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Kino on Video presents
Contraband (Blackout) (1940)

"I have had enough trouble because of you, and I feel I will have more."
- Captain Andersen (Conrad Veidt)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer   
Published: March 22, 2001

Stars: Conrad Veidt, Valerie Hobson
Other Stars: Joss Ambler, Raymond Lovell, Esmond Knight, Harold Warrender, Eric Maturin, Mark Daly, Olga Edwardes, Eric Hales, John Longden, Hay Petrie, Charles Victor
Director: Michael Powell

Manufacturer: L&M
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:27m:45s
Release Date: April 24, 2001
UPC: 738329021122
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-BB D-

DVD Review

Director/writer pair Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Tales Of Hoffmann, I Know Where I'm Going, Black Narcissus) team up for an unusual spy thriller with 1940's Contraband. Reuniting stars Conrad Veidt (Casablanca) and Valerie Hobson (Great Expectations) who starred the previous year in their The Spy In Black, Powell and Pressburger manage to weave a story of intrigue and deception with a decidedly comedic tone to it. Released in the US as Blackout (8 minutes shorter than this version) the film uses the darkened streets of war time London as a setting for its journey into the underground world of international espionage.

It is November, 1939, the second World War has just broken out two months prior. With the threat of German air attacks ever present, the cities are under a nightly blackout order. Allied naval checkpoints routinely detain and search vessels bound into Europe's harbors for contraband, as both sides make use of ships from neutral countries to smuggle in supplies for their war efforts. The seaside resort town of Eastport-On-Side has been transformed into the naval Contraband Control center.

Conrad Veidt stars as Captain Andersen, helming the Dutch freighter Helvig, loaded with passengers and cargo bound for Denmark. The captain takes his job seriously, and even reprimands one of his passengers, Mrs. Sorensen (Valerie Hobson), for not wearing her life jacket, threatening irons if she doesn't comply. After a brief and token gesture of defiance by the captain, the British navy comes on board to inspect her manifest and the wayfarers on board. The encounter is thorough but casual, and with her papers in order, the only thing remaining before the Helvig can resume sailing is clearance from high command, which won't come through until the next morning. The British Commanders (Joss Ambler and Harold Warrender), invite Andersen and his first mate Axel Skold (Hay Petrie), who has a brother in London, to come ashore for dinner, and issues them landing passes for the excursion. When the passes go missing and a search of the ship reveals that Mrs. Sorensen and another passenger (Esmond Knight as Mr. Pidgeon) are missing and presumed headed for London, Andersen and Skold head ashore covertly, to recover the absent travelers under his watch. Intercepting his escapees doesn't prove difficult, though Mr. Pidgeon manages to disappear into the blackout, leaving Sorensen under close surveillance by the captain. The two end up at the restaurant owned by Skold's brother (also played by Hay Petrie), but as the night progresses he and his quarry are drawn into the dark side of the war effort when they are captured by Nazi intelligence, and must use all their wits and resources to escape.

The dark atmosphere of wartime London were captured by cinematographer Freddie Young, who would go on to win Oscars¨ for his work on three consecutive David Lean pictures (Lawrence Of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter). What makes the film unique is that Powell uses the confusion and blackout conditions as a tool for his characters to move around in, and the blackout regulations are pivotal to several sequences in the script. Although the film is being marketed as noir with comparisons to Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, this sets the wrong expectations for the work. Contraband is clever, humorous, and considering the time it was produced and its setting, a daring work for making light of a very dark time in British history. While the performances are not necessarily riveting, the story is briskly paced, and surprises wait around every corner. A very decent early work from one of Britain's prize production teams, though you will note the lack of the trademark Archer bullseye from the front of the picture.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full frame black and white transfer looks very good in general, with decent tonal range, contrast and detail, though it does look zoomed in on slightly, and shifted to the left from the opening credits. Aliasing or other interference problems are limited to extremely fine detail like tweed jackets. Black level is inconsistent, usually passable, though rarely deep, with some shots lacking dark tones in their entirety, although this is infrequent. Whites occasionally get blown out, though this too is limited. There is a fair amount of dirt and dust at times, and the odd frame damage here and there. Fine grain is present, though well rendered. Despite these defects, not uncommon for a 60 year old film, the transfer is more than acceptable.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Mono audio is fairly well rendered, with occasional hiss and a little distortion, though these are source issues. Dialogue is clear and easily discernable, with only the rare dropout at edit points. Frequency range is limited as expected for a film of this age.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Packaging: other
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: There is no contraband in the way of extras on this DVD. Only a single insert slip duplicating the cover is provided, which should be passable as long as it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

The packaging is one of the more usable keep case variations.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Using a mandated stopover in a British port as the setup for their story of wartime London, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger deliver a satisfying, though not quite exceptional piece of work with Contraband. The film is highly watchable and thoroughly enjoyable, with wonderful cinematography, and intriguing plot and interesting characters. However, the chemistry between the leads falls just short of clicking, and the degree of humor may distract hard core noir fans. Still, the presentation here is very good, and the film is certainly worth a rental for those who enjoy the spy genre, and a must for Archer fans.


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