Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Q Planes (Tim Whelan, 1939)


Tim Whelan’s Q Planes makes for fun viewing, especially perhaps for the retrospective hints of a Bond-like franchise in formation, with Ralph Richardson’s secret service agent Hammond quipping his way through fraught situations, battling a foreign power equipped with cutting-edge technology in the service of malign dreams of dominance. Pursuing a theory about a series of recent supposedly unconnected accidents, Hammond embeds himself inside a airplane manufacturer, soon crossing paths with test pilot McVane (Laurence Olivier, a mostly workmanlike presence here) who shares his suspicions; the next test flight promptly goes missing, and we see it brought down by a device located on a nondescript-looking industrial ship, which scoops up the plane and imprisons the crew. The scheming foreign power isn’t specifically identified, but audiences of the time would obviously have had little problem filling in the blank; the film focuses just as much on treachery from within though, suggesting an environment of multi-faceted, destabilizing threat. The country’s best safeguard against this, it implicitly posits, is to put one’s trust in the grand old establishment: the film is fairly drenched in class-based privilege, with Hammond and his journalist sister (Valerie Hobson), who also sneaks her way into the plant in pursuit of a story (and of course soon has a thing going with McVane) scything their way through the world with an innate moneyed confidence, exhibiting the unwavering good humour of those for whom things always work out (Olivier’s McVane by comparison often seethes with resentment, feeling himself hard done by, exhibiting few of the same social skills). A running gag has Hammond continually phoning a woman to postpone his latest date with her, often when she’s virtually out the door already, never letting her get a word in; like other aspects of the film, it would fall flat if not for Richardson’s superb force-of-nature timing.

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