Who can you trust? The wounded RAF pilot? The absent minded chemical engineer? The sixteen year-old Sherlock Holmes or the ghoulish Scotsman constantly peeling apples? Regardless of who wound up to be trustworthy, I quite enjoyed the latter two in 1941's Cottage to Let. A British film released just months after the Blitz, the film plays like a mild mannered, charming screwball comedy that turns into a genuinely gripping espionage thriller.
This movie finally gave me the Alastair Sim I was looking for--as the aforementioned ghoulish Scotsman he seems to clumsily outsmart everyone while laughing sadly at himself the whole time. But just as impressive is a sixteen year old George Cole as the amateur Sherlock Holmes.
He's a cool little customer with a wobbly head, looking oddly like a miniature Robert Smith with his wild dark hair and soft mouth. Add to this his duckish posture with stomach always stuck out and his wide swagger, he's kind of a one man show. He pulls it off quite naturally.
And he's quite literally an amateur Sherlock Holmes--he quotes from Hound of the Baskervilles and A Study in Scarlet when he figures out for the chemical engineer, John Barrington (Leslie Banks), that his new butler is an undercover policeman assigned by military intelligence to keep an eye on Barrington, who's developing explosives.
This all takes place in a house and adjoining cottage owned by Mr. and Mrs. Barrington--Mrs. Barrington (Jeanne De Casalis) is a cheerful but also somewhat absent-minded society woman who turns the cottage into a military hospital--much to the apparent consternation of Sim's character, Charles Dimple, who's arrived expecting to rent the cottage after seeing an advertisement.
And there's a love triangle between a wounded RAF pilot who shows up (John Mills), the Barringtons' daughter Helen (Carla Lehmann), and a young Michael Wilding as Mr. Barrington's socially awkward assistant Alan Trently.
The more comedic first half of the film isn't played for irony, its humour dependent on genuine character building that pays off in the second half when the main issue is the presence of one or more Nazi spies, drawn by the weapons technology being designed by Barrington. It's amazing to contemplate the differences in 1941 British culture and the modern American culture I grew up in. More than 40,000 civilians were killed in the Blitz but I can't imagine such a gentle hearted and effective humanist comedy about terrorism being made just months after 3000 people died on September 11, 2001.