10 gripping British thrillers of the 1940s

The films of post-war Britain are fascinating; Aliya picks 10 of the best British thrillers from the 1940s

The 1940s was a heck of a decade for the British. We started it at war with Nazi Germany, with the threat of IRA collaboration with the enemy looming large. By the end of it we had seen Independence achieved by India, lived through strikes and rationing, and held the fourteenth Olympic Games in London at a time of great austerity. The welfare state was under formation, and in the space of ten years we had become a very different country.

The British film industry reflected those changes, particularly in the thrillers that were made. The lines between good and evil, safety and danger, were the stuff of entertainment that tapped into the concerns of the public. It was a period of vivid, ambitious, and surprising films. Here are ten, in chronological order, that were made for an audience who were living through momentous times. There’s no better way to imagine yourself in their shoes than to watch what they watched.

1. Gaslight (1940)

We’re lucky to be able to revisit this British version of the stage play at all. In 1944 George Cukor released an American version with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, and the rumour is that MGM sought to suppress and even destroy this 1940 film. Perhaps they were afraid of comparisons between Boyer’s performance and Anton Walbrook. Walbrook was a mesmerizing Austrian-born actor who left his homeland in 1937 to live in the UK. Right at the end of the film there’s one of the best close-ups in cinema history as he realises he is awaiting a horrible fate of his own making. Walbrook was a great actor.

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Gaslight is claustrophobic, and paranoiac, and downright nasty. A young woman marries an older man, and they move into a house that contains secrets of the past. Objects appear and disappear, the lamps flicker, and the young woman starts to suspect that she is going insane. As she descends into madness, she falls further and further under the spell of her husband, who is not as supportive as he seems…

2. Night Train to Munich (1940)

Carol Reed directed this crowd-pleasing adventure. It has a lot in common with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, with Margaret Lockwood playing the lead in both films, and the cricket-obsessed duo of Charters and Caldicott making appearances. But Night Train to Munich has the added bonus of Rex Harrison as Dickie Randall, a laid-back Intelligence Officer who composes seaside songs and thinks nothing of impersonating a member of the SS with stylish insouciance.

The film has some great set pieces. Let’s just say that Where Eagles Dare is not the only war film that realised the thrilling potential of mountainous cable car rides.

3. The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

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Marius Goring stars as the reluctant Lord Lebanon, commanded by his mother to marry her secretary and produce lots of little Lord Lebanons. They all live in a very spooky castle where things go bump in the night. There are double crosses, betrayals, and lots of twists and turns to a verbose script before all hell breaks loose and the police investigation leads to secret passages and nefarious motives.

It’s a very slow start to this mystery, but luckily Marius Goring is lots of fun. He’s cheerfully keen on composing piano music and relating tales of the murderous instincts of his staff and his time in India. Goring was a theatre actor first and foremost, and there’s always a touch of the theatrical in his film appearances, but in an enjoyable way. He’s the main reason to see this movie, but there are also some great thrill moments at the end, where the piano music swells and the shadow of the murderer falls against the walls of the creepy old castle. Chilling.

4. Pimpernel Smith (1941)

The British Film Yearbook of 1945 claimed that Leslie Howard’s films were one of the most valuable facets of British propaganda. He updated his famous role as the Scarlet Pimpernel for his 1941 turn as Pimpernel Smith, an archaeology professor who secretly rescues inmates of concentration camps. Howard produced, directed and starred in the film, and it is very funny, and very moving.

Pimpernel Smith has a great denouement, filled with smoke and shadows, where Howard gives a stirring speech about why the war will lead to the moral destruction and eventual defeat of Germany. In difficult times that were only going to get worse, you can see how British cinema played such an important part in bolstering morale. Howard gave people more than entertainment. He gave them courage.

5. The Echo Murders (1945)

If I asked you to name a fictional detective with great intellectual powers who lived at a Baker Street address in London, chances are you wouldn’t name Sexton Blake. But Blake was a hugely popular literary character in Britain from the turn of the century until as late as the 1970s. Yes, he was a rip-off of Sherlock Holmes, but with more fisticuffs and sexiness. His popularity endured, and he was played by David Farrar in this filmic incarnation where he solves a murder at a Cornish tin-mine.

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The Echo Murders looks cheap and tired, but then, it’s a B film made at the very end of World War II. The plot doesn’t make much sense. But it contains a fascinating detective who changed with the times. There were books, TV and Radio serials, comic strips and numerous films of Sexton Blake’s adventures. As a true Geek aside, fantasy writer Michael Moorcock worked on the novels and based one of his characters on an arch-enemy of Blake’s – Zenith the Albino had white skin and crimson eyes, and was the inspiration for Elric of Melnibone.

6. I See A Dark Stranger (1946)

This is a really interesting film. It’s a thriller with comic elements, and the main character hates the English. She’s Bridie Quilty (Deborah Kerr), a young woman from a rural Irish village who decides to join the IRA. But she ends up working for the Nazis without her knowledge, and the viewer is placed in the strange position of hating what Bridie does, but wanting her to defeat those who are using her. She’s a great character, and she leads her bemused love interest (played with charm by Trevor Howard) on a merry chase across Britain.

Katie Johnson makes a quick and entertaining appearance in this film. You’ll know her when you see her; she was Mrs Wilberforce in The Ladykillers. In that film, and in this one, she appears in the credits only as ‘The Old Lady’. She also appears briefly in another film on this list – Gaslight. She was a theatre actress who only made a handful of films later in life. But they were good ones.

7. Odd Man Out (1947)

Another Carol Reed film, and this one shares something in common with I See A Dark Stranger in having an IRA terrorist as the protagonist. James Mason (at the height of his popularity in the UK before making the move to the US) plays Johnny McQueen, an escapee from prison with plans to rob a mill in order to fund his fight against the English. But the robbery goes wrong, and Johnny is wounded. He wanders through the streets of an unnamed city in Northern Ireland, looking for help, finding it in unlikely places.

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There are dream sequences and strange effects as Johnny’s grip on reality lessens. It’s a story of redemption, and it places you firmly in the shoes of the main character. Mason gives a moving performance even though his Irish accent isn’t always convincing. William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who) is great – he makes an appearance as a hard-nosed publican. Everything builds to a very beautiful final scene that shows just what an amazing director Carol Reed was.

8. The Upturned Glass (1947)

James Mason wanted to make a film about the private lives of the Brontes with the title The Upturned Glass but got beaten to it by Warner Brothers (they called their 1946 version Devotion). So instead he took the title and asked his wife at the time, Pamela Kellino, to write a totally different film for them both to star in. The result was this very tense and surprising psychological thriller that plays with time and perspective.

Michael Joyce (Mason) is a celebrated surgeon who is giving a lecture to a group of students. He relates a tale to them, on the subject of criminal psychology, of a perfectly sane man who commits murder. The plot has echoes of Rebecca and Brief Encounter, but if you’re going to be influenced by other films those two are good choices. A romantic melodrama turns into a psychoanalytical mystery, and Mason – dry, controlled, lonely, tragic, and terrifying all at the same time – is brilliant throughout.

9. Brighton Rock (1947)

Graham Greene’s novel of Catholic guilt in a small-time gangster becomes film noir in this version of Brighton Rock. Brighton looks seedy and rainswept, and drink, sex and violence pervades the pubs and the pier. Stalking through it all is Pinkie Brown, a seventeen year old with sharp cheekbones and a suit to match, and with quick, desperate eyes. Richard Attenborough is exceptionally good as Pinkie, particularly in the scenes where he tries to make sense of Rose, the innocent waitress who loves him even though she knows he’s a murderer. William Hartnell is in this too, and gives a real authority to his role as Pinkie’s second-in-command.

Like many Greene novels, there’s a strong sense of retribution to this story. The smallest betrayals have profound effects, and come back to haunt us. And so, for all the crimes Pinkie has committed, it’s the one where he admits his real feelings about Rose on a gramophone record that becomes the focus of the action, and provides one of the most bittersweet endings in film.

10. The Third Man (1949)

Yes, even more Carol Reed, this time with a film that’s regularly voted one of the greatest ever made, and there’s a good reason for that. Everything about The Third Man has become iconic. From Orson Welles’ upturned face in the sudden light from a window, to the music by Anton Karas, with a trip around a famous Ferris wheel and a speech about cuckoo clocks to boot, it sums up something about the British sensibility to war. Harry Lime profited from it, Major Calloway (played with an expert weariness by Trevor Howard) attempts to control the effects of it, and Vienna itself is a character, destroyed by war, a corpse of a city crawling with the ants that Orson Welles describes in his famous speech.

But there’s also humour of the darkest kind in The Third Man. It’s an easy film to get caught up in. There’s a murder mystery that deepens, and a kind of a love story. Graham Greene created a playful screenplay that leads down into the darkest parts of our souls – literally into the sewers of humanity.

The Third Man ends a decade in which we tried to come to terms with the nature of war, and the cost of it. The thrillers of the time started off by using the threats of Nazism and the IRA to keep us on the edge of our seats, and ended up dealing with the question of whether the real evil is inside us. Perhaps that change is to be expected in a society that had been through so much, but it’s interesting that even in the escapist arena of the movies, at a time when such escapism was sorely needed, some deep and true questions come to the surface.

It’s no different throughout the history of film. We need a villain to hate, someone to represent the worst of the world. Sometimes that villain comes from a culture that we’re at war with, physically or ideologically. But sometimes, in the most challenging films, that villain looks no different from us. It is us.

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