Saturday, June 21, 2008

Assignment — Paris (Columbia, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

What Charles and I finally ended up watching was Assignment — Paris (the listing on the film separates the two words in the title with a colon, but the opening credit clearly indicates a dash, just as well because you can’t use a colon in a file name), a 1952 anti-Communist “thriller” (the word in quotes because one thing this movie was decidedly not was thrilling) made by Columbia from a short story called “Trial of Terror” by Paul and Pauline Gallico (who themselves had been threatened with being blacklisted and probably wrote this story to get themselves off the blacklist much the way Shostakovitch wrote his Fifth Symphony, and called it “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism,” to keep himself out of the gulag), adapted by Walter Goetz and Jack Palmer White with a screenplay by William Bowers — and yes, this seems like a textbook example of my general-field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers.

The central character — though he’s only billed third — is Nicholas Strang (George Sanders), editor of the international edition of the New York Herald Tribune. He’s an unusual Sanders character in that he’s on the side of good, at least politically, though that doesn’t stop him from hitting on the female help; he was formerly in a relationship with secretary Sandy Tate (the marvelous and here underused Audrey Totter) but dumped her when reporter Jeanne Moray (Märta Torén — that’s how lists her; the actual credits strip her of her diacriticals) showed up and attracted his attentions instead, and she’s trying to get him to take her seriously as a reporter while he only wants to get in her pants. The top-billed performer in this movie is Dana Andrews, playing hotshot reporter Jimmy Race, newly arrived from the States, and of course he and Jeanne meet-cute when they’re both being kept waiting by the Hungarian ambassador to France and they don’t realize they’re working for the same news organization. They’re there to cover the fate of Paul Anderson, an American accused of espionage by the Hungarian government, whose premier, Andreas Ordy (Herbert Berghof) — the one fictional world leader in the story; all the other countries’ leaders mentioned have their real names — is in the process of breaking with the Soviet Union and allying himself with Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Nonetheless, Ordy is very much a chip off the old Stalinist bloc(k); when the movie opens he appears on Hungarian radio to announce that Anderson has confessed to espionage and been given a 20-year sentence, and the people at the New York Herald-Tribune even get to monitor the broadcast of Anderson’s taped confession, in which he says he’s giving the confession freely and without duress and Dana Andrews’ character snarls, “I’ll bet!” The film alternates between Paris and Budapest and centers around the Hungarian authorities’ search for the mysterious dissident Gabor Czeki (Sandro Giglio), whose miraculous escape from a Hungarian concentration camp while the Hungarian authorities thought he was dead recalls Victor Laszlo from Casablanca (which is about the only aspect of this movie that evokes a film of genuine quality). What neither the heroes nor the villains know until about three-quarters of the way through the movie is that Czeki is hiding in the New York Herald Tribune office as Grisha, the seemingly unimportant and ineffectual office assistant, factotum and comic-relief character — not that there’s much drama in this movie for you to want comic relief from.

Meanwhile, and despite the fact that his predecessor on this assignment was returned badly beaten and near death, Race volunteers to sneak into Budapest to see if he can find out what happened to Anderson (in one of the few interesting inventions of the writing committee, he sends back a coded message mentioning two cemeteries and a famous author of fairy tales, from which Nicholas and Jeanne deduce that Anderson is dead) and also to contact the Hungarian underground and collect a photo of Ordy meeting with Tito — which he does, though there’s no clue on the picture as to the date it was taken. (By now I was expecting them to pull the Call Northside 777 gimmick of having a newspaper in the photo yield the date on which it was taken.) Eventually a couple of Hungarian thugs come to Paris and start shoving people around, including holding Czeki’s children hostage, until they finally flush him out and take him back home — only they’re ambushed by the police and an exchange is arranged by which the Hungarians will get Czeki and the Herald Tribune will get back Race, who in the meantime has been arrested, brainwashed and forced to record his own “confession.” That’s right; though top-billed, Dana Andrews almost totally disappears for the last third of this film, reappearing only at the end and, when the Hungarian authorities turn him over, he looks either hypnotized, drugged or both — but the implication is that he’ll recover, and meanwhile the Western authorities have a piece of information they can hold over Ordy’s head to make sure he and his regime leave Czeki alone and allow him to get on with his life.

Assignment — Paris is one of the most plodding films ever made in its genre; the committee-driven script required the skills of Alfred Hitchcock and got Robert Parrish instead (though credits Phil Karlson as second director, indicating that even the “suits” at Columbia realized that Parrish’s work wasn’t cutting the mustard); there are a few noir compositions of heart-stopping beauty that may represent Karlson’s contribution to the film, but other than that the film is quite plainly shot. Charles ridiculed the movie for making tape editing one of the keys to resolving the plot (I don’t recall that, but then I was nodding off on occasion) — which probably in 1952 had the high-tech patina that, say, the computer scene in the first Mission: Impossible movie had to audiences of our time, but also recalled David Sedaris’ comment on how he respected the use of computers to make digital effects shots but resented it when the computers themselves were shown on screen and became part of the plot. Like a lot of the other anti-Communist movies of the time, Assignment — Paris suffers from the fact that Hollywood knew only one way to depict contemporary urban evil: like their Nazi predecessors in World War II-era movies, the Communists in these films behave exactly like the gangsters of the 1930’s crime classics like Little Caesar and Public Enemy, shoving guns around, getting in people’s faces, looking brutal and intimidating and snarling out their lines. (Also, one weird quirk about this movie is that just about everyone playing a Hungarian has really bad hair.)

But what really sinks Assignment — Paris is how dull it is; whatever potentials for excitement and suspense exist in the story are muffed, and Parrish plods along at a soporific pace that plays against Dana Andrews’ acting style and offers George Sanders a chance to chew the scenery — which he does in that delightfully droll way of his that puts the scalp of this film on his well-filled wall of movies he easily stole from the rest of the cast — but doesn’t generate the thrills you expect from a thriller. Charles said that only the professional competence of the acting on this one raised it above Mystery Science Theatre 3000 level; I didn’t dislike it that much, but it was still a disappointment, the sort of bad movie that could easily have been quite good with a bit more coherence in the writing and care in the direction.