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By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man
(1956)

(SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Hawkins: In fact, I was wondering, that after that perfect andantino, I might offer u a little vino.

The material took its time reaching the screen, first incarnated as 1940 stage play The Body Was Well-Nourished before being worked on by the duo, not entirely happy with it, and revived as 1954’s Meet a Body. They then tinkered some more, tailoring it for Sim (the original version had his bombmaker assassin Harry Hawkins in a supporting role only).

You can see some of that in the slightly skew-whiff construction, which spends a long time at the scene(s) of the crime, houses Windy Ridge and Appleby; by the time we arrive at the titular hotel, there’s only 25 minutes to go. There’s also the manner in which vacuum cleaner salesman and “strained non-entity” William Blake (Cole, and no jokes arising from the character’s name, perhaps surprisingly) shows deductive reasoning that would put Sherlock Holmes to shame. He’s spot on with everything he surmises, which admittedly cuts to the chase (the movie lasts barely eighty minutes) but is rather at odds with the mistaken conclusions and mix-ups that litter every other corner of the plot. Added to which, his reasoning for failing to summon the police is slender at best.

This is Sim’s show, though, and a marvellous showcase for his lugubrious vim at every stage. He narrates the introduction – so informing us that, even though we shall see him apprehended at the end, he is sanguine about the entire debacle – and apprises us of his formative influences, ones that fashioned a hardcore psychopath (except that, such is the way with movies, he’s actually entirely winning in his villainy). Hawkins started out blowing up an “abominable” headmaster, having only intended to humiliate him. The act revealed his true incendiary vocation, albeit one that carried with it principles (“I only accepted assignments against a so-called ‘grape’. Those overblown balloons who just deserved to be popped”).

Joan: I’d like the chopped toad, please.

It is one such grape, Sir Gregory Upshott, BART (Raymond Huntley, on odiously aloof, philandering form) merchant banker and politician who is Hawkins’ target. We’re inclined to loathe Upshott at every turn – he has coerced reluctant young assistant Joan (Eileen Moore) away for a dirty weekend, and he is witheringly superior to all those with whom he interacts – such that there are few moral qualms about Hawkin’s “noble” motives in assisting “certain parties in the Middle East determined that Sir Gregory should never, never get there”.

Marigold: You’ve been pumping me about Sir Gregory. It’s been happening ever since that first day in St James’s Park, when my breadcrumbs ran out.

The sloppiness of Hawkins’ perfect plan quickly becomes apparent when Sir Gregory’s secretary Marigold (Avril Angers) gets wise to foul schemes afoot. Hawkins, now posing as a clockmaker, has been wooing her in the service of mining information on her boss’s comings and goings. The consequence of this is Hawkins’ assistant McKechnie bumping her off via a ruse involving rearranged house signs. And the consequence of that is hapless Blake and Appleby owner Ann Vincent (Jill Adams, also to be found in the same year’s Private’s Progress) being confronted by the not-actually-bumped-off Marigold.

Hawkins: Are you telling me that whoever killed her put her in a piano forte?

There’s a wealth of pitch-black humour accompanying these unfolding events; Hawkins’ genuine horror on learning his associate disposed of Marigold’s body in a piano, and Blake’s response to Ann asking how he knows the victim was murdered (“Well, people don’t usually commit suicide in a boudoir grand”). The body is prone to disappearing (having been moved), so creating further confusion and mistaken conclusions, most particularly on the part of Ann’s fiancé Reginald Willoughby-Cruft (a ruthlessly snobbish Colin Gordon). He works for the BBC and so is inevitably an absolute ass, and he is also, in the best (or worst) traditions of Whitehall farce, prone to intruding on Ann and Blake in apparently compromising positions (under the bed; on the floor with Ann in her underwear; Blake’s grin at first at the sight of her in said decalage is in the finest pre-Carry On tradition).

Charles Boughtflower: Don’t worry ladies. They’re just a couple of screaming alcoholics.

The timing of the proceedings ratchets up a gear once the hotel is in frame, whereby Launder and Gilliat do a masterful job keeping all their plates in the air: Hawkins biding his time with his bomb disguised as a radio; Sir Gregory up for a spot of despoiling; Blake and Ann desperately trying to locate Sir Gregory and warn him; and… Terry-Thomas! Yes, the absolute stinker himself is Charles Boughtflower, at the Green Man for some extra-marital sauce with landlady Lily (Dora Bryan). He’s rather paranoid about being rumbled, which leads to Blake mistaking him for Sir Gregory (“I happen to know they’re out to get you tonight”). There’s some delightful T-T-ness here, including his greeting to the orchestral trio (“Oh, hello girls. How are you? Alright?”) and his perfectly stunned response to the “explosive” effects of his drink (the bomb has just gone off).

Hawkins: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a trio, playing with such brio.

Even more fun is Hawkins’ attempting to keep his absurd plan on course, demanding as it does Sir Gregory’s presence in the drawing room at a certain time and hearing himself on the radio (he will stay to listen, of course, being an egoist,). Hawkins has been chatting up the middle-aged orchestra (Vivien Wood, Marie Burke and Lucy Griffiths, all of whom are hilariously up for it), however, and doesn’t particularly want to see them blown up too (his response on first discovering that the room will not have the radio to itself but will have to compete with their playing is THE moment of the movie).

The conclusion, in which Hawkins makes his escape only to drive headlong into McKechnie, the fleeing pair then stopped by the police is… well, this is a comedy. Director Robert Day apparently had some disagreements with Sim (who was in the running to direct at one point), and Basil Dearden stepped in to handle some scenes. Although, Day made no mention of this when referring both to his novice work on the picture and his relationship with his lead (“I was overwhelmed – flabbergasted. Alistair Sim, the star of the movie, offered suggestions. He was a very erudite man and helped me a lot”). Day would go on to direct Two-Way Stretch, The Rebel and a string of Season Five The Avengers episodes (it has to be said, most of them not among the show’s best). Also appearing are Arthur Lowe (as a radio salesman) Peter Bull (as a general) and Richard Wattis as a mercenary-minded NHS doctor (“If you come round immediately, I’ll leave an emergency fee on the mantlepiece”).

Pauline Kael was a fan of the movie and more still of Sim, whom she singled out for praise whenever she saw one of his pictures (“It’s unlikely that anybody else in the history of movies has ever matched Sim’s peculiar feat of flipping expressions from benign innocence to bloodcurdling menace in one devastating instant”). This came towards the end of Launder and Gilliat’s great run; there were still (hugely successful) St Trinian’s sequels and odd hits (Only Two can Play), but The Green Man caps a qualitative high-water mark in a long and successful run.



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