- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2007

Seventy years ago, when reviewing a now-obscure British crime comedy titled “Gangway,” Graham Greene called attention to a supporting player who had been actively shuttling between stage and screen since 1935. “It is Mr. Alastair Sim,” he wrote, “as an insurance detective who really saves the film. Horrifying passions pent in his twisting secretive body, Mr. Sim always shatters illusion right and left. His acting, unctuous with nonconformity, demands other characters too that are larger than life.”

Mr. Greene saluted the same performer a year later, in another crime comedy, “This Man in Paris.” By that time his liking had acquired a sweeping emphasis; he observed that Mr. Sim, cast as a Scottish news editor, was “again acting everybody else off the set.”

Mr. Sim was, in fact, a Scot, born in Edinburgh in 1900, into a family of tailors that also set great store by learning. He began an academic career in 1925, as a lecturer in elocution and phonetics at the New College of Edinburgh University. Within five years acting had changed his professional plans. Eventually, his tall, bald-domed, saturnine appearance and humorously distinctive, potentially withering vocal inflections became fixtures of the English theater and cinema. From about the middle 1940s to the start of the 1960s, Mr. Sim, who died of cancer in 1976, was also a recurrent and inimitable pleasure for American moviegoers with a taste for English eccentricity.

Two recent DVD releases illustrate how a character actor can become a specialized star attraction. The astutely ominous and playful murder thriller “Green for Danger,” which reached American theaters in 1947, has been transposed to a DVD format by The Criterion Collection, which revived it on laserdisc in the early 1990s. “School for Scoundrels,” belatedly remade by an American company this year, has returned in its original 1960 British incarnation, preserving a valedictory Sim performance as a serenely sneaky figure of authority, a caricature of Stephen Potter, whose comic novels about the art of getting one-up on all potential social, professional or romantic rivals were the source of the screenplay.

“Green for Danger” is a durably evocative and satisfying entertainment in several respects. It evokes the last summer of World War II in England, when Germany’s V-1 flying bombs had become an insidious new threat, distinguished by a sound pattern that made silence perversely terrifying. Once the fuel was exhausted, a V-1’s conspicuously buzzing, chugging engine shut down; the sudden silence meant the weapon was falling and would explode in a matter of seconds.

The setting remains unusual for the genre: a hospital, with the principal conflicts and rivalries concentrated on the medical staff, whose core group of two doctors (Leo Genn and Trevor Howard) and four nurses (Sally Gray, Rosamund John, Judith Campbell and Megs Jenkins) include a murderer. The menace that naturally clings to whodunits is intensified by the feeling that a haven of safety has become a murder trap. The element of the original novel that most appealed to director Sidney Gilliat was the lurking threat of death by anesthesia — “all those crosscutting opportunities offered by flow meters, hissing gas cylinders, palpitating rubber bags,” he fondly recalled years later.

Mr. Gilliat had a vividly haunting theater of mystery to exploit, and there are some priceless eerie highlights. The most dynamic surround the nurse, Sister Marian Bates, played by Miss Campbell as she recklessly flees toward her doom in a darkened operating room. There’s a particularly harrowing image of her face reflected in a small circular window at the entrance of the room. When Mr. Gilliat returns to this vantage point a few minutes later, Sister Bates remains in sight, but as a shadowy, crumpled victim.

Mr. Sim was not cast as a member of the medical staff. He played the intrusive ringer — a Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Cockrill, assigned to investigate a pair of mysterious deaths. We hear him as the film’s narrator well before he appears. The narration itself is a clever inside joke, a summary of Cockrill’s official written report, indicating that the case was solved but delaying confirmation of some little details — the aspects that leave Cockrill justifiably critical of his own performance as master sleuth.

Cockrill proves a compulsive needler. In this trait, he anticipates Peter Falk’s Columbo. The pleasure Cockrill takes in keeping suspects off guard and riled up gives a peculiar comic gusto and unpredictability to the investigative second act of “Green for Danger” — and wittily prepares you for the humbling sign-off, which confirms Cockrill’s blind spots. Though a virtuoso, he has overrated his intuitions and jumped to wrong conclusions.

Stephen Potter published “Gamesmanship,” the prototype for his series, when “Green for Danger” was a new film, but more than a decade passed before Mr. Sim, the obvious choice, played the dean of gamesmen in “School for Scoundrels.” His Cockrill was already well-advanced in gamesmanship. Indeed, he might have retired to a faculty post at the mythical College of Lifemanship.

Mr. Sim occasionally played timid or apologetic types (in “Laughter in Paradise,” for example, where he’s a retired officer who shamefully writes pulp fiction), but as a rule he seemed splendidly constituted to authenticate overconfident self-assurance as officials or proprietors or criminal masterminds. He was a definitive Ebeneezer Scrooge in the 1951 British movie version of “A Christmas Carol.” In his prime he was probably most cherished as a headmaster in “The Happiest Days of Your Life” and “The Belles of St. Trinian’s.”

In the latter he doubled up as pedagogical siblings, male and female. Bruce Eder, who provides the exceptionally informative commentary track on “Green for Danger,” laments the failure to revive Inspector Cockrill in subsequent movies. Other Cockrill novels were available. Evidently, one introduced a sister, Henrietta. It’s easy to share Mr. Eder’s feeling that a golden opportunity was lost when Mr. Sim failed to perform an additional sibling act with the Cockrills.

TITLE: “Green for Danger”

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1946, decades before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter, with fleeting episodes of violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Sidney Gilliat. Produced by Mr. Gilliat and Frank Launder. Screenplay by Mr. Gilliat and Claud Gurney, based on the novel by Christianna Brand.

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

TITLE: “School for Scoundrels, or How To Win Without Actually Cheating!”

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1960; adult subject matter, with fleeting sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Robert Hamer. Screenplay by Patricia Moyes and Hal E. Chester, based on a series of comic novels by Stephen Potter.

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

DVD EDITION: Lionsgate Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.lionsgate.com

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