29 June 2013 | secondtake
A rather brilliant wartime drama comedy called COTTAGE TO LET--fast complex cast and plot
Cottage to Let (1941)
There are so many characters, so many tinges of British accent, and such a parade of turncoats and double agents it's difficult to quite follow everything here. But stick it out. Or, in the extreme case (which I admit taking) see it twice. It's "quite worth it, I dare say."
A comedy on the surface, and quite funny all through, it's also a serious war movie, shot and released in the thick of World War II. The key theme is actually not the bomb sight design and the attempt by the government to protect its secret from spies. It's about loose lips. And looking for traitors among us.
So, here at this cottage near where a top scientist is working on a secret weapon idea, there is a parade of suspicious characters, and I mean characters, including the redoubtable Alastair Sim. There is a nutty family running the place, a couple of love affairs in the air, a bunch of secret messages sent by various messengers. I count rough twelve characters who matter, and if some are very minor, they are critical in some small way to the outcome. Allegiances are everything.
What makes the movie actually remarkable is that it holds to together so well. And it has a tight economy to the editing, and a fluidity to the filming, that keeps it really going. For some reason the lighting in the first half, and the interior scenes in general, is bright and flat (no Warner Bros. influence here I guess) but then there are some scenes later that are extraordinary in their dramatic atmosphere.
In fact, there are some ideas that prefigure famous later ones, like the auction that is interrupted by spies and good guys by bidding incorrectly, stolen by Hitchcock in "North by Northwest." Or even the ending which is a slim version of the mirror shootout by Welles in "Lady from Shanghai." It's quite an exciting finish (never mind the goofy millstone moment, which you'll see).
Anthony Asquith, the director, went on to make some mainstays of post-war British cinema, and that's yet another reason to appreciate this, as a precursor to his own work. But it also reveals a real intelligence for the movies. Evident and appreciated.
In the big view, it isn't the plot, which is necessarily contrived to give a message to the nation, but the many pieces, and the writing and acting in those pieces, that make the movie really strong. The one version out there (streaming on Netflix) is a weak print (and there is no DVD release, apparently) so the sound and even the richness of the visuals will hamper a good appreciation. Even so, give it a look. Alertly.