Q Planes (1939)

vt Clouds Over Europe
UK / 81 minutes / bw / Harefield, Columbia Dir: Tim Whelan Pr: Irving Asher Scr: Ian Dalrymple Story: Brock Williams, Jack Whittingham, Arthur Wimperis Cine: Harry Stradling Cast: Laurence Olivier, Valerie Hobson, Ralph Richardson, George Curzon, George Merritt, Gus McNaughton, David Tree, Sandra Storme, Hay Petrie, Frank Fox, George Butler, Gordon McLeod, John Longdon, John Laurie.

Q Planes - 0 opener

Major Charles Hammond (Richardson), of some MI5-like UK intelligence department, seems to be the only person who’s disturbed by a pattern of disappearances of test airplanes in various parts of the world, always while carrying “valuable experimental apparatus.” The UK manufacturer Barrett & Ward has already lost one plane this way; now it’s planning to launch a test flight of a plane carrying a wonderful new device called the Supercharger, which apparently can allow aircraft to go at supersonic speeds . . . well, not supersonic, exactly, but if you doubled them they’d be getting close. The company’s head, Barrett (a superbly cast Merritt)—described at one point as a “parboiled, pudding-minded myopic deadhead”—is furious that Hammond has been investigating his factory, and tries to get Hammond’s boss, Air Marshal Gosport (Butler), to take him off the case.

Q Planes - 4 Intelligence boss or figure of fun (R'son)

Intelligence boss or figure of fun? Ralph Richardson as Major Hammond.

The flight is piloted by John Peters (Longdon). As the plane flies beyond Land’s End, the crew of a supposed salvage vessel, the Viking, uses a special sciencey-looking ray device to kill its radio and maim its engines, so that Peters has no choice but to make a pancake landing in the sea. The plane is craned into the Viking—whose interior and superstructure must surely have been the inspiration for all those Bond-movie baddie headquarters filled with superfluous technology and megalomaniacs with bad foreign accents—and the plane’s crew is thrown into the brig. What no one at the time realizes is that Hammond has cunningly engineered things such that the Supercharger was not in fact aboard.

Q Planes - 1 Just like a Bond villain's lair

 Just like a Bond villain’s lair!

Meanwhile, test pilot Tony McVane (Olivier) has discovered that the new server in the Barrett & Ford canteen (commissary), Kay Lawrence (Hobson), whom he fancies something rotten, is in fact the Fleet Street reporter who’s been publishing stories about the vanishing airplanes and the stupidity of a certain Major Charles Hammond in being unable to solve the case. Later he’ll find out that Kay is Hammond’s sister, which complicates matters because, immediately after Tony’s discovery of her profession, the two revile each other with such vehemence that it’s obvious they’ll end up in front of the altar together.

Q Planes - 2 B-Garrett berates Tony

Barrett (George Merritt) berates his employee Tony McVane (Laurence Olivier).

Barrett’s secrets are being sold out from under him by his “confidential clerk,” Jenkins (Curzon), to the agents of an unnamed foreign power—unnamed, but you can take a good guess because the agents speak such that you expect them at any moment to say, “Ve vas only followink orderss.” Maddeningly, the most convincing of these agents is likewise unnamed and certainly uncredited. He’s one of those great creations whose very buffoonery makes them all the more scaring. When this individual discovers the Supercharger wasn’t aboard the captured aircraft, he orders Jenkins’s death. Hammond does his best to save him, but the man is shot dead at his own apartment window as he’s drawing the curtains.

Q Planes - 3 Love begins to spark

Love begins to spark between Tony (Laurence Olivier) and Kay (Valerie Hobson).

Tony turns up soon after, and Hammond assumes he’s part of the conspiracy until it becomes all too evident he’s a straight arrow . . .

And so it goes, on and on. There are no prizes for guessing that Tony will be appointed by Barrett as the pilot to take up the next test plane, this time complete with Supercharger, and that the Viking, now moored in Merlin Bay off the Welsh coast, will bring it down, just as it did with Peters’s plane. If you haven’t worked out that Tony and his team will lead the other flightcrews they find aboard the ship in a successful insurrection you haven’t been paying attention.

Q Planes was released at an odd moment in history. Almost exactly six months later WWII would break out. At the time no one knew what genocidal horrors would be unleashed during that conflict. It’s clear the makers of this movie thought the imminent likelihood of war was something that could be safely joked about. There’s overt comedy here in the character of Hammond, the epitome of the civil servant who can’t decide which of a couple of dozen identical hats to wear. There’s more comedy in the running joke whereby each new development involves Hammond having to phone up girlfriend Daphne (Storme) to tell her he must break their latest date. (She tells him each time there’s something important he must know, but he cuts her off. It’s pretty obvious what the important something is.) And of course there’s the supposed comedy of Tony and Kay declaring loudly that each hates the other’s guts while all the time . . . well, yes.

Q Planes has a stunning cast. Aside from Hobson (I can’t remember her looking lovelier than she does here), Olivier and Richardson, there are some headlining actors even among the uncredited parts—Derek Farr (as Hammond’s aide), Ian Fleming, Sally Gray and the great Miles Malleson. What the movie manages to generate from this cast is, alas, very little. It would be easy to describe it as just yet another propaganda movie aimed at persuading the US to recognize—which of course it didn’t in 1939—that Nazism was a bad thing and should be countered. But at the time the movie was made there wasn’t much realization in the UK that such persuasion would be necessary.

Q Planes - 5 To operate a whizzo ray you need to wear silly goggles

 How can a man be expected to operate a whizzo disruptor ray if he’s not wearing silly goggles?

By the end of the movie I still had not the first idea what Q planes were actually supposed to be (planes being flown on the quiet?): the movie’s title seems to have been one of those just dreamt up somewhere. I had no idea, too, what the initial sequence was supposed to be all about: Hammond is discovered by a platoon of cops on the couch in someone else’s apartment, seemingly drunk but oh no he’s not really. I was lost on the physics of the miracle ray. At one stage Tony tries to explain it: “Marconi was working on a ray when he died. He could cut a motorcar engine at twenty-five yards. These fellows must have perfected it for long-distance.” I listened to this, and came away none the wiser.

Q Planes is not a good movie, but I think it’s one that anyone seriously interested in the development of UK cinema should perhaps take the time to watch. Even leaving that aside, it’s a surprisingly quick and easy way to spend eighty minutes.


On Amazon.com: Q Planes (Clouds Over Europe)


14 thoughts on “Q Planes (1939)

    • You’re right — at least according to IMDB. I’ve amended the text accordingly. (If I get time I’ll dig out my copy of the movie to double-check, but not right now . . .)

  1. Patrick Macnee claimed that Richardson’s character was a direct influence on his portrayal of John Steed. If you see this movie as a 1939 version of THE AVENGERS it does make a bit more sense. It’s not trying to say anything profound about the political situation of the time, it isn’t trying to dredge the depths of the human soul, it isn’t even trying to be credible SF. It’s just straightforward sock-’em, shoot-’em adventure with its tongue firmly in its cheek.

    • Many thanks for that comment. Now you mention it, I can see that line of descent very clearly — it hadn’t occurred to me before, but it seems so obvious now someone’s pointed it out.

  2. Leonard Maltin on this film, aka Clouds Over Europe: “Delightful tongue-in-cheek espionage tale, with masterminds stealing British aircraft secrets. Richardson is a joy as lighthearted inspector who cracks the case.” Of course, it’s a matter of taste, but all the humour worked for me, which is why I’ve seen this film three times already and will watch it again. But it’s refreshing to read a negative review, I suppose. Fortunately, there aren’t many. How it qualifies as noirish is beyond me, though. The lovely Valerie Hobson did make two excellent noir thrillers with Conrad Veidt and Powell & Pressburger round about the same time: Contraband aka Blackout (1940), in which, I have to say, she’s even lovelier than she is here, and The Spy in Black (1939). Both of those films are minor masterpieces, but this is also n absolutely topping British spy film with a sense of humour that i would urge anybody to see, but not as an example of noir.

    • Good to know your views, Waldo; thanks for dropping by. Alas, the humor of Richardson’r performance didn’t work for me.

      How it qualifies as noirish is beyond me, though.

      If you look carefully at the stated raison d’etre of this site (see panel at right) you’ll see that I’m quite happy to include occasional movies whose connection with noir is tenuous at best. One of those I’d consider to be The Spy in Black (1939), although it too is covered on this site. Contraband is on the list for coverage, although it may be some while.

  3. Another case of a film avoided because of low critical esteem. Just on the basis of your marvelous essay, it does indeed sound innocuous enough, even if not inspired. Of course it released in the most famous year in Hollywood history. 🙂

    • Thanks again for the friendly comments!

      low critical esteem

      As you can see, other commenters like it better than I did — which is not at all to say I dislike it! I found it great fun but with the sorts of flaws that bar it from being more than an entertaining B-movie.

      Of course it released in the most famous year in Hollywood history.

      Okay, for some reason (perhaps because it’s late and I’ve still not entirely shaken this flu off) the comment’s zinging right past me. Please explain, o mighty Obi Wan.

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