The Green Cockatoo (UK 1937 65min): The Seeds of British Noir

Graham Greene, who wrote the source novel and worked on the screenplay of perhaps the greatest British noir, Brighton Rock (1947), scripted the British hard-boiled crime thriller The Green Cockatoo (aka ‘Four Dark Hours’ or ‘Race Gang’).  After the movie was screened at the 43rd New York Film Festival in September 2005, Keith Uhlich of Slant, wrote: “Director William Cameron Menzies, an award-winning production designer, grounds The Green Cockatoo in expressionist shadows that anticipate Carol Reed’s The Third Man (the ne plus ultra of Greene’s cinema output) and the writer himself is evident via the piece’s sense of a veiled, yet inescapable moral outcome with which each character must deal.” Hal Erickson in the All Movie Guide says of the film: “Filmed in 1937, the British Four Dark Hours wasn’t generally released until 1940, and then only after several minutes’ running time had been shaved off. The existing 65-minute version stars John Mills, uncharacteristically cast as a Soho song and dance man. When Mills’ racketeer brother Robert Newton is murdered, Mills takes it upon himself to track down and punish the killers. Rene Ray, the girl who was with Newton when he died, helps Mills in his vengeful task”. Bosley Crowther in the NY Times in 1947: “With all its disintegration, though, [The Green Cockatoo] is still better melodramatic fare than is usually dished out to the patient Rialto audiences… An unknown here, Rene Ray, is very attractive as a wide-eyed country girl unwittingly involved in the Soho proceedings”. Film writer for The Guardian, Andrew Pulver, wrote in 2008 that the movie “has a similar [to film noir] commitment to the boiled-down essentials of the crime genre”.  Max Green, who later lensed Night and the City (1950) for Jules Dassin, is DP and the film’s score was one of the first from Miklós Rózsa.

I found The Green Cockatoo an entertaining ‘curio’ (to paraphrase Pulver).  While there are elements that point to noir, the picture is more a melodramatic thriller.  A Soho seediness to the affair is enhanced by the very cheapness of the production.  Most of the action plays out during a London night after a young provincial ingenue arrives on a midnight train from the sticks and has a chance encounter.  The darkened sets have a definite moodiness.  A night scene introducing the Soho night-club, ‘The Green Cockatoo’, around which the action pivots,  has an accomplished mis-en-scene.  We see a couple stroll past a copper on the beat who walks up to a b-girl holding up a lamp-post in front of the club – the bobby stares the girl down and she moves on.

There is a lot of action packed into just over an hour, but the plot relies on  a touch too many contrivances and misunderstandings.  There is a nice chemistry between Mills and Ray, who is quite beguiling, with some nice patter and cute innuendo.  A number of scenes are played for laughs, which adds a pastiche quality.  Indeed, scenes at a plush hideout with a butler, played beautifully by Frank Atkinson, are laugh-out-loud funny.  This said, the pastiche factor detracts overall, and it is jarring to hear English characters using very unlikely expressions such as ‘guys’ and ‘dames’.  Though the Hollywood influence is obvious, there are no guns, only flick-knives.

Max Green’s lensing is most deserving of praise, and these shots from the picture attest to its expressionist elements:

An interesting historical artifact, and worth seeking out.  Not on DVD.

5 thoughts on “The Green Cockatoo (UK 1937 65min): The Seeds of British Noir”

  1. Hi! Tony…
    …I have already “retweeted” this post and send it over there to facebook too!
    Unfortunately, I have never watched this film…Therefore, after reading your post (very carefully!) I plan to seek the The Green Cockatoo out to watch…Thanks, for sharing!
    DeeDee 😉 🙂


  2. Beautiful post in every sense, and one that considers an inportant film both historically and aesthetically. I’m afraid to say I haven’t yet watched this, but know of it well, and remember that New York Film Festival screening, which at the time I did hanker to attend. There is a convergence of great people here starting with one of the past century’s most venerated British writers.

    I see BRIGHTON ROCK as the second greatest British noir, and ironically the only film that rates ahead of it in my estimation was also based on a Greene novel (one of his best in fact), THE THIRD MAN (1949) which may well be my favorite British film of all-time in any genre. But as I know you love that one too, I suspect here that you may not consider THE THIRD MAN exclusively a noir. Fair enough. Greene of course wrote other novels that were tuned into fine films (THE QUIET AMERICAN, THE END OF THE AFFAIR) and others that made decent pictures (MINISTRY OF FEAR and TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT) Perhaps his most celebrated work is THE POWER AND THE GLORY.

    As you know I adored Green’s work on NIGHT AND THE CITY, and very much approciate the rhetorical and visual treatment you give it in this post, and Miklos Rosza is one of those few film composers, where I feel I must at some point in my life listen to everything he’s ever written.

    The result of all this is that’s it’s essential.


  3. Thanks and great contribution Sam. The Third Man is in a class of its own, yes I feel it goes beyond noir, and I have no problem ranking The Third Man ahead of Brighton Rock. We can also add Ministry of Fear to your list of Greene adaptations.


  4. Film’s cinematographer Max Green (born name Mutz Greenbaum.) A German born cinematographer who emigrated to England and brought that expressionistic style with him.


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