"PIMPERNEL" SMITH

(1941, Dir. Leslie Howard)

Olive Films Blu-ray $29.95, DVD $24.95
8121 min. / B&W / 1.37:1 / Subtitles

Early 1939, war clouds are gathering, and the Nazis are stymied by a mysterious, whistling figure who swoops out of the dark and spirits away their political prisoners in the heart of Berlin. Corpulent General Von Graum is dedicated to unmasking the culprit, and he begins to suspect – and sets a devilish trap for – the mild-mannered, rather pathetic British archeologist in the country on a visa with his students to search for rare Aryan artifacts. Professor Horatio Smith is indeed a modern-day Scarlet Pimpernel, and to avoid exposure he has to set his most elaborate plot yet into motion, a plot that will send him inside the recesses of the Gestapo itself.

A film too often dismissed as merely a patriotic Union Jack waver for the Brits during the dark years of the war, but in truth it’s a marvelously entertaining motion picture, a real delight and surprise. Howard – reviving and updating his Pimpernel character of a decade earlier – produced and directed the film, and did a wonderful job. Oh, it’s no Foreign Correspondent or The 39 Steps, but even with its leisurely 2-running time it maintains a high degree of suspense and never drags, not least of all because Prof. Smith seems to be a direct forebear of Indiana Jones. Howard is terrific in the picture, and allows himself to have some fun, including blustering his way (in disguise) into Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, a scene that – unlike the great To Be or Not To Be – never allows the Nazis to be portrayed as buffoons (just not nearly as smart as they think they are). Mary Morris is a sensation as the young woman so intent on freeing her father that she’s willing to betray the Pimpernel – and in fact, does so, the cute li’l stinker. Many twists and turns in the plot, and a gripping final face-to-face between Smith and Von Graum (well-played by Francis Sullivan (whom we all remember as Mr. Bumble in the 1948 version of Oliver Twist).

Million-dollar Dialog:

Smith, musing on his upcoming execution: “A strange end for one who despises violence. At the hands of those who worship it, the new German god.”

Von Braum: “Of course we worship it! Violence means power, and power CRUSHES opposition! The epoch of the council chamber is over, Herr Professor! I tell you that power and strength and violence will rule the world!”

The Blu-ray edition of “Pimpernel” Smith is a colossal achievement, a beautiful rendition of a film that hasn’t looked very good since its initial release (in the U.S. it was called Mister V). Some scratches at the reel changes, but nothin’ to fret over. The film will hopefully find its rightful niche as a great piece of wartime entertainment, not just propaganda. Highly recommended.