Monday, July 23, 2018

Q Planes (a.k.a. Clouds Over Europe) (1939)

Directed by Tim Whelan; produced by Irving Asher

The newest aeroplanes with the latest equipment are disappearing all over the world. They vanish mysteriously and without a trace. On the case is Major Hammond (Ralph Richardson), an eccentric Secret Service operator, aided by test-pilot Tony McVane (Laurence Olivier) and abetted by his own sister, Kay (Valerie Hobson). Sorting through the clues, the corpses and the cops, the three find danger, romance and humour - not necessarily in that order.

The 1920s and ‘30s were the golden age of detective fiction, and not just in books. The pages in Punch magazine from those decades are filled with reviews of crime capers in print, on stage and on the big screen - though they seemed to switch to movies only after sound allowed complex dialogue. Q Planes may seem to be a spoof of the genre, but it fits very neatly within it, since the category encompassed both dark and light stories. Indeed, humour and levity were qualities often found in detective stories of the era, and that includes spy tales. Q Planes definitely takes the fun road.

The script is good, keeping away from anything too serious, except when Olivier talks about the missing air crews and their families, and a couple of references to the World War are sombre (Olivier compares waiting to fly on a dangerous mission to “going over the top” in the trenches of the the Western Front). For the most part, the dialogue is snappy and clever, veering hazardously close to self-parody (as when John Laurie, as an harassed newspaper editor, demands, “Less enthusiasm, please - this is Britain!”) but never reaching that point.

The real assets to the movie are the actors, especially Richardson. His breezy, happy-go-lucky yet dedicated character could easily have been the centre of a movie series, had not Richardson been fully occupied in other media. His eccentricity too could have fallen into caricature, but it never does, due to the seriousness that we see underneath the light-heartedness. While making what must be a thoroughly inedible stew, he continues to be obsessed with the missing aeroplanes; searching a wardrobe of identical hats and uniform umbrellas for just the right pair, only to choose the ones he is already using, suggests a man compulsive about his clothes, but no less realistic than Columbo and his raincoat. (There was an episode in which Mrs Columbo bought her husband a new coat; the result was not good for the case.)

Richardson has always given the impression, especially in his comedic roles, that he is thoroughly enjoying himself, and it is no different here. Olivier goes along happily, alternately moody and cheerful, as might be the case with a man who is falling in love with a girl he may not actually like. Hobson is annoying at times but without regret: she too has a job to do with regard to the missing aircraft, and resents any attempt by her brother to keep her out of it. The supporting players are mostly non-entities, except for Barrett (George Merritt), the aircraft manufacturer, whose delivery of lines suggests a heart attack is in his near future.

The plot itself is simple, and pretty much straight out of Bulldog Drummond, involving sinister foreign powers, secret weapons and an actionful and surprisingly violent climax. But the story is subsidiary to the characters, their fast-paced talk and the entertainment they give. Q Planes is a superior example of what must have been common fare at one time: a satisfying crime adventure, with plenty of fun.


  1. According to Wikipedia, there's an interesting backstory to this film:

    According to one film historian, the plot—and budget—were inspired by true events. In 1938, a revolutionary bomber, the Vickers Wellesley bomber prototype, which used the geodesic construction invented by Barnes Wallis, disappeared over the English Channel during a test flight. "The Air Ministry asked Lord Vansittart of Denham, chief of the British secret service, to initiate a search for the lost aircraft", wrote Richard Edwards on his film blog. "Part of the Wellesley's wreckage was supposedly found in a garage in Kiel and it was suggested that the ill-fated plane had been shot down by a German U-boat."

    The British secret service were so sure of this, that they partially funded this film to let the Luftwaffe know they had figured it out. Lord Vansittart was, after all, a friend of executive producer Alexander Korda. After searching and finding pieces of the missing prototype, Vansittart asked Korda to make this film and made Secret Service funds available to help him do so."

    1. I had no idea about that. It’s been noted many times before that fact is stranger than fiction. I recall thinking that after reading that the movie “The Duellists” was based on a true story, though the ending was changed, probably because no one would have believed the real story’s conclusion!