Dangerous Moonlight (1941). Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Starring Anton Walbrook, Sally Gray and Derrick De Marney.
This tale of a shell-shocked amnesiac Polish bomber pilot and ace classical pianist might hang its hat on a particularly melodramatic framing narrative but within that it spins a pretty interesting tale, asking some pretty pertinent questions about the nature and role of the artist in warfare.
Through Stefan Radetzky’s (Walbrook) wartime journey – from the desolate ruins of his beloved, bombed out, defeated Warsaw to the sheer propaganda of his American concert tour and his love affair with war correspondent Carole Peters (Gray) – the screenplay explores the myriad facets of a man during armed conflict. What matters more in a time of war – the power to move large numbers of people with the power of art, personal romantic love or grand patriotic love?
Walbrook puts in a fascinating performance (although he rated it as his least favourite role) and with his febrile intensity and quick temper he vividly portrays a man of deep and complex emotions struggling to orient himself in the upside down world of Europe at war with Nazi Germany. Being a pretty handy amateur pianist himself, he brings a sense of realism to the piano-playing scenes (although the performed soundtrack is not his work) and there are some cracking aerial dogfight scenes which bristle with a sense of truthfulness and tension.
The three faces of his own personality drive him in different directions, tormenting him somewhat as he battles to control them. The message of the piece in the end is that patriotic fervour and desire for freedom may trump all other emotions during such dark times but that art and love are all that can help to heal those affected by the crushing fist of oppressive warfare.
I am not entirely blind to some of the problems the narrative has – Derrick de Marney’s “Oh Begorrah” Irish pilot is lacking in nuance and in order to set up the decision-making moments for Radetzky his love interest has to act like an utterly self obsessed psychopath with no real awareness of her husband’s mental state at times.
However, I am willing to forgive those to an extent because of the very grown up way in which the screenplay deals with the wider themes and tensions at work – effectively making a film about whether art itself is a redundant approach to the issue of war.