Monday, 19 January 2009

The Day Will Dawn (1942) and Secret Mission (1942)

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Director Harold French’s duet of derring-do both features the little-remembered but blatantly cool Hugh Williams; Williams, who made a mark playing the Byronic Steerforth in David Copperfield (1936), usually played a slightly more upper-crust, but still recognisable, versions of the urbane, slick, glib but essentially tough Londoner types that Dennis Price and Michael Caine would later inhabit. French’s films are quick-moving, funny, a bit ludicrous, and of some importance for marking an intermediary from the pre-War, John Buchan-type of thriller, and the Hitchcockian brand, whilst looking forward to the blockbuster thrill-ride, in laying out the blueprint for Alistair MacLean’s yarns, the James Bond films (and books), through to Star Wars, and any other film where a band of brothers defy the forces of evil to pull off an impossible mission: indeed, one of the writers of Secret Mission is Terence Young, who later as a director would lay the foundations of the Bond series with Dr. No and From Russia With Love.

In The Day Will Dawn, Williams plays an indolent sports journalist (his speciality of picking winning horses is a recurring joke through the film) who, constantly threatened with the sack and challenged to do some real journalism by his mate Ralph Richardson (who must have been getting sick of playing noble victims by this point), soon finds himself bouncing Candide-like through the invasion of Norway and Dunkirk. He learns just enough about German plans to build a submarine base in a fjord where his fisherman friend Finlay Currie and his tomboy daughter Deborah Kerr live, so that he’s sent back to arrange to pinpoint the base for a bombing raid; that’s successful but Currie is killed and everyone else is caught and sentenced to death by firing squad; but the cavalry in the form of a commando raid saves them all. The Day Will Dawn is a near-remarkable film for managing to contrive such a far-ranging plot; it’s almost a history of the war up until the day of its making as well as being a ripping yarn.
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In Secret Mission, which could almost be a sequel, Williams is now in charge of an MI6 unit that is landed in coastal France to collect information and search for an underground control bunker that looks uncannily like a hangout for Ernst Stavro Blofeld. With a tighter but less expansive plot than Dawn, Secret Mission is close to being a screwball comedy war film, as the heroes pretend to be German wine merchants and walk right into Wehrmacht HQ. The Germans’ utter and incalculably deviant villainy is established immediately when the heroes land, and see an armoured car that blares out Wagner at all hours drives by. “Have I been drinking?” questions the ever-droll Roland Culver.
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Williams is also joined by young actors who did not remain sidekicks for long: James Mason, Michael Wilding, and Stewart Granger. Mason plays a Free French officer – yeah – whose home makes a convenient base of operations, and whose comely sister Carla Lehmann provides love interest for Williams when she’s not venting her frustration at the war making things inconvenient for her preening narcissism.
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Wilding is a comic Cockney who dreads returning to France because he’s married to an innkeeper there, and Granger makes a short appearance as a submarine captain. The finale once again is a last-minute intervention by commandos.
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Despite these early glimmerings of the modern blockbuster in their make-up, these films are chiefly enjoyable for their mix of hype and modesty: on their cheap sets, between the action, there’s always time for a bit of dry humour, a dumb sex joke, some comradely banter, or casual bit of love-making.
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