Suspense & espionage films


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.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


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.

THE CIPHER / ARABESQUE

   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.

THE CIPHER / ARABESQUE

   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.

THE CIPHER / ARABESQUE

   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.

THE CIPHER / ARABESQUE

Reviewed by DAVID L. VINEYARD:         

DIPLOMATIC COURIER Tyrone Power

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.

DIPLOMATIC COURIER Tyrone Power

   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.

DIPLOMATIC COURIER Tyrone Power

   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.

DIPLOMATIC COURIER Tyrone Power

   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 Tyrone Power

   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.

DIPLOMATIC COURIER Tyrone Power

SECRET AGENT OF JAPAN. 20th Century Fox, 1943. Preston Foster, Lynn Bari, Noel Madison, Victor Sen Yung, Janis Carter, Steve Geray, Kurt Katch, Addison Richards. Screenwriter: John Larkin. Director: Irving Pichel.

SECRET AGENT OF JAPAN Lynn Bari

   Secret Agent of Japan was the third and final pairing of its two leading stars, Preston Foster and Lynn Bari, the others being Chasing Danger (1939) and News Is Made at Night (1939). This one’s not nearly as good, but there may be a reason for it, and a historical one, at that.

   I’m told, from what I read, that this movie went into production the day after Pearl Harbor, and it was the first film to be released that included the attack as part of the story line. I’m also told that the critics were not particularly fond of the film, quite the contrary, but audiences flocked to it in droves.

   Its official release date was April 3, 1942. Hardly enough time to get a story written and filmed, one that makes a lot of sense, you might think, and true enough, this one doesn’t.

SECRET AGENT OF JAPAN Lynn Bari

   Preston Foster plays an expatriate American (Roy Bonnell) running a bar called the Dixie Bar in Shanghai as the drums of the oncoming war fills the minds of the citizens there, of every nationality, and there are many. Bonnell thinks he knows his way around the city and has an understanding with the Japanese living there, but the latter are growing confident (and menacing) about something.

   Enter Lynn Bari as a spy for the British, on the trail of some valuable jade she says, but with various mail drops, secret codes, and a mysterious death or two, it seems as though her cover story is not long to last, nor does it. (Poor Janis Carter, as Bari’s companion in the spying business. Her part is too short to make much of an impression, much less to warrant a listing so high up in the credits, but to her credit, she does and she is.)

   The tale gets a twist or two from there along the way, with the various parts never coming together as a whole, but the audience in 1942 knew what was going on well enough, I’m sure, and the ending of course, is a happy one. The movie doesn’t stand up well today, but the people involved with it weren’t making it for viewers some 70 years later. They were making it for another audience altogether.

SECRET AGENT OF JAPAN Lynn Bari

CHASING DANGER Preston Foster

CHASING DANGER. 20th Century Fox, 1939. Preston Foster, Lynn Bari, Wally Vernon, Henry Wilcoxon, Joan Woodbury, Harold Huber, Jody Gilbert. Director: Ricardo Cortez.

   In Chasing Danger Preston Foster and Wally Vernon play a couple of world-traveling news photographers who stumble across the source of arms and ammunition for a group of Arab rebels in French Algeria. Of the two, Foster’s the brains of the pair, so to speak, while Vernon plays the dumb sidekick to near perfection. (He spends most the movie mooning over his fiancee back in Brooklyn, where their wedding is supposed to be taking place.)

   Lynn Bari is the previously mentioned source. Her mother being Arabian, her sympathies are with the rebels, but her source of funds are questionable, the latter being a cache of jewels her accomplice in arms-running (Harold Huber) has in his possession, he being a crook who disappeared with them several months earlier while making a getaway flight across the Channel to England.

CHASING DANGER Preston Foster

   For a short movie (my copy runs only 50 minutes or so) the plot is both complicated and simple, once you’ve sorted it all out. It’s pretty much action (and a little leering) all the way, nothing more, nor nothing less.

   Don’t go out of your way for this one, but it’s done with a certain amount of expertise that might surprise you. If it comes along and you’re a fan of this kind of semi-half-baked foreign adventure, I’d say give it a try.

LATER.   After writing the comments above, I made a discovery that I couldn’t find an easy way to work into my review, so I’ll talk about it here instead. This is the second in a series of two movies to have featured this somewhat comedic pair of adventuresome cameramen.

CHASING DANGER Preston Foster

   The first one was Sharpshooters (1938), but it was Brian Donlevy who played the part of Steve Mitchell in that earlier one, not Preston Foster. (I always thought they looked something alike.)

   Lynn Bari was in the first one also, but playing a different part. I’ve not been able to track down a copy, and I’d really like to. But getting back to Steve Mitchell, what’s kind of interesting about this is that’s the name of character played by Brian Donlevy in his 1950s TV espionage series, Dangerous Assignment.

   Coincidence or not, I don’t know.

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, PART ONE
by Walter Albert         


JULIE Doris Day

JULIE. MGM, 1956. Doris Day, Louis Jourdan, Barry Sullivan, Frank Lovejoy, Jack Kelly, Ann Robinson, Barney Phillips, Jack Kruschen, John Gallaudet, Carleton Young. Screenwriter-director: Andrew L. Stone.

   I must admit that I have never been fond of those damsel-in-distress films in which an anxious heroine (her brow is usually creased), married to a homicidal maniac, is so enamoured of her prospective murderer that she can’t bear to take the most elementary precautions to protect herself.

   A typical example of this genus horribilis is Julie, starring Doris Day, Louis Jourdan, and Barry Sullivan. Day plays an airline stewardess who loses her bearings when she’s on the ground and marries handsome psycho Jourdan after her first husband dies under circumstances which are only mysterious to her.

JULIE Doris Day

   Barry Sullivan plays the attentive other man hovering protectively around Julie with little success in persuading her that her husband is up to no good, again. Eventually, Julie is alone in an apartment to which Jourdan has traced her and when I unexpectedly had to leave the room, she was pacing nervously while the camera cut frequently to shots of Jourdan closing in.

   When I returned, to my surprise I found that Julie, with grim but plucky determination, was attempting to land a very large plane. The pilot was nowhere to be seen, the co-pilot kept lapsing into a coma from which an attentive man (not Barry Sullivan) kept reviving him, and a phalanx of air controllers was giving landing directions from the flight tower of an airport which she was probably in imminent danger of demolishing.

   In line with my policy of not revealing endings. I will draw a discreet curtain over the remaining action.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 7, No. 2, March-April 1983.


JULIE Doris Day

THE RUSSIA HOUSE Sean Connery

THE RUSSIA HOUSE. 1990. Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, Roy Scheider, James Fox, Klaus Maria Brandauer, John Mahoney, Michael Kitchen, J.T. Walsh, Ken Russell. Based on the novel by John le Carré. Director: Fred Schepisi.

   I haven’t read the novel, and if I hadn’t recently seen the movie, I probably never would have. For one reason or another, none good, spy fiction hasn’t been a major portion of my reading diet for some time. But there is a chance I’ll read it now, if only to find out what was in the book that wasn’t in the movie.

   There’s no way, the way I see it, that a long book (which I assume le Carré’s book was) could be condensed down into a film that was less than two hours long.

THE RUSSIA HOUSE Sean Connery

   Or at least that’s how I felt as we were leaving the theater. Something was missing. And the something that was missing was the feeling that something had happened during the course of the movie, other than (I grant you) a successful romance between Sean Connery (playing a disheveled semi-idealistic British publisher) and Michelle Pfeiffer, as a Russian go-between delivering him a manuscript from a dissident Soviet scientist (Blandauer).

   As one of the various British or American agents who get caught up in the story says, somewhere close to the end, “Well, we’re back to square one.”

THE RUSSIA HOUSE Sean Connery

   As a spy or espionage novel, rather than a romance, there’s a moderate amount of suspense that builds up before the ending, but none of the edge-of-the-seat variety. Curiously, a number of incidents occur that appear to be of major significance, but nothing seems to happen as a result. Actions, whether performed under duress or not, never appear to have consequences.

   There are scenes in which Sean Connery’s characters is wired for sound. There are others, especially when it would have counted the most — or that is to say, when the plot counts on it — he is not. What a clunky way to run an intelligence operation.

   The acting is uniformly terrific. Michelle Pfeiffer never looked lovelier. The scenery — apparently the movie was filmed in Russia — is even better. The story is what needed some help.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 28,
       February 1991 (moderately revised).


[UPDATE] 05-12-12. Of course there is the possibility that I missed something subtle, or even not so subtle. And if so, I am sure that someone reading this will tell me what it was. I only vaguely remember the details of the movie itself — it was over 20 years ago — but strangely enough, I do remember the theater Judy and I went to see it in, and I do remember how well-filmed it was.

THE RUSSIA HOUSE Sean Connery

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