Wed 2 Oct 2013
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.