In 1978, an actor named Harrison Ford was getting his first real taste of movie stardom. He had just portrayed intergalactic smuggler Han Solo in George Lucas’s Star Wars, and in a few years he’d re-team with Lucas (along with Steven Spielberg) to create another iconic character, archeologist Dr. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This period in pop culture history is seemingly unshakable, with a steady stream of reboots, sequels, and reimaginings clogging our precious creative bandwidth even now, but interestingly there’s a hidden jewel tucked away between Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders in Ford’s filmography that few fans of the star know today: Hanover Street, an early masterwork from unappreciated director Peter Hyams.
Like the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, Hanover Street is a self-conscious throwback to an earlier, simpler era of entertainment compared to the purportedly gritty and mature contemporary moviemaking climate it comes out of. But unlike those films, Hanover Street is bent not on re-capturing adolescent thrills and adventure, but a tragic, multifaceted romantic tale a la Casablanca. Its blend of romance and espionage feels equally indebted to Casablanca and Hitchcock wartime thrillers like The Lady Vanishes and Notorious, and the most incredible thing about it is that despite its current level of obscurity it actually manages to live up to those lofty standards
Ford plays David Halloran, a bomber pilot for the Allies in the thick of World War II. He meets Lesley-Anne Down’s English nurse Margaret Sellinger on, that’s right, Hanover Street, where the two seem destined for a doomed wartime romance almost immediately. True to form, she turns out to be married -- to Plummer’s Paul Sellinger, a somewhat high-ranking British Intelligence officer.
A love triangle (not to mention one set amid the Second World War) is one of the oldest and most reliable stock dramatic cliché, but Hanover Street makes it sing like a brand new tune, and I think one of the reasons it works so well is the recently departed Christopher Plummer. His Paul Sellinger is the kind of decent-to-the-bone regular guy that makes cheating unforgivable and leaving unthinkable, but unlike in the wartime romantic dramas this is emulating there was no production code in 1978 to make sure things resolve themselves in a certain way. Plummer shares what is possibly the best scene in the film with Down over the phone, when he apologizes to his wife for not being as exciting as he assumes she would like -- an entire story told simply but unforgettably in a single scene.
Like a lot of my favorite films, Hanover Street is an inspired blend of several different genres working together. While it is a romance, and in my inexpert opinion one of the most undervalued Hollywood romances ever made, this is far from being exclusively a love story. Halloran’s wartime occupation as a bomber pilot allows for some intense bombing sequences that show off a lot of historical WWII aircraft in action. These scenes may lack the plasticine dynamism of CGI-assisted dogfights in modern action movies (or even the go-for-broke action-adventure comic book style of something like Star Wars), but like the rest of the film they showcase a certain charm that’s authentic to the films of the wartime period, complete with a wisecracking bombardier (played by the great Richard Masur) who covers up his fear of aerial combat with wisecracks -- a staple of war movies well captured here.
Love scenes and warplanes, what else do you need? Fortunately Hanover Street has at least one more generic card to play, mostly in the last third or so of the film. Plummer’s Paul Sellinger, as previously mentioned, works in British Intelligence, and he decides to go himself on a top secret spy mission behind enemy lines in occupied France when the man who was supposed to go isn’t quite up to the job. In one of those twists of fate that can only happen in the movies, he ends up being delivered across the line by a bomber plane piloted by Ford’s bomber pilot. After the mission goes somewhat sideways, the two end up infiltrating a Gestapo stronghold together, despite the fact that Halloran is in no way prepared for such a mission and doesn’t even know any German -- this avenue for a little cross-language intrigue and suspense is capitalized on brilliantly, and serves as my main piece of evidence that this must have been an influence on Tarantino’s own wartime thriller, Inglourious Basterds. While we’re on the subject of Hanover Street influencing later filmmakers, I’d also have trouble believing that Robert Zemeckis wasn’t thinking about it when he conceived his own wartime romance Allied, another film that was a commercial failure despite its seemingly can’t-miss combination of director and stars.
The suspense of the sequences showing Ford and Plummer undercover in Nazi-occupied France give Hanover Street a welcome shot of Hitchcockian energy as it makes its way to its emotionally devastating conclusion which I don’t intend to reveal here -- unlike Casablanca, the ending of this WWII romantic thriller hasn’t made its way into popular knowledge and is best experienced for oneself as it happens.
Why didn’t the ending of Hanover Street, or the rest of the film for that matter, escape its present obscurity? It’s a puzzling question, since its star is still one of the most popular leading men in all of movies, and this film shows Ford in his absolute prime, even wearing a leather bomber jacket that’s strikingly similar to the one he wore across his four outings as Indiana Jones. He doesn’t kill quite as many Nazis in this as he does in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but one might still expect the myriad connections between Hanover Street and one of the most popular movies ever made to lift it up somewhat in the public consciousness, but instead the movie was commercially DOA as soon as it was released and has only grown more obscure since. How that happened is one of those impenetrable mysteries but it might have something to do with the fact that Ford allegedly had a miserable experience making the film and then refused to promote it. He professed a few years after it was released to have never even seen it (Mr. Ford, if you’re reading this, check it out, it’s quite good!).
I’ve long been a champion of director Peter Hyams, one of the great underappreciated genre stylists of his time. Hanover Street was written and directed (but not shot as is often the case in his films) by Hyams and even though it was an early effort it features the stylized, witty dialogue and glowing nighttime exteriors that are two of his hallmarks. He would later become known and in some cases infamous for his science-fiction films like Capricorn One, Outland, and 2010: The Year We Make Contact, but in Hanover Street you can see the attention to detail he brought to those films applied to a historical period setting rather than a futuristic one. And his knack for putting together unfussy but exciting action sequences is in full evidence as well.
With its nonexistent reputation, Hanover Street is due for a revisit by film enthusiasts at large. It’s a sturdily crafted crowdpleaser in the classical sense, a worthy tribute to the master storytellers of the studio era, and features excellent performances from all three leads. Perhaps if more people see it, David Halloran can take his place in between Han Solo and Indiana Jones in the pantheon of Harrison Ford roles.