UK 1940, 91 mins
Director: Michael Powell

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s second collaboration neatly captures the darkness and disorientation (both literal and metaphorical) of London during the early stages of the war, while also explaining the importance and working methods of the British contraband controls. Although made as a propaganda piece with the support of the Ministry of Information, Contraband never sacrifices storytelling to dry and instructional factual detail.

Instead, the film falls more obviously into the genre of the comedy spy-thriller, of which Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) are prime examples. The attraction between the stubborn but charming Captain Andersen (Conrad Veidt) and the feisty Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) is sophisticatedly handled as the pair fall into various tricky situations throughout the course of the film. Touches such as Hobson’s cigarettes, which carry a coded message, and the ‘Patriotic Plaster Products’ busts of Chamberlain (‘They always said he was tough,’ comments Veidt as he uses one to knock out the German spy) all add a sense of playfulness despite the film’s serious purpose.

Although the distinctive joint credit, ‘Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’, was yet to be created (this would happen with 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), Contraband features several members of the Archers production team that Powell and Pressburger would form in 1942. John Seabourne would edit four more Powell and Pressburger pictures before the end of the war, and production designer Alfred Jünge relished the opportunity to create dazzling cabaret club sets on a fraction of the budget he was given for E.A Dupont’s classic silent films Moulin Rouge (1928) and Piccadilly (1929). Actors Esmond Knight, Raymond Lovell and Hay Petrie provide sturdy and memorable support and would all go on to work with Powell and Pressburger again.

Contraband also sees a reprisal of the sparkling chemistry between Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, following their successful pairing in 1939’s The Spy in Black. In both films, Pressburger created roles for Veidt that allowed him to escape the stereotyping that often plagued German actors in British films, particularly during this period. Veidt was grateful for the opportunity to move away from the image of the dour and menacing German, and is as appealing as Contraband’s Danish captain as he was as an honourable U-boat commander in The Spy in Black.
Nathalie Morris, BFI Screenonline

A contemporary review
This exciting story is dramatically put over and excellently directed. The comparison between the British and German methods of dealing with neutrals is not too heavily stressed and is all the more convincing as a result. Conrad Veidt, as the resourceful, courageous, captain gives a brilliant performance, while Valerie Hobson not only looks charming but acts extremely well as Mrs Sorensen. Hay Petrie, who plays two parts, provides some excellent comic relief.
Monthly Film Bulletin, April 1940

Directed by: Michael Powell
Production Company: British National Films
Produced by: John Corfield
Associate Producer: Roland Gillett
Production Management: Anthony Nelson Keys
Assistant Director: William Reidy *
Original Story & Screen Play by: Emeric Pressburger
Scenario by: Michael Powell, Brock Williams
Director of Photography: F.A. Young
Camera Operator: Skeets Kelly *
Editing: John Seabourne
Settings: Alfred Jünge
Music Composed by: Richard Addinsel
[Music] Directed by: Muir Mathieson
‘White Negro’ Cabaret Designed/Executed by: Hedley Briggs
Recording: C.C. Stevens
Sound Assistant: John W. Mitchell *

Conrad Veidt (Captain Andersen)
Valerie Hobson (Mrs Sørensen)
Hay Petrie (Axel Skold, mate of S.S. ‘Helvig’)
Hay Petrie (Erik Skold, chef of ‘Three Vikings’)
Esmond Knight (Mr Pidgeon)
Raymond Lovell (Van Dyne)
Charles Victor (Hendrick)
Henry Wolston (1st Danish waiter)
Julian Vedey (2nd Danish waiter)
Sydney Monckton (3rd Danish waiter)
Hamilton Keen (4th Danish waiter)
Phoebe Kershaw (Miss Lang)
Leo Genn (1st Brother Grimm)
Stuart Latham (2nd Brother Grimm)
Peter Bull (3rd Brother Grimm)
Dennis Arundell (Lieman)
Harold Warrender (Lieutenant-Commander A.C. Ellis, R.N.)
Joss Ambler (Lieutenant-Commander Ashton, R.N.R.)
Molly Hamley Clifford (Baroness Hekla)
Eric Berry (Mr Abo, professor of Finnish)
Olga Edwardes (Mrs Abo)
Tony Gable (Miss Karoly)
Desmond Jeans (1st Karoly)
Eric Hales (2nd Karoly)
John Roberts (Hanson)
Manning Whiley (manager of ‘Mouse Trap’)
Eric Maturin (1st passport officer)
John Longden (2nd passport officer)
Paddy Browne (singer in ‘Regency’)
Nicholas Phipps (man in car offering lift) *
Torin Thatcher (sailor) *
Esma Cannon (restaurant assistant) *
Bernard Miles (man lighting pipe in blackout) *
Mark Daly (taxi driver) *
Michael Shepley (boisterous man in ‘Mouse Trap’) *
Cameron Hall *

UK 1940
91 mins

A BFI National Archive print


The screening on Mon 23 Oct will be introduced by Miranda Gower-Qian, BFI Inclusion Lead

Rynox + Hotel Splendide
Mon 16 Oct 18:10; Fri 10 Nov 18:10
A Matter of Life and Death
Mon 16 Oct 20:45 (+ intro by Thelma Schoonmaker and Kevin Macdonald); Sun 29 Oct 12:10; Sat 4 Nov 15:00; Tue 7 Nov 18:10 (+ intro by academic Lucy Bolton); Sun 19 Nov 18:30
Farewell (Abschied)
Tue 17 Oct 18:40 (+ intro by filmmaker Kevin Macdonald); Wed 1 Nov 20:40
His Lordship
Tue 17 Oct 20:50; Sat 4 Nov 12:20
The Fire Raisers
Wed 18 Oct 18:40; Sat 11 Nov 12:30
Black Narcissus
Wed 18 Oct 20:50; Sun 22 Oct 18:30; Wed 8 Nov 18:15; Sun 12 Nov 18:50; Thu 16 Nov 20:50; Sat 18 Nov 20:50; Mon 20 Nov 20:45 (+ intro by author Mahesh Rao)
The Edge of the World + Return to the Edge of the World
Fri 20 Oct 18:20; Wed 8 Nov 20:30; Wed 15 Nov 20:50
The Thief of Bagdad: An Arabian Fantasy in Technicolor (aka The Thief of Bagdad)
Fri 20 Oct 20:30; Tue 24 Oct 14:40; Sat 28 Oct 15:00; Sun 26 Nov 12:00
The Spy in Black + Smith
Sat 21 Oct 15:30; Sun 29 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
The Boy Who Turned Yellow + Heavenly Puss
Sun 22 Oct 12:00
49th Parallel
Sun 22 Oct 12:20; Mon 6 Nov 20:30
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing!
Sun 22 Oct 15:10; Tue 31 Oct 20:40 (+ intro by film historian Ian Christie)
Mon 23 Oct 17:50 (+ intro by Miranda Gower-Qian, BFI Inclusion Lead); Mon 30 Oct 20:30
Red Ensign + The Night of the Party
Tue 24 Oct 20:30; Sun 5 Nov 14:40
A Canterbury Tale
Wed 25 Oct 20:20 (+ intro by academic Thirza Wakefield); Sat 11 Nov 14:50; Fri 24 Nov 20:35
Library Talk: The interior life of an archive: an evening with the Michael Powell Collection
Mon 27 Nov 18:00
The Elusive Pimpernel
Sat 28 Oct 12:20; Mon 13 Nov 18:00 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
Gone to Earth
Sat 28 Oct 18:20; Wed 22 Nov 20:45; Sat 25 Nov 17:50
Silent Cinema: The Magician + The Riviera Revels + intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator
Sun 29 Oct 15:00
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Sun 29 Oct 17:20 (+ intro by Kevin and Andrew Macdonald); Sun 5 Nov 17:45; Thu 23 Nov 17:45; Sun 26 Nov 14:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by Stephen Fry)
Paths to Partnership: Powell + Pressburger before The Archers
Tue 31 Oct 18:30
Projecting the Archive: The Queen’s Guards + intro by Josephine Botting, BFI National Archive Curator
Thu 2 Nov 18:20
Twice upon a Time
Mon 6 Nov 18:10 + extended intro by James Bell, BFI National Archive Senior Curator
Talk: Philosophical Screens: A Matter of Life and Death
Tue 7 Nov 20:20
Talk: Centre Stage: The Leading Women of Powell + Pressburger
Thu 16 Nov 18:20
Ill Met by Moonlight
Fri 17 Nov 20:40; Sat 25 Nov 12:40
The Battle of the River Plate
Sat 18 Nov 18:20; Mon 27 Nov 20:30
Behold a Pale Horse
Sun 19 Nov 11:50 Wed 22 Nov 17:50
The Wild Heart
Sun 19 Nov 15:10
Miracle in Soho
Mon 20 Nov 18:10; Sun 26 Nov 18:30

Course: The Magic of Powell + Pressburger
Wed 25 Oct to Wed 22 Nov 18:30

With thanks to

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email