Alastair Sim stars in a tale of spies and scares in wartime Scotland
vt Bombsight Stolen
UK / 86 minutes / bw / Gainsborough, Gaumont, BPC Dir: Anthony Asquith Pr: Edward Black Scr: A. de Grunwald, J.O.C. Orton Story: Cottage to Let (1939 play) by Geoffrey Kerr Cine: Jack Cox Cast: Leslie Banks, Jeanne De Casalis, Carla Lehman (i.e., Carla Lehmann), Alastair Sim, John Mills, George Cole, Michael Wilding, Frank Cellier, Muriel Aked, Wally Patch, Muriel George, Hay Petrie, Catherine Lacey.
A somewhat lightweight spy mystery based on a play written before the full horrors were known of what was going on in Europe; it was first staged at Wyndham’s Theatre in London in 1939–40, when opinion on the war’s wisdom was still (just) up for debate in the UK. Another sign of the piece’s date is that, in the screen adaptation, a central character even pronounces the term “Nazis” incorrectly, as “Nazzies” rather than “Natzies.”
Somewhere in Tayside, Scotland, Mrs. Barrington (De Casalis) of the big house is letting out one of the estate’s cottages; the only trouble is that, in typically scatterbrained fashion, she’s agreed to rent it to more than one tenant. Miss Fernery (Aked) is expecting to billet some evacuee children from London in it; Dr. Truscott (Petrie) is expecting to use it as an emergency hospital; while the eccentric Charles Dimble (Sim) is expecting to make it a temporary home. The latter tries to remind his new landlady of this in an exchange that has “stage play” written all over it:
Dimble: “I’m Dimble.”
Mrs. Barrington: “Oh, are you? I’m so sorry.”
Dimble (Alastair Sim) exercises his native charms on Mrs. Barrington (Jeanne De Casalis).
She airily offers a compromise: Dimble can have a room in the cottage, Truscott can have the rest of it for his patients, and she’ll put up one of the evacuees, the boy Ronald (Cole), at the main house. Just then the first casualty arrives for treatment: an RAF officer, Flight-Lieutenant George Perry (Mills), who had to bail out over Loch Tay and was almost drowned.
Almost immediately we realize there’s more to Perry than meets the eye, although it’s difficult to know what his game is. Is he perhaps a secret serviceman, here to keep an eye on Mrs. Barrington’s husband John (Banks), a celebrated inventor of military gadgets that are invaluable to the war effort? Certainly there’s concern that details of some of the gadgets are somehow leaking to the Germans.
Once up at the main house, Ronald is warned to keep away from John’s laboratory, so of course that’s the first place he goes. Once he and John have introduced themselves to each other, they get on like a house on fire, especially since Ronald has alerted the inventor to the fact that his beefy butler Evans (Patch) isn’t a butler at all but a cop. Meanwhile John’s assistant, Alan Trently (Wilding), is suffering the miseries of jealousy because John’s daughter Helen (Lehmann), with whom Alan is much in love, is spending most of her time doing nursing duty for the recuperating Perry in the (literally) cottage hospital; are they conceivably becoming too close?
John Barrington (Leslie Banks) explains aerodynamics to Ronald (George Cole).
Charles Dimble (Alastair Sim) and Alan Trently (Michael Wilding) compare notes.
Helen (Carla Lehmann) seems responsive to the blandishments of Perry (John Mills).
The standards of care at the hospital seem to be rudimentary at best—”Your supper ought to be ready, if Betty’s found a tin-opener,” says Helen to Perry at one point—which is maybe why he has his arm strapped to his chest for what seems an unconscionable amount of time.
There is, of course, a nest of German spies in the area, operating out of Glasgow, and eventually they seize John Barrington in hopes of smuggling him out of the country and forcing him to do the Nazis’ bidding . . .
John (Leslie Banks) bears up defiantly in captivity.
Humor and suspense can be difficult bedfellows to reconcile, and that proves to be the case here. After Perry has been rescued from the loch, there’s a long, supposedly comic second scene outside the cottage as it becomes clear how Mrs. Barrington through her irresponsibility has completely muddled the letting of the place. We’re introduced to Truscott, to Ronald and to Dimble. In theory we should be rolling in the aisles; in practice, because the feckless Mrs. Barrington is such a rebarbative piece of work—”Happiness is the one thing I insist on,” breezily trilled, serves as her watchword—we’re grinding our teeth in irritation where we should be laughing.
Perry (John Mills) finds Ronald (George Cole) as maddening as just about everyone else does.
Cole, as Ronald, does a little better in this respect, although he was a child actor whose appeal never became obvious to me (he’d made the role his own in the stage version of Kerr’s play), but the only person who’s really capable of marrying the two styles of the movie, gliding easily from one to the other and back again, is, as one would expect, Sim. When his true nature is finally revealed and the steel shows through the quirky exterior, one can see for sure how much one wouldn’t want to make an enemy of Charles Dimble.
Alastair Sim as Charles Dimble.
As for the rest of the cast, most of them aren’t really given enough to do. Mills, Banks and Petrie, three very different actors but all fine when given something to work with, are simply wasted. Lehmann’s role demands merely that she be pretty and desirable, which of course she most certainly was, while Wilding’s character is through no fault of the actor’s so anonymous that it’s entirely possible to forget that he’s here at all.
Carla Lehmann as La Belle Helen.
If it weren’t for the presence of Sim, one could ignore Cottage to Let, but somehow he manages to have the effect of holding everything together, thereby turning what would otherwise be no more than a mediocre movie into something that, even though still somewhat mediocre, is well worth watching—although maybe not more than once.
This is a contribution to Rich Westlake’s 1941 roundup at his Past Offences site.
On Amazon.com: Cottage to Let