Contraband (Blackout) (1940): Powell and Pressburger’s Espionage Thriller, Starring Conrad Veidt as a Romantic Hero

British director-writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made Contraband, a modestly produced espionage thriller that reunited stars Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson after their effective teaming in The Spy in Black the previous year.

Our Grade: B- (**1/2 out of *****)

Set in November 1939, when Denmark is still neutral, the tale centers on Danish Captain Andersen, played by Conrad Veidt, who’s cast against type as a romantic hero.

Andersen and his freighter Helvig are stopped in the English Channel by Lt. Commanders Ashton (Joss Ambler) and Ellis (Harold Warrender) for  inspection in a British Contraband Control Port.

He receives shore passes for himself and his First Officer Axel Skold (Hay Petrie) to dine with Ashton and Ellis, but the passes are stolen by Mrs. Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) and talent scout Mr. Pidgeon (Esmond Knight).

When the train arrives in the blacked-out London, Andersen holds on to Sorensen.  After dinner at the restaurant of Skold’s brother Erik, she takes him to the home of her aunt, where they are captured by a Nazi spy ring led by Van Dyne (Raymond Lovell), a man Sorensen has encountered in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Van Dyne, who knows that Sorensen and Pidgeon are British agents, finds a message hidden on one of Sorensen’s cigarette papers, identifying her as “M47” and listing the names of neutral ships under which two German vessels are traveling. He decides to replace one of the names with that of an American ship to cause trouble.

Sorensen and Andersen are tied up, but he escape, bringing back help from Erik Skold’s staff.  After freeing Sorensen, they resume their sea voyage.

Though less stylish than The Spy in Black, this espionage thriller is intermittently engaging, even if it feels like an homage to Hitchcock (who would have made a better film) in its effort to insert clever lines and humor into what’s essentially a rather thin and conventional plot.

The film’s title in the U.S. was Blackout, which Powell liked better.

Cast

Conrad Veidt as Captain Andersen
Valerie Hobson as Mrs Sorensen
Hay Petrie as Axel Skold/Erik Skold
Joss Ambler as Lt. Cmdr. Ashton, RNR
Raymond Lovell as Van Dyne
Esmond Knight as Mr Pidgeon
Charles Victor as Hendrick
Phoebe Kershaw as Miss Lang
Harold Warrender as Lt. Cmdr. Ellis, RN
John Longden as Passport Officer
Eric Maturin as Passport Officer
Paddy Browne as Singer in “Regency”

Credits:

Directed by Michael Powell
Produced by John Corfield
Written by Michael Powell and Brock Williams
Screenplay and story by Emeric Pressburger
Music by Richard Addinsell, John Greenwood
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Edited by John Seabourne
Production company British National Films
Distributed by Anglo-American
Release date: May 11, 1940 (UK);  November 29, 1940 (US)
Running time: 92 minutes (UK); 80 minutes (US)