3 June 2004 | nk_gillen
Politics of the Eccentric
A secret British aviation project is being disrupted by a foreign power, until an effete but supremely confident intelligence agent, Charles Hammond, is assigned the case. What follows is a tense espionage thriller that refuses to take itself seriously. Yet strangely, this odd mixture of screwball comedy and political potboiler actually works.
"Q Planes" (released in America as "Clouds Over Europe") was directed by an American, Tim Whelan, who establishes a near-anarchic tone throughout. Here, he satirizes what other late-1930's filmmakers may have considered too serious a subject to examine lightly: a potentially disastrous affair for King and country, in which experimental aircraft are being "electronically" hijacked right out of the sky and docked within the confines of a large ship from a hostile nation. (The culprits' nationality is never identified, but as soon as they speak their lines in that thick Teutonic accent, we can just about guess their origin.)
The dialogue, much of it written and improvised by the actors themselves, is crackling, smart; and the action, while wildly improbable and clumsily staged, is as unreal and stylized as the characters. The joker in the deck is Hammond himself. As portrayed by Ralph Richardson, he boasts to anyone who will listen of his own considerable skills as a solver of crimes, a solver of crossword puzzles, and a solver of lovers' squabbles. Despite such brash self-assurance, however, Hammond is never tedious. Richardson plays him as an eccentric of many shades and interests – horse-racing addict, amateur master chef, verbal wit extraordinaire, constant belittler of his "gentleman's gentleman" (Gus McNaughton), and a man whose obsession with the intrigue of his case causes him to repeatedly ignore his beloved Daphne (Sandra Storme), the single character who bests Hammond in the film's fittingly ironic conclusion.
Hammond is aided on the case by his intrepid sister-reporter, Kay (Valerie Hobson), and a temperamental test-pilot, Tony McVane (Laurence Olivier), whom Kay picks up while snooping around an aircraft factory. Kay's character may have been intended as a caricature of the "liberated" working English suffragette. But she holds her own when competing with her two male cohorts - McVane, who hates reporters and let's rip whenever he hears mention of Kay's profession, and Hammond, the charismatic, ardent egoist-as-detective. "I'm right!" he proclaims to his doubting superiors. "I'm right - and the whole world is wrong!" Naturally, Hammond's irregular method of sleuthing bears out his claim – as if any enemy country could measure up in a contest against single representatives of MI-5, Fleet Street, and the RAF.