Contraband (1940) reunites director Michael Powell with stars Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, the team that collaborated in the clever World War I spy thriller The Spy in Black. The results aren’t quite as successful, but do provide a unique and interesting glimpse at espionage during the “Phoney War.”
In the early days of World War II, Hans Andersen (Veidt) is the captain of a Danish cargo ship, ferrying goods and passengers along the English Channel. When the ship is detained by British authorities to ensure it’s not secretly transporting war materiel to the Germans, British officers issue passes to enable Andersen and his first mate to come ashore for a meal. The passes, however, are stolen by two of the ship’s more peculiar passengers, a talent scout named “Mr. Pidgeon” (Esmond Knight) and a rule-flouting free spirit, Mrs. Sorensen (Valerie Hobson). Since Andersen is responsible for the actions of everyone on his ship while it’s in port, he sneaks ashore to track down his errant passengers. Upon locating Mrs. Sorensen during a London blackout, Andersen finds himself entangled in unexpected intrigue, caught between British and German spies.
The plot of Contraband, while at times difficult to suss out, is unusual and clever, providing a neat MacGuffin, nifty tradecraft, and plenty of intriguing mystery for the seasoned spy buff. Where the film falls down is in its tone, which is rather flat and dry, failing to fully capitalize on a quirky, Hitchcockian scenario. Hobson is more than capable as the mysterious Mrs. Sorensen, but Veidt is a tough read, his inscrutable deliveries diminishing the needed chemistry. Ultimately, while certainly worth watching for spy film completists like me, Contraband doesn’t entirely satisfy, failing to live up to the romantic thriller potential inherent in its premise.