Monday, August 24, 2015

Cottage To Let (1941)

Cottage To Let is a light-hearted 1941 British spy thriller. It’s really as much a spoof as a genuine spy thriller although it does boast a pretty decent and rather complicated plot, and a very very strong cast.

John Barrington (Leslie Banks) is an eccentric who just happens to be vital to the British war effort. He hates bureaucrats and he insists in carrying on his researches at his home in the Scottish Highlands. That home, usually a haven of peace among the lochs, has been thrown into chaos. Barrington’s wife (Jeanne de Casalis) is in her own way just as eccentric as her husband. Eager to help the war effort she has put a cottage at the disposal of the Army for use as a military hospital. Unfortunately she has also agreed to let the cottager be used to house children evacuated from London. And at the same time she has let the cottage to a Mr Dimble (Alistair Sim). It’s now a very overcrowded cottage indeed.

As a hospital the cottage has only a single patient, Flight-Lieutenant Perry (John Mills), a Spitfire pilot whose aircraft had been forced down in the loch. Not surprisingly there are soon signs of budding romance between the glamorous fighter pilot hero and Dr Barrington’s beautiful daughter Helen (Carla Lehmann). That’s not entirely to the liking of Dr Barrington’s assistant Trently (Michael Wilding).

Meanwhile the young evacuee Ronald (16-year-old George Cole at the beginning of an incredibly long career which happily continues to this day) is creating a certain amount of havoc. He’s a good-natured lad but high-spirited and being a Sherlock Holmes fan he fancies himself as an amateur detective which tends to cause more chaos.

Among this motley assortment of misfits there is at least one German spy. And at least one  British counter-spy. Scotland Yard knows the Germans will stop at nothing to steal Dr Barrington’s latest invention but Barrington is not the sort of man who takes kindly to having policemen snooping about the place, even if they are trying to protect him. This means the Yard’s efforts to protect him have to be secret - Dr Barrington has no idea of the identity of the British counter-spy, and of course neither does the audience.

To make things more confusing just about everybody seems to be behaving suspiciously. Which of course adds to the movie’s fun.

This is not really an action-oriented spy drama although it does have a few action scenes towards the end.

Anthony Asquith had a long and quite distinguished career as a director. His approach is straightforward but effective. The challenge with this type of movie is to balance the comedy and suspense elements and this is done quite successfully. The plot has enough twists to keep us interested while the humour is sufficiently well done to keep us amused.

It’s difficult to single out any one performance. This is an ensemble piece and everyone does a fine job. Fans of Alistair Sim will certainly be happy. Child characters are always a potential problem, especially when they’re precocious and high-spirited with delusions of being Sherlock Holmes, but George Cole is really quite delightful. He gets plenty of laughs and he’s never irritating. The humour in this movie is consistently good-natured and steers well clear of slapstick. 

Since it’s important to keep the identity of the spy or spies a secret for as long as possible the actors have to avoid making these characters into stereotypical dastardly spy villains. This proves to be a good move. It also gives the movie less of a wartime propaganda movie feel than you might expect. 

The one minor quibble is that a certain member of the cast does overdo things a little in his climactic scene when his treachery is revealed.

Cottage To Let was released in the US under the accurate but rather dull title Bombsight Stolen.

Network have as usual done a very good job with their DVD. Picture and sound quality are both very acceptable.

Cottage To Let is fine lightweight entertainment. If you’re a spy fan, a mystery fan or a devotee of British comedies you should enjoy it. In fact any classic movie fan should really enjoy this one. Highly recommended.

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