by A.J. Hakari
(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, wherein I’ll be taking on each of the films in Kino’s British Noir DVD collection throughout the month of
November May. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)
Just when Neil Blair (Dennis Price) thought he was out of the spy game, along comes queen and country to pull him right back into it. The Second World War may be over, but there’s still work for the Allies, as Blair learns after being summoned by his old superior (Robert Newton) to take part in one last mission. Under the pretense of researching a screenplay, our man is asked to keep tabs on what a so-called contessa (Mila Parely) is doing at an Italian ski resort. But what Blair stumbles upon instead are various peculiar personalities gathered at the chalet, from an exceptionally-shady Greek fellow (Herbert Lom) to a glad-handing chatterbox (Marcel Dalio). Each of these individuals has a secret motive for being where they are, and as a fierce blizzard shuts them inside over the course of a few days, our intrepid agent aims to sniff out the truth before a new evil gets unleashed upon the world.
If you think that applying elements of espionage to the structure of an Agatha Christie mystery sounds like a dandy proposition, then you’d be right — but it’s too bad that Snowbound abandons this potential by the third act. The isolated locale, ensemble of suspicious parties, and stalwart hero we’re to cheer on are all present and accounted for, as are the palpable presences of both literal and figurative claustrophobia. It’s not enough that Blair must carry out his assignment in a frigid setting that could spring unforeseen doom on him at any moment; there’s a whole cabin full of folks who could turn deadly on a dime, should his snooping hit a raw nerve. But unfortunately, as the custom has been with many a thriller, the more you learn about what’s up in Snowbound, the less fascinating it becomes, only this flick’s clumsy method of explaining itself leaves it at a particular disadvantage. It’s a puzzling and frankly aggravating case of stringing the viewer along on tidbits of information to great success, then bringing the whole game to an anticlimactic close by having a single character pop up and lay everything out in one mother of an exposition dump. Despite the best efforts of the standoffs and confrontations that proceed said reveal, much of the picture’s tension is irrevocably deflated, although it’s to the credit of the likeable cast (especially Price and Newton) that our disinterest doesn’t completely take over.
As with They Met in the Dark, Snowbound‘s spy shenanigans skirt what constitutes a noir, but thanks to its rampant subterfuge, chilling atmosphere, and abundance of creeps on the hunt for a mythical MacGuffin, it more or less passes muster. Though more clever steps could have been taken to help the audience have fun assembling its main mystery’s pieces, the film’s spry performances and wintry environment save it from being overwhelmed by an avalanche of total mediocrity. It’s not something espionage buffs have to bump to the tops of their to-watch lists, but Snowbound can be gripping when it puts a little craft into it.