Outwardly mild-mannered but inwardly ruthless assassin Hawkins (Alistair Sim) is lured out of retirement for a job which requires him to dispose of politician Sir Gregory Upshott (Raymond Huntley), whose pontifications in the House have made him a figure of interest for the wrong kind of people.
However, having planned Upshott’s demise to the very minute, the details of those plans are accidentally discovered by Hawkins’ fiancée Joan (Avril Angers). To make matters worse, enthusiastic salesman William Blake (George Cole) is making a nuisance of himself as he attempts to demonstrate the latest innovations in vacuum cleaner technology just as Hawkins’ assistant McKechnie (John Chandos) is putting the finishing touches to the latest deadly doohickey…
Somewhat overshadowed at the time by classic Ealing black comedy The Ladykillers, which was made the year before, The Green Man’s plot treads a similar, darkly humourous path in terms of making murder a funny old business but throws high farce into the mix, with Hawkins constantly having to think on his feet as he navigates obstacle after obstacle being thrown in the way of his diabolical scheme.
Our anti-hero’s genius lies in sending folks to their doom via craftily constructed explosive devices, as shown in a “greatest hits” montage of his previous victims being blown to kingdom come by their unwitting striking of booby-trapped objects (a gavel seals one person’s fate, a football another).
Given the threats to modern society, it’s arguable that this sequence would not sit well as part of a new release but this is certainly of its era and here it’s played in such a ridiculous way – right down to the cartoonish cloud of smoke and negligible damage to the surroundings – that any possible offence is skirted.
Alistair Sim is, of course, perfectly cast in the role of Hawkins, his visage and demeanour suggesting someone smart, kind and eager to please yet always hinting that there’s something rather different lurking under the surface. George Cole – yes, Arfur Daley, that George Cole – shows early proof of his comic chops, coping just as well with the physical gags as well as he does the odd one-liner.
If you’re really not into farce, even the deft playing in evidence here might test your patience. There’s a lot of running between locations, there’s misdirection, there’s mistaken identity, there are both people and objects which are there one minute and gone the next to exasperate and confuse our heroes and villains. You’ll either warm to the sense of fun and the mounting comic complications or you’ll be left cold at the next ludicrous plot turn.
Regardless of which side of the farce fence you find yourself, there are a couple of stand-out sequences which balance comedy and thrills perfectly – the first involves an unexpected discovery in a musical instrument, the second is much later on in the piece as Upshott is constantly on the verge of leaving the lounge of the titular hotel which has been rigged to explode while Blake and plucky, oh-so-English heroine Ann (Jill Adams) charge around attempting to locate the target.
It’s true to say that Ann isn’t exactly Black Widow in terms of a sister doing it for herself – and there is one point at which Blake wanders into her bedroom while she’s in a state of undress (all U-rated, mind, before you all start getting hot under the collar) – but at least she isn’t there to be constantly rescued. In addition, Ann takes no nonsense from her stuffy BBC announcer fiancé Reginald
Willoughby-Cruft (Colin Gordon turning the received pronunciation dial all the way up). I’ll leave you to guess whether the two of them are still planning their nuptials come the end of this one.
Yes, The Green Man is a product of its decade but it hasn’t dated nearly as badly as you might have anticipated. Some of the humour might seem a little hokey for the more sophisticated comedy palette but the gags still work in the main and the screenplay from producers Sidney Gilliat and Alex Launder – adapted from their stage play Meet A Body – keeps things fizzing along.
It’s also a notable debut for director Robert Day, although it should be noted that Gilliat and Launder themselves, plus an uncredited Basil Dearden (one of the directors of the superb anthology Dead Of Night) helmed some of the scenes due to on-set disagreements between Day and Sim, who himself had originally expressed an interest in taking on some of the directing duties himself.
Any issues behind the camera cast no shadow on the movie itself, which is a breezy, clever, confident piece veiled in the most delicate shade of black. You may even find yourself sneakily wanting Hawkins’ dastardly scheme to play out as his quarry proves himself to be a figure of somewhat questionable moral standing.
Upshott’s a droning merchant banker (that’s not rhyming slang, he really is a merchant banker) and pompous politician with designs on a much younger woman he’s taken along to the hotel. Upshott also loves the sound of his own voice, a trait of which Hawkins is fully aware and one which our friendly neighbourhood executioner will use as a means of keeping his mark in place as the timer ticks down.
And if all of the above wasn’t enough, there’s a last act appearance from the terrific Terry-Thomas, essaying another of his essential cad roles as part of the hostelry’s chorus of colourful characters which also includes a trio of female classical musicians and a dour landlord who’s a stickler for the rules and then some.
To ignore this because it’s a black and white film from the Fifties would be to miss out on one of the slickest and most expertly played dark comedies of the period, where the laughs and thrills spring from the sparkling script and proficient performances rather than an abundance of bad language and gore. Not that an abundance of bad language and gore is necessarily a bad thing but it’s refreshing to change tack sometimes and head back to simpler yet still sinister times.