Michael Powell | Contraband

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Michael Powell


Contraband (1940) is one of many spy films made in Britain in the 1930's and 1940's. It is a beautiful film from start to finish, and highly recommended to everybody.

There was a tendency in British prose spy novels of the 1930's to reflect the influence of the Realist school of detective fiction, founded by such writers as R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Crofts. This spy film also shows Realist school traits. For example, there is a Background: a systematic exposition of some domain of society or technology. Contraband shows us all about ports in the early war years, and their inspection of ships for contraband. Such nautical backgrounds were especial favorites of Crofts, who frequently used them in his books. The film also shows us the Blackout in much detail, a second Background. The film also touches on Crofts' other favorite subject, trains. As in Crofts' stories, the hero is an official, in this case, the Captain of a Danish ship come to Britain. We also see official representatives of British contraband inspection units. The international feel of the story, with its many Danish and British characters, also recalls Crofts' international casts of characters and settings. All in all, this is one of the most Croftsian films I've ever seen. Powell employs Backgrounds in other films. For example, The Red Shoes (1948) has a complete Background setting forth the world of classical ballet. It is not a mystery or a spy film, of course, but it uses the same sort of techniques to interweave a documentary like look at the world of ballet into its personal story.

Some other aspects of the story recall Freeman, rather than Crofts. Notably, there is a scene where a dark ride through London is reconstructed using auditory and other clues. This recalls a well known scene in Freeman's The Mystery of 31 New Inn (1912).

The film is so rich in detail it could be used as a documentary of the period. It has the added merit, when compared to one of Crofts' books, that it can show us visually what all its ships and ports look like. Contraband is full of elaborate compositions. These have a dual purpose. Partly they are beautiful, complex visual patterns. The film shows the same exquisite visual sensibility that will later distinguish The Red Shoes. And partly, these very full compositions are designed to show us the visual appearance of all the unusual boat and harbor scenes we have rarely had a chance to see in film.