The late Bryan Forbes co-adapted Michael Gilbert’s wartime mystery Death in Captivity (which I previously reviewed here) into this tight little movie, released in the US as Breakout. Set in an Italian POW camp in the Summer of 1943, it is a story of camaraderie, betrayal and escape but is also, for about half its running time at least, an unusual whodunit. Richard Todd, Michael Wilding and Richard Attenborough are the stars in a highly entertaining mystery that perhaps got rather lost in the deluge of war films made in the 50s and 60s.
“Then I to take it, sir, that escaping activities have priority over other forms of entertainment?” – Denis Price
Danger Within is a typical example of the traditional British war film, from its large cast of solid thespians and its general understatement and low-key approach to its winning use of dry humour to contrast the darker moments of high drama. A surprisingly jokey tone is set during the opening credits: after a barrage of shots depicting the African campaign (a mixture of documentary and staged material), the titles scroll over what appears to be the dead body of a British soldier in the desert sand. Once they end however, the man scratches his behind and turns round, proving to be very much alive and merely taking a nap inside an Italian POW camp. But this is not a comedy and there is real danger just round the corner in the odious shape of Captain Benucci played by Peter Arne, who always played foreigners in films of this vintage. Here though he gets to (briefly) play two roles when a British soldier tries to impersonate him and walk out of the camp. But there is spy in the camp and Benucci lies in wait for his double and then shoots him (i.e. Arne shoots himself!) in cold blood.
This failed escape attempt serves as a quick introduction to the main dramatis personae, presented mainly as a series of ‘double acts’ in which characters are paired against each other: Richard Todd is Baird, the fiery Scotsman (shades of his celebrated performance from The Hasty Heart) who leads the escape committee, often butting heads with Bernard Lee’s Huxley (a name changed from the Lavery character in the book), the Senior British Officer who has to try and keep all his men in some sort of order; William Franklyn is Tony, a cheeky chappie forever teasing his friend”Bunter” (a bespectacled Richard Attenborough); while Michael Wilding and Peter Jones provide the comic relief by their seeming refusal to take anything that happens seriously.
Most of the men think (including Baird) that Greek officer Coutoules (Cyril Shaps) is a spy in Benucci’s employ, but Huxley isn’t so sure. None the less, when the man’s body is found in one of their tunnels, nobody is really that sorry, though they move the corpse to protect their digging activity. Benucci treats this as a case of murder and Byfold (Donald Houston) is quickly arrested when his fingerprints are found on a piece of wood near the body (left when they faked the cave-in after re-interring the body). In a week’s time he will be handed over to the civil authorities and likely shot, bringing an even greater urgency to the various escape attempts as it is August 1943 – the Allies have landed in Sicily and it is quite likely that Italy will surrender and the Nazis will take over the camp and transport the prisoners to Germany (or dispose of them some other way …).
The action of the film is concentrated considerably compared with the book, all pretty much taking place in one week, putting the emphasis on the escape plan – and this may explain why the mystery element is downplayed. The book’s detective figure, Goyles, based slightly on Gilbert himself, in essence is replaced by Attenborough, whose investigation definitely becomes secondary to the activities of top-billed Richard Todd as he finds new respect for the Huxley’s abilities when it finally comes to planning a daring escape. The mystery element does remain, but is then strangely sabotaged …
Indeed the whole whodunit element is dispensed with about 40 minutes in, when Benucci’s spy is suddenly revealed. It feels odd as it is a scene that could in fact be deleted without affecting the rest of the film as no further references are made to it until near the end, when Bunter’s investigation reaches its solution after the spy slips up. If the revelation scene were to be cut, this would maintain the surprise until much later in the story, so I am not convinced it’s a good decision. In the not dissimilar Stalag 17 (which I previously reviewed here) the traitor in the camp is also revealed early, but this allows the protagonist time to turn the tables on the spy and so reinstate his reputation with the rest of the prisoners who actually believe he is the guilty party. Here there is no single point of view and so aids nothing in terms of the characters and seems to serve little useful purpose therefore. It doesn’t hurt the film too badly either, but it is a curious choice none the less.
The film however does succeed in generating plenty of suspense, especially in the big lead-up to the escape sequence featuring Michael Wilding, cleverly using the sobering of jokers of the pack to bring the reality of the situation right back to the forefront. The latter parts of the story (which incidentally include one scene featuring a love-lorn soldier played by a very young Michael Caine) deal with the escape plans, due to take place during a performance of Hamlet (a change from the book, where it’s a performance of ‘The Barrett’s of Wimpole Street’), giving Denis Price plenty of opportunity to steal all his scenes as the frustrated professional thespian surrounded by amateurs. This pays off nicely when the spy is killed through a curtain, a clear reference to the death of Polonius.
On the whole this is a light but very efficient mixture of humour and suspense that mostly boils down Gilbert’s original more sprawling narrative with great success despite some odd decisions giving a good cast plenty to do
DVD Availability: Sadly nothing official at all so I treasure the copy I recorded from TV many years ago (hence the rather soft images accompanying this post) …
Director: Don Chaffey
Producer: Colin Lesslie
Screenplay: Bryan Forbes, Frank Harvey
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Art Direction: Ray Simm
Music: Francis Chagrin
Cast: Richard Todd, Richard Attenborough, Michael Wilding, Peter Arne, Bernard Lee, Donald Houston, Dennis Price