Q Planes (released in the US as Clouds Over Europe) is an uneasy but highly diverting 1939 British mixture of spy thriller, science fiction and comedy.
It’s not all that surprising when one top-secret advanced experimental aircraft disappears but when half a dozen vanish in quick succession Major Hammond (Ralph Richardson) of the British intelligence agency DI5 smells a rat. The trouble is he can’t convince his superiors that something suspicious is going on. He also can’t convince aeroplane manufacturer Barrett (George Merritt) that he might have a security problem.
Barrett’s top test pilot Tony McVane (Laurence Olivier) doesn’t need much convincing, especially when his best friend disappears along with yet another top-secret aircraft.
McVane suspects that the new waitress at the works canteen, Kay Lawrence (Valerie Hobson), may be involved. In fact she’s just a reporter looking for a story. She also happens to be Major Hammond’s sister.
Major Hammond has no doubt that someone at the aircraft factory is involved in the vanishing planes mystery but finding the evidence isn’t easy. He has a few leads but they seem to lead nowhere until he discovers some curious coincidences relating to a salvage ship. The next test flight is imminent and this time Tony McVane, with whom he has struck up a friendship, will be the pilot.
The plot provides the makings of a fun spy thriller but at times it’s played that way and at other times it’s played purely for comedy value. Fortunately Ralph Richardson’s considerable comic gifts allow him to move easily between the comic elements and the thriller elements. Laurence Olivier seems slightly less comfortable, slightly less sure how to play his role.
Q Planes has enough action, and enough aerial sequences, to keep things interesting. The shipboard mad scientist’s laboratory is a major highlight. For a generally lightweight movie the body count is surprisingly high especially when Olivier cuts loose with a Vickers medium machine-gun.
The comic elements are sometimes a little jarring and do tend to interrupt the action a little but the important thing is that they do provide some genuine laughs, thanks largely to Ralph Richardson.
Q Planes is a fun romp of a movie in its own light-hearted way. Highly recommended.