble was an important transitional role for Alastair Sim, who seamlessly switches personae according to narrative demand, the fake bonhomie of his chortling Scotsman vanishing as his true Nazi nature (or is it?) becomes clear. No part up to then had so fully exploited Sim's mastery of the genuinely sinister, few would match it later.

Of the younger actors, George Cole makes a confident debut as cocky Cockney teenager Ronald Mittsby, ardent disciple of Sherlock Holmes, his bright observations helping ensure that right ultimately prevails. John Mills initially seems typecast as the dashing flight lieutenant, though there are subtle signs early on that he's not all he seems. However, the eleventh-hour revelation about his true nature still comes as a shock, possibly even more so for present-day audiences more familiar with Mills' subsequent elevation to the epitome of stiff-upper-lipped Britishness.

Cottage to Let was shot at Gainsborough's Shepherd's Bush studios, and the intended Scottish atmosphere doesn't quite ring true, though Asquith otherwise does an effective job of concealing its stage origins. He's particularly effective at orchestrating the various groups of people inhabiting the Barrington estate - and demonstrating in the process how easily careless talk can be overheard, a message unlikely to have been lost on its original audience.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. In the laboratory (5:18)
2. Nurse and patient (2:03)
3. Ministerial visit (2:14)
4. Dimble's secret (2:00)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)
Banks, Leslie (1890-1952)
Cole, George (1925-)
Cox, Jack (1890-1960)
Mills, John (1908-2005)
Sim, Alastair (1900-1976)
Tafler, Sydney (1916-79)