Suspense & espionage films

THE SATAN BUG. Mirisch Corporation/United Artists, 1965. George Maharis, Richard Basehart, Anne Francis, Dana Andrews, Edward Asner. Based on the novel by Ian Stuart [Alistair MacLean]. Screenplay: James Clavell & Edward Anhalt. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Director: John Sturges.

   With all the manpower both in front and behind the cameras, and one woman, I was expecting a lot better film than the on I saw. This is one of the most boring major studio thriller movies I have ever seen. It is dull from the beginning to the end, in spite of the view of Los Angeles from the air in the finale as three men in a helicopter slug it out while a glass flask of deadly toxin rolls around loose in the back seat.

   How could such a scene be dull? It beats me, but it is. Maybe if the first 15 minutes were more interesting — watching a car driving endlessly along a road in the desert to pull into a guarded but totally non-secure government facility, where small handfuls of guards and men in hats and coats and ties walk around talking to each other about things important to them but not to us — not my idea of a way to catch anyone’s interest, not if I were given a chance to make a movie with at least some money to invest into it.

   Maybe if the next half hour or so were not filled with more men in hats and coats and ties talking to each other about a deadly toxin that could kill off the world, but since the scientific facility is guarded by as many as maybe five men, one dog and a couple of wire fences, how serious could they be about it?

   Maybe if the star of the movie, George Maharis, fresh from his success on the TV series Route 66, weren’t as bland as scrambled egg whites. He’s as good-looking as they come, but I can’t overemphasize how clearly his lack of range as an actor shows up on the big screen.

   Maybe if the rest of the cast weren’t so dour and expressionless. Maybe if all of them were all but interchangeable, what with their identical suits and ties and hats. I have never seen so many suits and ties and hats.

   Maybe if they’d actually given Anne Francis something to do. As the only female in the movie to appear for more than a blink of an eye, you’d think they’d come up with a reason why she’s actually in the picture.

   Maybe if the plot weren’t muddled. The basic idea is clear: a madman has gotten his hands on a deadly poison of some kind and we gotta get it back. But the details of who, when and where were more than I could figure out. I suppose I could watch it again, but I was so unimpressed that there is no chance in the world I could sit as long as I just have without experiencing a moment of tension, a modicum even of suspense, or a hint of that maybe, just maybe, a deadly disaster was about to occur.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

WATERFRONT. PRC, 1944. John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish, Maris Wrixon, Edwin Maxwell, Terry Frost, John Bleifer, Marten Lamont, Olga Fabian. Director: Steve Sekely.

   Sometimes casting one actor rather than another really can make or break a film that, on the surface at least, does not appear to have that much else going for it. In the case in Waterfront, a taut 1944 spy thriller about Nazi spies and German expatriates in wartime San Francisco, that actor is John Carradine.

   Directed by Steve Sekely, a Hungarian filmmaker who made numerous low-budget American films, Waterfront stars Carradine as Victor Marlow, a ruthless dark-clad Gestapo agent tasked with hunting down the men responsible for stealing a list of Nazi spies in America from one Dr. Karl Decker (J. Carrol Naish), an optometrist with a waterfront practice.

   The story begins with an armed robbery in the fog. The rather unobtrusive Decker, who we soon come to realize is a Nazi spy, is held up by a waterfront hoodlum. Too bad for him, as something far more valuable than money is taken from his possession. The thug takes his master spy book, a veritable listing of the Nazi agents in America.

   Enter Marlow (Carradine), a lean, mean Nazi who will do whatever it takes to get the book back. He also, we soon learn, seems to have his eye on Decker’s position as head honcho in the San Francisco Nazi underworld. Marlow intimidates a local German woman who runs a boardinghouse, forcing her to provide him with lodging. As it turns out, the landlady’s daughter’s boyfriend has a pending business deal with one of the local, anti-fascist Germans involved with the theft of Decker’s book.

   If it sounds complicated, it is and it isn’t. Suffice it to say that if you think too much about the plot, you begin to realize how preposterous it all is to have all these characters interacting in one small neighborhood of a large West Coast city.

   Indeed, all things considered, Waterfront could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered a remarkably well-crafted spy tale. It does, however, benefit from a noir-like atmosphere and some exceptionally well-filmed sequences when the lanky Carradine, with his unmistakable voice, demonstrates just how well he portrays menacing characters. It’s a slightly clunky low-budget affair from PRC Pictures, but for what it is, it’s an enjoyable little wartime spy thriller.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

CORNERED. RKO Radio Pictures, 1945. Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel, Nina Vale, Morris Carnovsky, Edgar Barrier, Steven Geray. Director: Edward Dmytryk

   Cornered is the type of suspense film where, for a time at least, you really don’t have a clue exactly where you’re headed. But you’re in good company, because the film’s protagonist doesn’t really know what’s going on all around him, either. It’s not the easiest plot structure to pull off in a book, let alone a film.

   You’d surely agree with me that far too many crime films have been ruined by a director holding back important information about what’s going on from the viewer without his ultimately, and successfully, clearing the obfuscation so as to bring the plot to a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes, trying to do too much to give the film an air of mystery ends up letting all the air out of the proverbial bag.

   In Edward Dymytrk’s Cornered, however, the mystifying and suspenseful plot ultimately works quite well. This is thanks in no small part to the film’s casting of Dick Powell as Laurence Gerard, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot on the hunt for a Nazi collaborator, and Walter Slezak as Melchior Incza, an enterprising scoundrel who serves as Gerard’s Virgil on a tour of the war criminal underground of Buenos Aries. Powell and Slezak are both such talented actors that you don’t mind being temporarily in the dark.

   On the surface, at least, the plot is fairly straightforward. The Second World War is officially over. Unofficially, of course, there are many unresolved issues. The murder of Laurence Gerard’s French wife is one of them. Gerard resolves that he will track down his wife’s killer, a French collaborator by the name of Marcel Jarnac. He travels from France to Switzerland and then to Argentina on the hunt for the mysterious man.

   Once he arrives in Buenos Aires, Gerard is immediately thrust into a web of deception and psychological turmoil. He’s not sure whom to trust or who is lying to him. All the while, he is struggling with headaches, a reminder that the recently concluded war’s casualties include those struggling with post-traumatic stress.

   Among the nefarious, or potentially dangerous people he encounters are the enigmatic Melchior Incza (Slezak), the sophisticated Argentinian lawyer, Manuel Santana (Morris Carnovsky), and a woman who is thought to be Jarnac’s wife (Micheline Cheirel). All the players seem to have hidden agendas.

   But Gerard is a man on a mission of revenge and will not heed calls to abandon his task, no matter what the cost. He descends deeper into the shadowy underground of Buenos Aires, all culminating in a violent showdown on the waterfront in which we finally see the unassuming Jarnac. He looks like he could easily blend into a crowd without anyone noticing something was amiss.

   And that’s the point. Fascism hides in plain sight. It is Jarnac, in his discussion with a captive Gerard, who most clearly enunciates the film’s strong anti-fascist message and warning: the Second World War may be over, but fascists like him still live, hidden both in plain sight and in the shadows.

   In conclusion, Cornered is both a suspense film and an early example of film noir. Gerard is caught up is a labyrinth of uncertainty, often subject to historical forces well out of his control. Many of the film’s pivotal scenes occur in interior settings, well away from the disinfectant power of bright sunlight. Nowhere is this the case more striking than in a beautifully filmed sequence in the Buenos Aires subway in which a traumatized Gerard struggles to maintain his composure in a broken world.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY. Warner Brothers, 1939. Edward G. Robinson, Francis Lederer, George Sanders, Paul Lukas, Henry O’Neill, Dorothy Tree, James Stephenson, Joe Sawyer, Sig Ruman. Director: Anatole Litvak.

   Reviewing Confessions of a Nazi Spy, from the vantage point of 2014 is quite a different undertaking than writing about it in 1939 when it was first released. While it remains a well above average spy thriller, some of the film’s immediacy has been lost by the passage of time. That said, the Anatole Litvak-directed project remains a significant and quite well constructed film.

   The movie, based on the real life exposure of Nazi spies operating in the United States, depicts in semi-documentary style the emergence of a pro-Nazi spy ring in New York City. Interspersed among the dramatic sequences is actual newsreel footage.

   As the first major studio production to detail the growing Nazi threat to American national security, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was harsh in its condemnation of German-American groups that allied themselves with Hitler. Although it seems to deliberately avoid any explicit reference to Nazi anti-Semitism, the movie does repeatedly portray Nazism as maddening, barbaric, and contrary to the very fabric of Americanism. Nazi expansionism is made out to be very real danger to democracy.

   Edward G. Robinson, whose family was a target of Romanian anti-Semitism prior to their emigration to the United States, portrays FBI Agent Edward Renard. It is his mission to both expose the Nazi spy ring and turn them over to the Justice Department for prosecution. The message is clear. Unlike in Nazi Germany, the United States gives all men a fair trial.

   Apart from their Nazi handlers, the ring consists primarily of three German-Americans: a megalomaniac loser and U.S. Army deserter, Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer), his dimwitted chum, Werner Renz (Joe Sawyer), and the fanatical Dr. Karl Kassel convincingly portrayed by Paul Lukas.

   The latter character is, in many ways, the most interesting. He’s a bespectacled, mild mannered, physician working in the Yorkville section of Manhattan who is also a fanatical Nazi sympathizer active in the German-American Bund. Rounding out the cast are George Sanders, who portrays a Nazi official, and his female partner who ends up having a quite important role in the FBI’s successful unraveling of the spy ring.

   Watching this film, I could not help but wonder. How many people today are even aware of Nazi espionage in the United States prior to Germany’s declaration of war upon the United States? Even further, how many people are aware of the rise and fall of those German-American societies that supported the Third Reich? There’s an especially captivating scene in which Dr. Kassel visits a pro-Nazi youth camp based somewhere in what is presumably supposed to be the northeastern United States.

   Despite its grave subject matter, the film does end on a semi-optimistic and patriotic note. Renard is sitting in a diner with the federal prosecutor. A paperboy comes in with the latest edition, the headline noting that the feds have taken down the spy ring. A diner worker and talk for a moment among themselves, glad that those Nazis have been found out. This is America, not Europe. We are different from those hatemongers, they say. We’re Americans.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

BRITISH INTELLIGENCE. Warner Brothers, 1940. Boris Karloff, Margaret Lindsay, Bruce Lester, Leonard Mudie, Holmes Herbert, Austin Fairman. Director: Terry O. Morse.

   British Intelligence is a spy film/thriller starring Boris Karloff. He portrays a mysterious, facially scarred, government agent who, under the name Valdar, poses as a French butler in the home of Arthur Bennett, a high-ranking British official.

   Based on Three Faces East, a play from 1918 by Anthony Paul Kelly, it’s a fun, albeit not overly sophisticated, spy film with a copious array of characters and a particularly a compelling performance by Karloff. There’s some rather good use of shadow and lighting and enough plot twists condensed into an hour’s running time to keep you guessing what’s going to happen next.

   Although released toward the beginning of what was to become the Second World War, British Intelligence is actually set during the First World War. Britain is at war with a bellicose, expansionist Germany which seems to be as much Hitler’s Germany as the Kaiser’s.

   But that’s not all that important. What’s significant is that there are spies — many of them, it would appear — afoot and up to no good in England’s capital city. And it’s up to Britain’s intelligence services that are tasked with rooting them out to protect war plans from falling into the hands of the enemy.

   Although the plot takes several turns before coming to its resolution, the set up is as follows: British aviator Frank Bennett (portrayed by the South African-born Bruce Lester) is shot down over France. Recovering in a British field hospital, he is tended to by an affectionate nurse (Margaret Lindsay) who, just a scene later, is seen in the company of particularly Prussian-looking German army officers.

   Apparently, the good nurse is actually a German spy by the name of Helene Von Lorbeer. Her mission is to go to London and serve in the household of Arthur Bennett (Holmes Herbert), father of the aforementioned wounded Frank. The characters portrayed by two leads — Karloff and Lindsay — of course meet up in the Bennett household. For a while at least, it seems as if Valdar is a German spy as well. As you might imagine, Frank Bennett eventually returns home to London only to find his supposed nurse living in his family home, precipitating a series of events which eventually culminate in the destruction of the local Germany spy ring.

   Although Lindsay is good, it’s Karloff who really steals the show in this one. It’s a much better role for him than as the genial scientist in Night Key, for instance, reviewed here. There’s a great scene (around the 24-25 minute mark) in which we see the shadowy face of Valdar (Karloff) while he’s snooping through Arthur Bennett’s office. It’s a reminder of how much an exceptional actor can convey with a facial expression and what good directors and cinematographers can do with lighting.

   Although British Intelligence may not be ranked among the best spy movies, it is still a quite good film. There are no major plot holes, the acting is above average, and the story is fairly solid. More importantly, it gives the contemporary viewer a brief window into the mindset of Englishmen who, in 1940, were once again faced with a mortal strategic foe in Germany. In the film’s final scene, Colonel James Yates (Leonard Mudie) sums up the likely attitude of many of Britain’s citizens at the time: “We fight wars only because we crave peace so ardently. But always in the strange scheme of things, some maniac with a lust for power arises . . .”

   Who in the audience wouldn’t have gotten the reference? If the message needed to be clearer, Yates ends the film in dialogue with Arthur Bennett, telling him that when war comes, England will of course fight. It’s worth watching.


ALEX GORDON – The Cipher. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1961. Grove Press, paperback, 1961. Pyramid X-1483, paperback, 1966.

ARABESQUE. Universal, 1966. Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, with Alan Badel, Kieron Moore, Carl Duering, John Merivale, Duncan Lamont, George Coulouris. Based on the book The Cipher, by Alex Gordon. Director: Stanley Donen.


   Alex Gordon’s The Cipher is a polite little mystery that tiptoes into Graham Greene country now and again on its gentle way to wherever it’s going.

   Philip Hoag carries the tale, a reedy, asthmatic professor of middle-eastern anthropology, bullied by his superiors at college, handymen in his apartment building, and lately deserted by his wife and child — the sort of burnt-out case Greene evoked so well, here trotted out to play an unlikely part in a scheme of international intrigue and all that sort of thing.

   Hoag finds himself suborned by a corpulent Arabian tycoon named Beshraavi (who could as easily been called Sydney Greenstreet) to decipher an inscription that Beshraavi may have murdered to get. The money’s good and Hoag is easy to push around, so he soon finds himself working on it—and just as quickly finds himself warned by Beshraavi’s perky little college-girl niece that finishing the job will almost certainly prove hazardous to his health.

   We turn another couple of pages and Hoag is running for his life, trying to escape the Arab’s minions, prevent an assassination and protect his own wife and child.

   Given this premise, it’s surprising how little action there actually is in The Cipher, as Hoag spends most of the book trying to figure out the people involved and maneuver his way around and through a web of tangled motivations and petty personal problems.

   I think I know what author Gordon was trying to do though: As Hoag moves through various strata of society and begins to understand the personalities involved, he grows increasingly adept at persuading, manipulating and even bullying on his own part, and The Cipher becomes less an action story and more about the growth of his character.

   And if Gordon never quite achieves the heights of Graham Greene or Eric Ambler, one has to give him marks for trying and note that the last few chapters generate some real suspense, capped off with a genuinely amusing curtain line.


   When this was turned into a movie, they credited Gordon under his real name (Gordon Cotler, a busy screenwriter in his day) and changed the title to Arabesque, but this was only the beginning of the cheerful havoc wreaked on The Cipher by director Stanley Donen and a phalanx of writers that included Peter (Charade) Stone. To play the book’s frail asthmatic professor with thinning blonde hair, Donen naturally turned to Gregory Peck, who transforms the character into that staple of the Movies: a healthy, handsome, straight guy with no visible neuroses who has somehow grown into early middle age without ever getting married.

   The gluttonous Arab is played by slender British actor Alan Badel (who infuses the part with a genial, easy-going nastiness, coupled with a neat touch of fetishism) and the perky little niece becomes Sophia Loren, a fine actress but one to whom the words “perky” and especially “little” simply do not apply.


   With this as a start, Donen and his crew proceed to run through Gordon’s gentle book with a mulching mower, filling the movie with witty quips, furious fight scenes and hairbreadth escapes reminiscent of the old serials while cinematographer Christopher Challis (best remembered for Tales of Hoffman) shoots everything at odd camera angles, through chandeliers, from inside fish tanks, reflected in mirrors or from underneath rugs, giving the film a baroque look that more than justifies the title.

   Somewhere in all this is a story about a cipher to be decoded, a planned assassination and a few other bits and pieces from Gordon’s book that pop up from time to time like frightened squirrels looking fearfully about the turbulent surroundings, ready to flee at once. But it’s all so much fun and (like Loren herself) so easy to look at that one easily forgives the excesses to relax and enjoy a simple fun movie.


Reviewed by DAVID L. VINEYARD:         


DIPLOMATIC COURIER. Fox, 1952. Tyrone Power, Patricia Neal, Stephen McNally, Hildegarde Neff, Karl Malden, James Millican, Stefan Schnabel, with Carleton Young, Dabs Greer, Russ Conway, Lumsden Hare, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Michael Ansara. Narrated by Hugh Marlowe. Screenplay by Casey Robinson & Liam O’Brien, based on the novel Sinister Errand by Peter Cheyney. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

   One of the best spy films of the Fifties, this fast paced thriller directed by Henry Hathaway was shot extensively on location across Europe and races from Paris to Salzberg to the international city of Trieste (“What Lisbon and Istanbul were to the last war Trieste is to this one”), and a finale on the Simplon Orient Express.

   Tyrone Power is Mike Kells, a diplomatic courier tapped for a dangerous assignment almost before he can finish the one he is already on (a voice over by narrator Hugh Marlowe informs us the mission has been triggered by the most important message to be received by the State Department since the 38th Parallel was crossed in Korea — the Semper Project). He’s to board the Arlsberg Express out of Salzberg and meet fellow courier Sam Carew (James Millican) who will give him papers to deliver to Trieste.

   Nothing all that surprising save that they hand him a gun before he boards the plane.

   Normally he’s armed with a briefcase chained to his waist and in no more danger than flirting with attractive flight attendants and trying to fasten his seatbelt while chained to a briefcase.

   On the plane with him he meets attractive widow Joan Ross (Patricia Neal) whose shoulder he promptly falls asleep on. She immediately sets her elegant cap for him, but he keeps disappearing on her.


   Could be a pleasant assignment after all, and it will be nice to see good old Sam again..

   But Sam is being followed and meeting with a mysterious blonde (Hildegarde Neff), and in short order is murdered by a pair of Russian thugs. Mike leaves the train to stay with the body, and Colonel Cagle (Stephen McNally) of military intelligence sets him out as a stalking horse with only military policeman Ernie (Karl Malden) to protect him.

   Now Kells is racing across Europe with spies on his trail, involved with beautiful stateless Janine (Hildegarde Neff), and wondering why Joan Ross keeps showing up.

   It all has to do with the papers Sam was supposed to give him — copies of the Soviet plan to invade and take over Yugoslavia.


   Ernie and Cagle are the only people Mike can trust, and they are using him as a staked goat in a high stakes hunt. Someone murdered his friend, and now they are trying to kill him.

   In Trieste the stakes grow much higher, until the final confrontation with the head of Soviet intelligence in the West (Stefan Schnabel) in a compartment on the Orient Express with Soviet Agents on all sides.

   Henry Hathaway was one of film’s great entertainers, his films including everything from rousing adventures of the Raj like Lives of the Bengal Lancers; film noir like Kiss of Death, Dark Corner, and Call Northside 777; westerns like True Grit, Rawhide, and Garden of Evil; rollicking comedy/adventure like North to Alaska, suspense like 23 Paces to Baker Street and Seven Thieves; and docu-noir like The House on 92nd Street.


   Power did several good films with Hathaway from Johnny Apollo to Brigham Young and the classic noir western Rawhide. You can watch the arc of his career across the Hathaway films alone, and see in this one the mature actor with WW II military experience behind him as well as critical success on stage in Mister Roberts. Here he is self assured, sensibly paranoid, and suitably tough, a fair distance from the male ingenue of Johnny Apollo.

   It’s an assured star performance by an actor at the top of his game.

   This is a fast paced hard nosed spy drama that keeps much of the plot of Peter Cheyney’s novel (first of two featuring Mike Kells, the other is Ladies Won’t Wait) changing the hero from British to American (ironic considering it’s Peter Cheyney famous for using the faux American voice), Cheyney’s ruthless spy boss Peter Quayle to Stephen McNally’s Colonel Cagle, and Cheyney’s cheerful Belgian hit man Ernie Guelvada into Karl Malden’s military policeman Ernie (actually it’s perfect casting either way).

   Cheyney’s penchant for elegant deadly ladies is kept intact. Both Neal and Neff are sexy and suitably dangerous, and it is relatively late in the film before you know which side, besides their own, either is on.

   Both Neal and Neff have strong scenes and handle them well. Neal in particular walks a thin line between comedy and drama and has a great last line.


   Diplomatic Courier has the advantage of a big budget, a first rate supporting cast, a strong script and storyline, beautiful cinematography by Lucien Ballard, taut direction by Hathaway, and attractive leads at the top of their form. It’s not particularly serious, but it is rapidly paced, handsomely shot, and the kind of sure fire entertainment that the big studios did with casual brilliance.

   Look quickly for Dabs Greer, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and Michael Ansara all unbilled in the credits. Greer has no lines and Bronson’s only line is in Russian.

   I think you will be impressed by this one. It’s an exciting slick spy film that is smart and entertaining, and hardly takes a pause for breath from the opening to the finale. You’ll be almost as breathless as Power’s Mike Kells by the time you get to the end. It may not be quite in a class with films like The Third Man, Five Fingers, or North By Northwest, but it is top notch entertainment all the way.


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