Friday, November 21, 2008

Espionage Agent (Warners, 1939)

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

I ran him a 1939 movie called Espionage Agent from the Warners factory, which started with the “Black Tom” explosion in 1915 and then leaps ahead 21 years to the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in Morocco, where Barry Corvall (Joel McCrea), a third-generation U.S. Foreign Service officer, is flooded with visa applications from Americans desperate to get out and get back home. (Hmm, a Warners’ production with an American in a northern African city dealing with desperate people trying to get visas to the U.S. — where have we seen that since?) He meets a mystery woman, Brenda Ballard (Brenda Marshall, in her screen debut), supposedly an aspiring opera singer, and gets her passage home on the S.S. Fredonia (no, Groucho Marx is not the captain!) by giving her his stateroom and forcing his partner at the consulate, Lowell Warrington (Jeffrey Lynn), to share a tiny room amidst the boilers.

Barry is desperately in love with Brenda and wants her to marry him; she keeps putting him off but finally yields, and at a party thrown by Barry’s widowed mother (Nana Bryant), Brenda is approached by Karl Müller (Martin Kosleck, stealing the movie as usual), supposedly a journalist for a German news service but actually a spy. (This is historically accurate; the Germans did press their international news services into espionage work.) Müller reminds Brenda that before she met Barry she signed on and took money from them, agreeing to work with them and extract U.S. military secrets — and he gives her an assignment to steal the U.S.’s military preparedness plan. She confesses all to her husband, and instead of rising in righteous anger at having been betrayed by a woman who married him just to get him to turn traitor, he automatically assumes she’s telling the truth when she says she wants no part of the spy ring and is loyal to her new husband and his country.

Needless to say, the embarrassment leads to Barry being forced to resign from the Foreign Service, though he continues to investigate as a private person and is determined to expose the other members of his wife’s spy ring — and he eventually goes to Switzerland with her and traces it to the World Peacemaking Forum, headed by Dr. Rader (James Stephenson) — an interesting premonition of the Cold War movies that also invariably depicted “peace” organizations as fronts for the international bad guys.

The spies see through Brenda’s pretense at being willing to work for them again and Rader takes her hostage, putting her on a train bound from Switzerland for the country that dared not speak its name — not only did the screenwriters (Robert Buckner, story; Warren Duff, Michael Fessier and Frank Donoghue, script) carefully avoid having any of the characters on either side say the name “Germany,” but the members of the goon squad Rader sends after Brenda are wearing white armbands but without a swastika or any other emblem on them. Nonetheless, the two lovebirds escape by pulling the emergency brake to stop the train (had any of the members of the writing committee seen The Lady Vanishes?) and are eventually congratulated by Barry’s former Foreign Service superiors.

The American Film Institute Catalog notes that the original reviews of Espionage Agent “compared the picture too [sic] Confessions of a Nazi Spy because of its exposé about espionage,” but there’s really no comparison: Confessions of a Nazi Spy had a much better script (though it too had its ridiculously melodramatic moments, particularly the scene in which a loyal German-American challenges the Bund publicly and gets beaten to death for his pains — instead of quietly taking it all in and then reporting their treasonous activities to the police, which is what any sensible person in that position would have done), a strong director (Anatole Litvak) and a vivid, energetic performance by Edward G. Robinson as the spy hunter; Espionage Agent is directed by Lloyd Bacon at his most slovenly and hacky and can’t begin to compare either with Confessions or the film McCrea made a year later, Foreign Correspondent, in which he played an even more naïve character (a journalist instead of an aspiring diplomat) caught up in international intrigue on the eve of World War II, but with Alfred Hitchcock as his director (which made all the difference), a far tighter script (by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison — it was Bennett’s last of six films for Hitchcock, and as I’ve argued elsewhere Bennett was to Hitchcock what Dudley Nichols was to John Ford or Robert Riskin to Frank Capra, the writer who more than any other set and worked out the “Hitchcock style”), a more expansive production (an interesting coincidence is that both Espionage Agent and Foreign Correspondent have scenes that take place outdoors during driving rainstorms) and the energy of an intensely handcrafted film instead of the ennui of a typical studio product that drags down Espionage Agent.