Suspense & espionage films


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE SPY IN THE GREEN HAT. MGM, 1967. Robert Vaughn , David McCallum, Jack Palance, Janet Leigh, Eduardo Ciannelli, Allen Jenkins, Jack La Rue, Leo G. Carroll, Joan Blondell, Letícia Román. First aired on NBC, 10:00 p.m., Friday, November 25 and Friday, December 2, 1966 as episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: “The Concrete Overcoat Affair” (Parts 1 and 2). Director: Joseph Sargent.

   Situated somewhere between action film and satire is the fifth The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feature film, The Spy in the Green Hat. Part spy film, part anarchic spoof, the movie, like the other films in the series, is the theatrical release of previously aired television shows with some added, often risqué, material added on.

   Directed by Joseph Sargent, this entry is a campy romp featuring Jack Palance and Janet Leigh as THRUSH villains. Veteran actors Eduardo Ciannelli, Allen Jenkins, and Jack La Rue portray Chicago gangsters who team up with U.N.C.L.E. agents, Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) to thwart THRUSH’s alliance with a former Nazi scientist. Adding to the excitement is the presence of Italian actress, Letícia Román who portrays an innocent Italian girl who inadvertently gets caught up in a whirlwind of international intrigue.

   As far as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episodes go, these are fairly average. If it weren’t for Palance and Leigh, they wouldn’t be particularly notable. That said, the movie has enough action, silliness, and homage to make it a light, entertaining, albeit hardly memorable, 1960s spy film, even if the title has almost nothing to do with the movie. Well, except for the fact that a minor character at the very end happens to wear a — wait for it — green hat.


JOURNEY INTO FEAR (Book and Films)
Reviewed by Dan Stumpf


   I did a quick search of this blog just now, and found no reviews of Eric Ambler’s classic Journey Into Fear (Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1940; Knopf, US, 1940). “Well,” thought I, “I’m not one to make threats, but there’ll be a letter about this in the Times.”

   Several years ago, a local video store was going out of business, and I naturally stopped by to see what priceless treasures I could pick up on the cheap. Among the things I emerged with was the remake of Journey Into Fear (New World, 1974) adapted by producer Trevor Wallace from Eric Ambler’s novel (previously filmed by Orson Welles in 1942) and directed by Daniel Mann.

   Watching this, I began to suspect that Wallace’s script drew rather more from the 1942 film than from Ambler’s novel, so I pulled out the older film and the book to check my suspicions.

   This was turned into a movie by Orson Welles in 1942, an engagingly gimmicky piece with the Mercury players (Agnes Moorhead, Everett Sloan et al.) but the effect is somewhat vitiated by Welles’ giving himself all the smart lines and by his decision to depict the quiet Graham (Joseph Cotton) as a boob.

   The cinema of Orson Welles is deliberately un-heroic, which is probably just as well, given his strong visual style; a Welles movie with an out-and-out Hero would come off as altogether too Wagnerian. There is, in fact, more than a touch of Wagner in Welles’ two most nearly heroic characters, Rochester in Jane Eyre and MacBeth. But there I go digressin’ again

   Getting back to the re-make, well, to be fair, there are a couple lines from the novel in the newer film and not in the 1942 version. But to be frank, huge chunks of Welles’ film seem to have been simply re-shot without credit and plunked down in this movie. When Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton adapted Ambler’s novel for the film (Cotton gets sole screen credit for the writing.) they gave lines from one character to another, re-arranged scenes and added little bits of business, and all these changes appear just about shot-for-shot in the re-make. In fact, the earlier film features a hired killer who never speaks, because the guy who played him was no actor and would only take the part if they cut out all his lines. And sure enough, in the re-make the hired killer –- played by the very capable actor Ian McShane –- has no dialogue.

   What difference exists between the two films is largely in the ordinary look of the ’74 film – the careful camerawork and set design of the original replaced by harsh color and tinny sound – and in the casting: Welles filled his film with capable bit players whose names mean little to most moviegoers, but players who leave a distinctive impression — the best-known are maybe Everett Sloane and Hans Conreid.

   The re-make, on the other hand, is filled with second-rank “stars” mostly miscast or wasted: Sam Waterston is fine in the lead, and Vincent Price and Donald Pleasance have a couple good scenes (though Price makes a decidedly unconvincing Arab) but Zero Mostel, Shelley Winters, Scott Marlowe, Yvette Mimieux and even Stanley Holloway all just kind of take up space.

   On the plus side, though, I’ve got to say Joseph Wiseman (fondly remembered as the first of the Bond villains and star of his own comic-book cover) is fine in the old Orson Welles part as Colonel Haki, there’s a solid, actionful ending, and a shoot-and-chase done entirely with sound effects – I still can’t figure out whether it was meant to be clever or merely cheap, but it’s enough to elevate this startlingly unoriginal film into the class of a pleasant time-filler.

   Moving on just briefly to Eric Ambler’s novel (the excuse for this piece, after all) well, it was one of those things I read in 7th grade, and I was glad to come back to it. Even after seeing two movies and getting very familiar with the plot, I found the writing absorbing and the story suspenseful.

   Ambler’s tale takes a bit of familiarity with the political map of war-torn Europe in the 40s; readers who didn’t live through it or bone up on their History might wonder at a story where British and German agents travel freely in Turkey while the British are supposedly arming the Turks against Hitler, but complications like this were pretty much gratis when Ambler wrote it, and by the time he gets to the crux of the tale — Howard Graham, an un-assuming British engineer trapped on a tramp steamer with a bizarre assortment of passengers, one of whom wants to kill him — he has notched the suspense up very agreeably indeed, and proceeds to a conclusion that is both cynical and exciting: no small feat, that.

   Ambler also does a sharp job here creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic tension, and he adds a layer of genuine thoughtfulness: our hero starts out his journey as a man with secrets to hide, and he seems at first rather unique and isolated, surrounded by a ship full of very ordinary and rather dull background characters.

   As the book and the journey go on, though, we discover the rest of the cast have their own secrets: droll, noble, sinister or just venal, the passengers who began the journey as stereotypes become real by the story’s end, and the central character seems much less unique -– and more believable.

   This works both as a plot device (I won’t say how) and as something more. Perhaps Ambler, writing in a world at war, was trying to say something about the worth of the individual. Or maybe he was just setting us up for a delicious bit of anticlimax at the very end of the book, when the last secret is revealed. Whatever, it makes for the kind of reading one remembers.

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.

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