Screw your eyes up a bit and don’t ask too many questions and you can just about see the outline of the James Bond franchise in 1939’s Q Planes, a breezy mix of spycraft, flirtatiousness, tech and eccentricity, all served up with the sort of crisp British diction you’d expect from a film made mostly in Denham Studios, home of Things to Come, Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit.
Another endpoint is the 1960s spytastic TV series The Avengers. Patrick Macnee admitted that he borrowed much of the character of mysterious brolly-carrying, hat-wearing spy Major John Steed from Ralph Richardson’s portrayal of mysterious brolly-carrying hat-wearing spy Major Charles Hammond.
Hammond is introduced brilliantly in the strange opening sequence where he’s apprehended at the scene of a crime and is then taken, bewildered and not knowing his own name, for an interview with… it turns out to be himself.
Once back on his hind legs, Hammond turns out to be on the trail of an organisation making hi-tech British fighter planes disappear out of the sky. Someone wants to get hold of a revolutionary supercharger that will give the Brits an edge in the upcoming war against the Nazis.
At the secret airfield, brooding, argumentative test pilot Tony McVane (Laurence Olivier, top-billed but very much second banana to Richardson) is itching to get his hands on the new tech, that’s if bumptious manufacturer Barrett (George Merritt) will let him fly. And watching from behind the counter in the airfield cafeteria is feisty journalist Kay Hammond (Valerie Hobson), there undercover to find out why aircraft and aircrew keep going missing.
It just so happens that Kay is also the sister of Major Hammond, the sort of happenstance that makes for streamlined plotting – a bit of love interest for Tony, who eventually is eased into an alliance with the Major and into the action when the dastardly Germans (no one ever says they’re Germans but they are) strike again with their tractor beam, a far more impressive and advanced piece of kit than the supercharger (no one points that out either).
There is an attempt to explain just why Barrett, a civilian, has such a hold over the pilots of the RAF but, as with the wilder shores of 007 or The Avengers, it doesn’t pay to ask too many questions.
There is an actor in this film called Ian Fleming, not to be confused with the author of the Bond books, but one absolute connection to the 007 franchise is Jack Whittingham, who co-wrote Q Planes and would later co-write Thunderball with (the “real”) Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory, a threeway arrangement that ended up making a lot of money for lawyers in a case about copyright which echoed down the years.
But back to this movie, which is directed by Tim Whelan (skilled pilot Arthur B Woods did the flying sequences) at a screwball comedy dash. No one walks in this film when they can canter, and the dialogue pings back and forth at amazing speed. Richardson manages to be somehow both understated and yet flamboyant, Olivier is manly and dashing, Hobson girlish, forthright and playing a character at least as accomplished as the men. A foreshadowing of an Avengers’ Cathy Gale, Emma Peel or Tara King, if you like.
The mix of tech, banter, spycraft, a backward titan of British industry and a capable female also give it a contemporary freshness that makes it still very watchable all these decades later. But it was successful on its own terms and in its own time, a critical and box office hit both domestically and in the USA, where it was renamed Clouds over Europe. Watch as a fizzing double bill with Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023