What I remember:
Precious little, apparently. The years, they do take their toll. I have wracked my memory to recall the tiniest facts. This is what comes up. Alastair Sim plays an Inspector who is called in to investigate the accidental death of someone on the operating table. I believe this is a wartime O.R., and there are some nurses and surgeons having affaiars when they are not patching up the wounded. How very M*A*S*H- like! One of these nurses accuses someone, I don’t know, another nurse, a doctor, somebody-- of committing murder by purposefully not doing their job correctly. The Inspector comes to investigate, and he is a hoot! Sim, famous for his great portrayal of Scrooge in the best version of “A Christmas Carol”, made the film special, as I recall. The whole thing is like an Agatha Christie whodunit, but with a lot of humor and a really original construct.
“In view of my failure - correction, comparative failure - I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it”- Inspector Cockrill
It is England in 1944. A small surgical operating theatre is busy with home-front casualties due to the incessant bombing raids of the Axis. The latest injury is a few broken bones suffered by a Postman in a bombed house. He is told by all that his surgery is routine, and yet he dies on the operating table due to asphyxiation from gaseous anesthetics. The investigation stays internal, until an obviously perturbed nurse interrupts a dance by announcing that she knows it was murder, and she knows where the evidence is. When she is killed herself, Scotland Yard steps in and begins their own inquest. All the while, a love triangle complicates the situation. The Inspector has figured that there are 5 people who could have been involved with both murders; the surgeon Mr. Eden (Leo Genn), the anesthetist Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard), Nurse Linley (Sally Gray), Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) and Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John). Eden, Barnes and Linley are the points of the triangle.
Q- Was my memory accurate?
Actually I was pretty much on target. The whole thing plays like the love-child of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Murder She Wrote”. Obviously the tie-in to “M*A*S*H” is unavoidable. Anytime you have war-time surgeons having affairs, then it’s going to evoke that great comedy.
Is that like saying “anytime you have a Swedish Knight playing chess with Death then it’s going to evoke “The Seventh Seal””?
It’s a pretty good whodunit, there are a lot of red herrings slung about, and substituting a hospital for a mansion puts an entirely different spin on things. Primarily, these people’s jobs are about saving lives, not taking them. It seems very unlikely that you would find a murderer amongst these angels of mercy. There are moments where the war is evoked, especially in the ominous drone of planes, the sudden cut of engines signaling that a bomb is being dropped, and then the explosions. One has to think that in 1946 the memory of these horrors must have been quite fresh in the minds of the British audience. Also the sound of the German version of Tokyo Rose, “Germany Calling” is not only heard, but actually a plot device. Nevertheless, the mystery and love intrigue are front and center throughout the film. As earlier stated, the whole thing would be somewhat formulaic if not for the phenomenally drawn character of the Inspector, and the brilliantly comic portrayal by Alastair Sim.
There are some visually striking moments throughout this film. Very impressive is the scene in which the accusing nurse attempts to grab the evidence, and is confronted and killed. There are a lot of “Noir” images in this scene, one very memorable shot of the window opening and closing and the intermittent light exposing the murderer. Wilkie Cooper was the cinematographer, and though he is best known for his work with Ray Harryhausen on “Jason and the Argonauts” and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”, he had a long and varied career shooting in B&W, including “Stage Fright” for Alfred Hitchcock (a movie that also had Alastair Sim in the cast). Director Sidney Gilliat was known much more for his writing; among his credits are the Hitchcock masterpiece “The Lady Vanishes” and Hitch’s lesser known “Jamaica Inn”. Also he scripted the great “Night Train to Munich” by Carol Reed. Gilliat holds his own with this adapted screenplay from a book by Christianna Brand, the creator of Nanny McPhee. How much of the great comedy is Brand’s or Gilliat’s creation, and how much is Sim’s does not take a Scotland Yard Inspector to figure out. When only one character consistently gets you to laugh out loud, then you know it’s not just the script.
What else can I say about Mr. Sim in this movie? The man is pure genius. He is at once disrespectful, self-effacing, witty, caustic and broad. In one great bit of comic timing, he interrupts Mr. Eden and Nurse Linley romancing under the stars. While the surgeon spouts some sappy poetry and the two snuggle up, you are thinking about how cornball it all seems, and in the nick of time, the Inspector continues the poem from where Mr. Eden paused. The romantic moment is ruined, much to Eden’s chagrin, and much to the audience’s delight. Only Groucho could have done it any better. The capper comes, when the Inspector walks away, grinning happily, stops and purposefully pushes aside a bush to expose Dr. Barnes, who has been snooping on his girlfriend and her new interest.
Sim carries the film, and thank heaven. Some of the supporting actors are outright terrible, especially Judy Campbell as Sister Bates. She is the nurse who gets murdered early on, and she spends most of her time on screen doing the Norma Desmond silent screen big eyes. It is a laughably overacted part, not worthy of the rest of the film. The two male leads, Genn and Howard do a creditable job, Genn is a bit smarmy and Howard a bit stodgy, and that’s fine for what the film needs. Sally Gray is very lovely as the desirable Linley, but she looks like she stepped right out of a beauty parlor after almost being gassed to death. Megs Jenkins as Nurse Woods is probably the standout in the supporting cast. She has a nice meaty role, and she does it no disservice. When she confronts Eden to chide him about breaking up Linley and Barnes, it comes across as very real.
ON SECOND LOOK
It’s on Netflix streaming, and is a quick hour and a half of fun diversion. There is no reason not to spend some time with this film. No, it’s not really a classic, but it’s worth watching for one reason in particular: a great comic actor at the very top of his game.
1st Look- ★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★