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Sep 12, 2007

Q Planes (1939)

Starring Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Valerie Hobson.
Written by Jack Whittingham, Brock Williams, Arthur Wimperis and Ian Dalrymple.
Directed by Tim Whelan
Genres: Action, Spy, Comedy.

Action films and in particular, action spy movies have come a long way in the 120 year history of cinema, but there's a kind of continuity to them. Each generation builds on the previous one. The burglary scene in the first Mission Impossible movie built on the MI TV series, which owed a debt to Jules Dassin's Topkapi, which built on Dassin's own Rififi. Caper movies beget more elaborate caper movies. Spy movies, starting with Fritz Lang's Spione have their own tropes, riffs and memes.

Q Planes starts with a bunch of Bobbies busting into an apartment to the accompaniment of dramatic orchestral music. "Sergeant, there's a body in here," says a cop. The sergeant finds Ralph Richardson snoozing on a divan with his trilby hat over his eyes and his brolly leaning against the backrest. They wake him "What is it, what's the matter? Tell her I'll ring her back in five minutes… (He wakes a little bit…) I say, this is a bit thick, a bit thick. Prancing without a word of warning into a man's private bedroom. (The cop tells him it's not a bedroom) The significance of that uniform doesn't escape me… oh, I see your point. (He forgets his own name, still waking up.) Am I Smith, am I Jones, I can't be Goldberg…"

The cops take him down to Scotland Yard. En route, he buys a newspaper from a kid and asks him what won the two o'clock horse race. He gets hustled to Inspector Hammond at the Air Ministry, DI5. Still reading the paper, he gives a significant look to Hammond's assistant and the cops leave. Turns out that he is Inspector Hammond and he's been faking comic amnesia to get out of the building without foreign spies seeing him. He immediately calls his girlfriend Daphne to apologize for missing afternoon tea with her. (This becomes a running gag throughout the movie.) Daphne has something veddy veddy important to tell him. He puts her off.

It seems that around the World, test aircraft are disappearing. No wreckage is ever found and all of the planes are carrying secret electronic equipment. Only Hammond, an American agent and an Italian policeman think there is more than coincidence to these vanishings. Hammond decides to investigate an aircraft manufacturing company where the latest test aircraft are being built.

One of the test pilots is Tony McVane (a young and dashing Larry Olivier) who asks his boss if he can take the next test flight. He's knocked back (the crew are chosen by lot), just as the Air Ministry plane lands and Hammond slips out in coveralls (still wearing the trilby). He asks a passing mechanic for a cigarette, then when he gets it, unfurls a secret typewritten message hidden inside. The airplane's supercharger is the enemy's objective.

McVane banters with the new girl at the plant canteen Kay Lawrence (Valerie Hobson) who is smart, sassy and beautiful.

McVane's not chosen for the flight, which disappears over the Atlantic after flying over a mysterious freighter, the S.S. Viking, which is carrying a secret weapon, a ray gun, which zaps the engine and electronics of the aircraft. Think of a projectable electro-magnetic pulse weapon and you have the idea. The plane ditches in the sea near the Viking, which uses a steam-derrick to haul the plane aboard. The crew disembark surrounded by sailors with tommy-guns.

Search aircraft fly over the Viking, which reports that they saw nothing. The authorities are baffled. But Inspector Hammond has had the supercharger removed from the plane to foil the enemy agents. The sassy canteen girl turns out to be a reporter, of course. McVane finds out and gets angry at her. The baddies are miffed because the supercharger wasn't onboard the flight. They're about to do a hit-and-run on their inside man Jenkins, when Inspector Hammond hauls him out of harms way with the hook of his brolly. He interrogates him very swiftly, then when Jenkins is shot in a drive-by, Hammond immediately grabs the telephone… to call Daphne again.

McVane meets Hammond and discovers that Kay is the latter's sister. They flirt a bit until his sexist ideas about female journalists put a chill on things for all of thirty seconds.

Eventually the missing plane is found 'washed up' in Cornwall. Hammond goes down to investigate the wreckage and discovers that the plane's engine was cut loose of the fuselage. Meanwhile McVane is the next victim of the S.S. Viking. He and the flight crews stage a breakout and using a gatling gun, wipe out half the crew and lock up the rest. Meanwhile Hammond is chasing the Viking in a naval destroyer… and the good guys win… and Daphne eloped with someone else.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's happened in five or six James Bond films over the years. Q Planes is the prototype for this kind of action movie, predating Sean Connery's first sojourn in Jamaica by twenty two years and the first James Bond novel by thirteen. One of the writers of Q Planes was Jack Whittingham. In the '60s he wrote a couple of episodes of Danger Man, and also helped Ian Fleming with the story treatment for a James Bond television series that was to become the Bond novel Thunderball.

The 1939 date on the movie tags it as a propaganda piece. Storm clouds were hovering over Europe. The foreigners lose, and eccentric gentlemen with trilbies and brollies, or leather flying jackets save the day. The secret weapon aboard the Viking looks great, with the clean slightly art-deco lines reminiscent of the futuristic scenes in William Cameron Menzies' Things To Come. The actors are all amusing, including Gus McNaughton as Blenkinsop, Hammond's butler. ("Come and meet Blenkinsop," Hammond says to McVane. "He's a perfect swine.")

According to some sources much of the banter was improvised by the actors and the American director, Tim Whelan encouraged it. (Whelan was also one of the directors on Alexander Korda's Thief of Baghdad a year later.) The pacing of this film is great, Richardson has some hilarious bits of business and while this isn't a classic in any sense, it is amusing, entertaining and memorable.

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