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Tag Archives: Espionage Thrillers

The Iron Curtain (May 12, 1948)

The Iron Curtain
The Iron Curtain (1948)
Directed by William A. Wellman
20th Century-Fox

William A. Wellman’s The Iron Curtain was the first appearance of Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney together in a film since Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). This really has no bearing on The Iron Curtain, but I love the movie Laura and Andrews and Tierney are one of my favorite screen couples, so it was fun to see them play completely different roles.

The Iron Curtain is the fictionalized tale of Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet code clerk who was stationed at the U.S.S.R. Embassy in Ottawa and discovered that American military secrets and other products of Soviet espionage were being transmitted through his office.

There is the obligatory text preceding the film that tells the viewer that all the documents presented appear exactly as they did in actual court records, as authenticated by the R.C.M.P.

This is a standard opening for a docudrama, which in the late ’40s was sort of a subgenre of film noir, with dramatic lighting, expressionistic camera angles, and subjective storytelling applied to true stories of espionage or miscarried justice, like The House on 92nd Street (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), Boomerang (1947), and Call Northside 777 (1948). These films used actual locations, documents, and occasionally even the actual participants in historical events to add sizzle to their “ripped from the headlines” plots.

When Gouzenko first arrives in Canada he’s the perfect apparatchik, devoted to Marxism and to the Communist Party. When one of his fellow Soviet embassy workers, Nina Karanova (June Havoc), shows him her spacious, well-decorated apartment, he berates her for her laxity and for being seduced by the trappings of Western decadence. But a chain of events conspires to force Gouzenko to experience some character development. His wife, Anna Gouzenko (Gene Tierney), joins him in Ottawa, and together they experience the friendliness and good hearts of their North American neighbors, and realize that they might have more in common with their “enemies” than they thought. At work, Gouzenko is haunted by the drunken recollections of Maj. Semyon Kulin (Eduard Franz), who murdered some of his own men to force others to “volunteer” for a mission during the war.

When Gouzenko discovers that he is passing classified information from the embassy back to Moscow — American nuclear secrets, the details of a supposedly secret meeting in Canada between FDR and Churchill, details of sleeper agents — he experiences a crisis of conscience, and has to decide if he should turn documents over to the Canadian Minister of Justice and put his life and the lives of his wife and child in danger.

The Iron Curtain is a slick, well-made thriller that doesn’t generate suspense through over-the-top elements like chases or shootouts, but rather through grounded, real-life elements like the threat of the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police.

When the story of Igor Gouzenko was originally covered by the media in February 1946, it was the beginning of public awareness of the Cold War. The revelation that our former allies were running a spy ring in North America had a profound impact that would last for decades. The Iron Curtain is the earliest film I’ve seen to tackle the looming Soviet menace, and it’s more tasteful and factually accurate than some of the outré Red Scare flicks the ’50s would give us.

Berlin Express (May 1, 1948)

Jacques Tourneur’s crisp thriller Berlin Express presents occupied Germany in miniature. Every nation associated with Allied-occupied Germany is represented by the film’s characters — the United States, France, Germany, England, and Russia.

It’s filmed in the semi-documentary style that was popular in the late ’40s. Europeans speak to each other in their own languages, with no subtitles (there is a voiceover narrator to explain to the viewer what’s transpiring), and much of Berlin Express was filmed on location in Paris, Frankfurt, and Berlin. (According to IMDb.com, it was the first Hollywood production in Europe after World War II.)

Berlin Express has stylistic elements of the German “Trümmerfilm” (“rubble film”), like Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us) (1946). The German rubble films used the war-ravaged backdrops that were plentiful in German cities heavily bombed during the war. Berlin Express doesn’t have the same gravitas or overwhelming sense of tragedy as the rubble films, but the location footage gives it a sense of authenticity not found in most run-of-the-mill thrillers.

Compared with Jacques Tourneur’s previous film, the film noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947), Berlin Express is a lesser effort, but Tourneur is a pro, and every one of his films that I’ve seen has been a work of solid craftsmanship.

The MacGuffin in Berlin Express is a note that falls into the hands of the Deuxième Bureau that reads: “21:45 / D / 9850 / Sulzbach.” The first part seems to refer to a time of day (9:45 PM), but there are Sulzbachs in every occupied zone of Germany. What’s happening? And where will it happen?

Enter a multinational motley crew of characters traveling aboard the Berlin Express. In compartment A is Robert J. Lindley (Robert Ryan), a United States Government Agricultural Expert. In compartment B is Lucienne Mirbeau (Merle Oberon), a secretary from France. In compartment C is Herr Otto Franzen (Fritz Kortner), once a German industrialist, now a dealer in scrap iron. Compartment D is unoccupied, but is being held for a “person of importance.” Compartment E is shared by two men, a former British soldier named James Sterling (Robert Coote), and a military aide for the Russian Occupation Authority, Lt. Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toporow). In compartment F is Henri Perrot (Charles Korvin), once a member of the French Underground, now a man of commerce. And finally, in compartment G, is Hans Schmidt (Peter von Zerneck), whose occupation is a mystery to the viewer (the whistle of the train covers what the narrator is saying, which is a cute touch).

Of course, this is an espionage thriller, so it should go without saying that not everyone is what they appear to be, and there will be at least one big reveal or switcheroo before the credits roll.

Berlin Express was made during that curious little space in time when World War II was over but the Cold War had not yet kicked into high gear. Its villains may not seem very plausible or consequential to modern viewers, but for my money, a good thriller is a good thriller. The voiceover narration is a little heavy-handed, but for the most part Berlin Express keeps things tight, fast-paced, and properly thrilling.

13 Rue Madeleine (Jan. 15, 1947)

Henry Hathaway’s 13 Rue Madeleine is a spiritual sequel to his espionage docudrama thriller The House on 92nd Street (1945). The address this time around refers not to the headquarters of a Nazi spy ring in New York City, but to Gestapo headquarters in Le Havre, France, during World War II.

Like The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine owes a debt to the style and presentation of Louis de Rochemont’s “March of Time” newsreels. (De Rochemont served as producer of both films.) I enjoyed The House on 92nd Street, but judged purely as a cinematic experience, 13 Rue Madeleine is the superior film.

A lot of that is due to the film’s star. James Cagney is dynamic and arresting in every role I’ve ever seen him play, and I would pay to watch a film in which all he did was order and consume room service by himself.

In this film, Cagney plays Robert Emmett “Bob” Sharkey, an instructor of potential agents in a U.S. agency called “O77.” (The organization is clearly based on the O.S.S., but the name was changed because of certain plot elements that we’ll get to in a moment.)

Early in the film, Sharkey’s boss, Charles Gibson (Walter Abel), informs him that one of his students is a German mole named Wilhelm Kuncel. The mole turns out to be one of his most promising pupils, William H. “Bill” O’Connell (Richard Conte). O’Connell looks and acts as American as apple pie, and during training grew especially close to blond, fresh-faced Jeff Lassiter (Frank Latimore), who never suspected a thing.

Gibson orders Sharkey to pass O’Connell and to not let on what he knows, in order to feed false information to the Germans through O’Connell. Alas, O’Connell proves to be even cannier than Sharkey’s bosses could have predicted, and this decision leads to a series of tragedies.

Conte isn’t an actor I could have picked out of a lineup a year ago, but after seeing him now in several roles, I think he’s a tremendous performer, and I look forward to a lifetime of watching his films. It doesn’t matter for his role as a double agent in 13 Rue Madeleine that he doesn’t look the slightest bit “German.” In a wordless scene in a transport plane over Europe, as O’Connell and Lassiter are preparing to jump, O’Connell suddenly sees what the straight-arrow Lassiter can’t hide, and the look on his face is chilling.

Cloak and Dagger (Sept. 28, 1946)

Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger is the best espionage thriller I’ve seen since Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940). Like that film, it doesn’t have the over-the-top stunts or pyrotechnics of a modern action movie, but its pacing, plot, and music create a spectacle that is every bit as suspenseful and exciting.

Gary Cooper, who is best known for playing stoic men of action, gives a credible performance as bookish physicist Alvah Jesper, a man who finds himself in over his head, but is smart enough and tough enough to find a way out of one tight situation after another.

Professor Jesper is recruited by the O.S.S. (the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. intelligence agency formed during World War II that would eventually become the C.I.A.) and sent to Switzerland to bring his former colleague Dr. Katerin Lodor (Helen Thimig) back to the United States. Dr. Lodor, an elderly woman, escaped through the Alps from Germany, where she was being forced to work on an atomic bomb project for the Nazis. Switzerland is a neutral country, but it’s lousy with agents of the Gestapo, and Dr. Lodor’s life is in peril.

Immediately, there are two implausible aspects of the plot that you have to get over to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the picture. One is that the O.S.S. would recruit a college professor with no experience in the intelligence field to act as an undercover agent merely because he has a personal connection to their target and speaks conversational German. The other is that, by this point in 1946, it was common knowledge that any nuclear research being conducted by the Nazis was mostly smoke and mirrors, and the Third Reich was never close to developing an atomic bomb.

Neither of these issues proved a stumbling block for me. Every spy thriller needs a plot hook, and plenty of these hooks prove either factually inaccurate or completely ridiculous after five or ten years have passed. Also, the O.S.S. was a young organization, and they did some pretty wild stuff during the war. Recruiting a college professor in his mid-40s for dangerous undercover work doesn’t seem completely outside the realm of possibility. (Cooper’s role is loosely inspired by the exploits of Michael Burke, president of the N.Y. Yankees from 1966 to 1973, who briefly played with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1941 before leaving to serve with the O.S.S., where he worked behind the lines in Italy and later in France, where he helped the Resistance prepare for D-Day.)

There are some great touches, too. When Jesper disembarks in Switzerland, he thinks he’s being smart by casually covering his face with his hand when he walks by a photographer, but it is precisely this action that alerts the Gestapo to the fact that he might be a man worth watching.

After Jesper makes contact with Dr. Lodor, she leads him to Dr. Giovanni Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff), another physicist who is being forced by the Nazis to work on their atomic bomb program. Jesper travels to Italy, where he is aided by Italian partisans led by Pinkie (Robert Alda) and the beautiful Gina (Lilli Palmer).

Luckily, Jesper is able to pose as a German doctor because the Italian fascist thugs keeping Dr. Polda prisoner in a beautiful villa clearly don’t recognize American-accented German when they hear it. Viewers with an ear for languages probably will.

The Italian baddies are led by a man named Luigi, who is played by veteran character actor Marc Lawrence, who had a very long career playing gangsters in Hollywood. His first film role was an uncredited part as a henchman in If I Had a Million (1932), and one of his last was playing Carlo Gambino in the 1996 TV movie Gotti.

Toward the end of the movie, Cooper and Lawrence square off in the most brutal and realistic fight I’ve seen in a movie from the 1940s. The James Cagney thriller Blood on the Sun (1945) features a great judo fight that was way ahead of its time, but the combat between Jesper and Luigi is a desperate fight to the death, pure and simple. There’s nothing flashy about it, and it’s not overly choreographed. The two men hold each other close, clawing at each other’s faces, choking each other, kicking at weak points, and twisting back fingers and arms. It’s over in less than 90 seconds, but its impact lasts for the rest of the movie.

The screenplay for Cloak and Dagger was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr., based on a story by Boris Ingster and John Larkin, and “suggested” by the 1946 nonfiction book Cloak and Dagger: The Secret Story of O.S.S., by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain.

Director Lang is best known for the films he made when he still lived in Germany, such as the silent science fiction opus Metropolis (1927), the chilling portrait of a child killer M (1931), and the crime thriller The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), but Lang was a master craftsman at every stage of his career, even when doing for-hire work like this.

Notorious (Sept. 6, 1946)

Notorious
Notorious (1946)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
RKO Radio Pictures

Notorious was Alfred Hitchcock’s second film to star Ingrid Bergman. Like the first, Spellbound (1945), it’s a perfect marriage of director and star. Later in his career, Hitchcock had a penchant for casting blond ice queens like Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, so it’s easy to forget how good he and the brown-haired Bergman were when they worked together.

In Notorious, Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German-American man convicted of spying for the Nazis. As soon as the trial is over, she throws a little party in her Miami bungalow and gets good and blotto. The sense of intimacy that Bergman creates in this scene is remarkable. She doesn’t slur her words or make a fool of herself, but through her drunken ramblings she reveals some of her innermost thoughts.

Not so with the handsome stranger (Cary Grant) who sits alone at her party. He remains an enigma for awhile. After she throws everyone else out, she takes him out for some good old fashioned drunk driving. (And all the herky-jerky rear projection stuff made me feel a little inebriated, too.) When a motorcycle cop pulls her over, the stranger flashes a badge of some kind, and the cop lets them go. Alicia’s mood sours. She hates policemen.

Alicia learns that this handsome stranger’s name is Devlin, and he’s a government agent. He has listened to the recordings of conversations she had with her father, and knows that she is loyal to the United States, despite her anger about his imprisonment. Because of her father’s espionage work against America, however, she is the perfect person to infiltrate a group of Nazis who fled to Brazil after the war.

While waiting to begin her assignment in Rio de Janeiro, she falls in love with Devlin. It happens — as these things tend to in the movies — quickly and with little explanation. Devlin seems to love her, too, but when it comes time to put her into the field he is all business. And since part of her assignment is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), an old friend of her father’s and a member of the Nazi inner circle in Rio, Devlin chooses duty over love, and is cold enough to her that she eventually accepts Alex’s proposal of marriage.

Needless to say, living with a man she doesn’t love and his creepy, controlling mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) in a mansion in Rio, surrounded by Nazis who think nothing of killing traitors, is a dangerous proposition for poor Alicia, especially since her romance with Devlin continues to grow, despite both of their efforts to quell their own feelings.

Ingrid Bergman

Unlike Spellbound, which had all manner of baroque, Freudian lunacy, Notorious is an elegant and understated picture. The espionage plot isn’t overcomplicated, and it’s not really the focus of the movie. The love triangle is, as well as all the suspense and danger related to it. A sequence at one of Alex’s parties, in which Alicia and Devlin pass a key from hand to hand, achieves greatest emotional significance and more suspense than a complicated cryptography system or a series of twists and double-crosses ever could.

As a pure cinematic experience, I prefer Spellbound, despite — or perhaps because of — its craziness. Notorious is still a great movie, and Cary Grant is a less inert leading man than Gregory Peck. Ingrid Bergman is stunningly beautiful in this film, too. It’s not just the contours of her face, which are lovingly illuminated by cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, it’s her intelligence and openness, and an ineffable quality of vulnerability.

Notorious was a critical and commercial success, and one of the biggest hits of 1946. Claude Rains was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor and Ben Hecht was nominated for best original screenplay, although neither won.

The Stranger (May 25, 1946)

The Stranger isn’t most people’s favorite Orson Welles film, and a lot of people even consider it his worst. (Welles did.) It’s the third film he directed, and as far as Oscar bait goes, it certainly pales in comparison with Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), but I think a lot of the criticism heaped upon it is unfair. The Stranger is a crackerjack thriller with tension and suspense to spare. I was drawn in by the first scene, and was completely involved throughout the film’s 95-minute running time.

Despite its sometimes hackneyed script and implausible situations, The Stranger shows a master in complete control of his craft. The first 15 minutes of the film are some of the most perfect cinematic storytelling I’ve ever seen. Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator for the Allied Commission for the Punishment of War Criminals, sets free a Nazi war criminal named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) and has him tailed, believing that he will lead them to the secret architect of the Holocaust, Franz Kindler (Welles). Kindler is living in the idyllic little town of Harper, Connecticut, under the name “Charles Rankin” and is a professor at a boy’s school.

Meinike’s journey to find Kindler is an object lesson in how to tell a story with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of tension. The shots are visually arresting, the editing is rapid without ever being confusing, and the pacing is fast. As openings go, it’s not quite the bravura performance Welles would later put on with his single crane shot that opens Touch of Evil (1958), but it’s just as good in its own way. The disconnect only appears during the first lengthy stretch of dialogue. Once Meinike tracks down Prof. Rankin, the clumsy exposition that Welles grumbles through — which explains who his character is, whom he is marrying, and who his father-in-law will be — sticks out like a sore thumb.

Meinike will prove to be just the beginning of Rankin’s troubles. The noose tightens around his neck as soon as Wilson arrives in town, posing as a dealer in antiques. Robinson plays his role well, in an understated fashion that contrasts nicely with Welles’s bug-eyed histrionics. After a few extreme close-ups of Rankin’s sweaty face as he tells lies to convince his new wife, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), that he is an innocent hounded by nefarious forces, there is no doubt about the depths of his villainy.

Not that there every really was any doubt, since Rankin behaves in such a despicable fashion throughout the picture. It’s not just his dinnertime conversation — in which he explicates the warlike soul of the German people and denies that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew — it’s his willingness to engage in wet work, killing a troublesome character without a second thought and later beating his new wife’s dog when it attempts to dig up the corpse.

In his review of The Stranger in the July 11, 1946, edition of the NY Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that Welles’s performance “gave no illusion of the sort of depraved and heartless creatures that the Nazi mass-murderers were. He is just Mr. Welles, a young actor, doing a boyishly bad acting job in a role which is highly incredible — another weak feature of the film.” Again, I think this is unfair. Welles got his start in the theater, and as a thespian, he never really grew out of it. His acting was always highly theatrical. He was a man who played to the back row, with grand gestures and a booming voice, but he did so extremely effectively. Not every film performance has to be subtle and understated.

It’s his work behind the camera, however, that really shows Welles in top form. The fast cutting in a scene in a diner, for instance, creates a tense subtext beneath Loretta Young’s seemingly casual banter with Edward G. Robinson by showing each character’s motivations by the looks on their faces. Mary is hiding something, Rankin is coercing her into doing so, and Wilson knows exactly what is going on. Director Welles and editor Ernest J. Nims make it all look easy, but it’s not, or more films would be this well-made.

The film also brilliantly uses sound. For instance, the tolling of the clock in the village square (which the clock-obsessed Rankin has fixed) underscores the tension in the film’s final half hour. The bonging of the clock has a peculiar timbre, and sounds more like incidental music from a ’70s or ’80s suspense or horror flick than any soundtrack from the ’40s I’ve ever heard before. The score itself, by Bronislau Kaper, is quite good, too, and is reminiscent of the work of Bernard Herrmann.

The screenplay, by Anthony Veiller, from a story by Victor Trivas, was imposed on Welles by the studio. The studio and the producer, Sam Spiegel (listed in the credits as “S.P. Eagle”), made plenty of other decisions Welles didn’t like. For instance, Welles wanted Agnes Moorehead to play the part of Wilson, but they forced him to go with Robinson. As far as the studio was concerned, however, everything worked out for the best, since The Stranger was the only film Welles directed that ever made a profit during its initial theatrical run.

The Stranger is a potboiler, to be sure, but it’s such a brilliantly edited, directed, and acted potboiler that it’s remarkable. This is one of those rare movies that I looked forward to seeing again as soon as it was over.

Cornered (Dec. 25, 1945)

Cornered was director Edward Dmytryk’s second film to star Dick Powell. Powell was a boyish crooner and star of musical comedies who made a 180 degree turn into hard-boiled noir territory at the age of 39 when he played detective Philip Marlowe in Dmytryk’s film Murder, My Sweet (1944), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. Powell jumped into his new, hard-boiled persona with both feet. Between the two films, Powell started appearing every week on the Mutual Broadcasting System as private investigator Richard Rogue in the radio series Rogue’s Gallery. The series was mostly standard P.I. fare, but it featured one unique element; every time Rogue was knocked out (which was nearly every episode) he’d drift off to “Cloud Eight,” where his alter ego, a little white-bearded gnome named “Eugor,” would taunt him, occasionally dropping a clue for Rogue to pick up on later, when he’d regained consciousness.

Cornered has no fanciful elements like that one, and the devil-may-care charm Powell exhibited in Murder, My Sweet has been completely done away with. In Cornered he plays a broken man who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

When we first meet Flight Lieutenant Laurence Gerard (Powell), an RCAF pilot, he is in London, receiving £551 back pay for the time he spent as a P.O.W. His next stop is a passport office, where he seeks passage to France. He wants to settle his wife Celeste’s estate. She was a French citizen, and they were married during the German occupation. When Gerard is told that all passports to the continent require investigation, and that it will take at least a month to clear, he walks out of the office without saying another word. In the next scene, he is alone in a rowboat, crossing the English Channel. When he sees land, he chops a hole in the hull, sinks the boat, and swims to shore.

In a muddy French town that is mostly rubble, Gerard meets with Etienne (Louis Mercier), a former resistance leader, and Celeste’s father. Gerard demands to know who is responsible for her death, and who betrayed her. “If there was any betrayal, I betrayed her, by fathering her in a century of violence,” Etienne tells him. Gerard doesn’t accept this circumspect response, and vows to hunt down the Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac, who ordered the killing of Celeste and several other members of the resistance. Jarnac supposedly died in a fire, but Gerard refuses to believe he is dead. He sets out with a single goal; to kill Jarnac.

Gerard follows Jarnac’s trail to Buenos Aires, and it is there that most of the film takes place. As soon as Gerard steps off the plane, he is approached by a fat man in a white suit. This man, Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), is an operator with no clear allegiances. Gerard is quickly drawn into a world where no one is what they seem. Former Nazis and their collaborators have fled to Buenos Aires, biding their time until the next great war, while a loose-knit, clandestine organization seeks to root them out. Incza introduces Gerard to Jarnac’s wife (or possibly widow), Mme. Madeleine Jarnac (Micheline Cheirel), and even her loyalties are unclear.

While it may sound like a globe-trotting adventure film, Cornered is really a claustrophobic film noir with healthy doses of paranoia and tension. The script, by John Paxton (with uncredited assistance from Ben Hecht), from a story by John Wexley, takes a run-of-the-mill manhunt plot and ratchets up the tension with crisp dialogue, excellent pacing, and a brutal finale. Harry J. Wild’s cinematography is classic film noir, with inky nighttime exteriors, close-quartered interiors, and actors’ shadows frequently preceding them into the frame.

Powell plays Gerard as a shell-shocked man who suffers from frequent headaches. He’s on a mission to avenge a woman to whom he was only married for 20 days. He’s an amateur doing the work of a detective, and while he’s clever enough to connect the dots, he’s still just one man at the mercy of forces beyond his comprehension. “You are sick with fear,” Mme. Jarnac tells him. “You’ve been hurt so deeply you cannot trust anyone but yourself.”

Is there a better description of the classic film noir protagonist?

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