Friday, November 21, 2008

Spy Ship (Warners, 1942)

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

I ran Charles the 1942 film Spy Ship, an interesting Warners “B” that, like Espionage Agent and Foreign Correspondent, was also topical intrigue relating to the war effort — though in this case the film was also a remake of the 1934 Warners programmer Fog Over Frisco, which had given Bette Davis one of the few roles of her early Warners years she was genuinely proud of: an heiress who turns to crime out of sheer boredom and is ultimately murdered by her fellow conspirators as a warning to her innocent sister (Margaret Lindsay) and sis’s boyfriend (Donald Woods) to stay away and keep from exposing the gang.

Spy Ship doesn’t have anyone remotely in Bette Davis’s league as an actor, but in its own way it’s quite a good film and perhaps even better than its predecessor (both were based on a novel by George Dyer called The Four Fragments; Spy Ship was written by the ubiquitous Robert E. Kent, who for once actually seemed to be giving a damn about what he was doing instead of rattling off descriptions of baseball games as he typed away). In this one, the bad sister, Pam Mitchell (Irene Manning), is a record-breaking aviatrix and isolationist speaker for “America Above All” — Charles immediately noticed the character’s resemblance to the real-life Laura Ingalls, record-breaking aviatrix in the 1930’s who was a major speaker for the America First Committee and, though she was never convicted of espionage, was tried and found guilty of being an unregistered agent of the German government and was sentenced on February 20, 1942, less than four months before Spy Ship was released on June 6, 1942. (She served a year and a half and died quietly in 1967, long out of the public eye.)

Pam poses as a “country first” isolationist but she is really a German spy; aided by her boyfriend Gordon Morrel (Michael Ames), an agent with a maritime insurance company, she extracts information about American cargo shipments to the Allies in Europe and gives the information, in code, in her public speeches, thereby instructing the Germans where the ships are so their U-boats can sink them. Pam is the older daughter of Harry Mitchell (George Irving), owner of another maritime insurance company whose principal investigator, Ernie Haskell (John Mitchell), proposes to Gordon that the two companies work together to try to uncover the spies who are giving the information on their ships to the Germans and thereby costing both firms a lot of money. Ernie is working with anti-Nazi reporter Ward Prescott (Craig Stevens, top-billed — he’s a personable leading man and a credible action figure, but he wouldn’t really become a star until he played the title role of the TV crime series Peter Gunn 15 years later), who’s industriously trying to put Pam Mitchell behind bars while also dating her (half-)sister Sue (Maris Wrixon). (In Fog Over Frisco the Bette Davis and Margaret Lindsay characters had the same mothers but different fathers; here they have the same father but different mothers, and naturally Ernie gets a speech about how Pam reminds her of all the things he came to hate about her mother before she left him.)

The director is B. Reaves Eason, who was usually a second-unit action specialist on some of Warners’ biggest films (including The Adventures of Robin Hood, probably his most famous credit) but occasionally got to direct an action-oriented “B” solo — and he moves the film along at a relentless pace climaxing in a shoot-out on the titular spy ship, after it’s revealed that Pam’s former boyfriend Martin Oster (William Forrest) — who publicly is an interventionist heading the “Liberty Committee” in opposition to “America Above All” (which Charles realized the next morning translates into German as Amerika über alles!) — is really the head of the German spy ring. There’s also a chilling little scene in which Keye Luke appears as a Japanese agent named Haru (he looks as uncomfortable as he always did playing the Japanese villains he got assigned in the war years instead of the Number One Son-type parts he’d played before that, where at least he’d got to play his genuine Chinese ethnicity!) and chillingly hints at the attack on Pearl Harbor to come (naturally, this film takes place over the first week of December, 1941). There’s also a quite good scene early on of a submarine attacking a cargo ship in which Eason deftly intermingles new footage, model work from a previous Warners war movie (I think) and stock footage from newsreels of real U-boat attacks to highly convincing effect.

One other nice thing about this movie is that Irene Manning and Maris Wrixon look enough alike one can actually believe that they are sisters (which one couldn’t with Bette Davis and Margaret Lindsay!), and though Manning is hardly in Davis’s league as an on-screen bitch, on her own terms she delivers a quite credible bad-girl performance even though it’s a bit unclear whether her motives for joining a German espionage ring are ideological, financial or romantic (she got involved in the first place because that seemed the best way to Martin Oster’s heart). Still, for the most part Robert E. Kent wrote a tight, logically constructed script (indeed, he did a better job of getting a through-line out of George Dyer’s convoluted tale than the writers of Fog Over Frisco, Robert N. Lee and Eugene Solow, had), and Charles said that purely as a thriller it seemed to make more sense than Foreign Correspondent because it didn’t have as many lacunae as a story (like what was so important about Van Meer’s information and why the baddies went to all the trouble of faking an execution, even to finding and killing a double, just so people would think he was dead when in fact he was alive and being tortured — in one scene, one of the tortures was playing him Benny Goodman-style swing records really loud, an interesting anticipation of the heavy-metal tortures the U.S. would later use against Manuel Noriega and the Guantánamo detainees) — and the spectacular shoot-out at the end is a far more stirring resolution than the rather limp one of Fog Over Frisco, while precisely because Irene Manning is so much less electrifying a personality than Bette Davis, this movie survives her character’s demise without turning dull the way Fog Over Frisco did.

Spy Ship is an entertaining war-themed thriller — even the obligatory democracy vs. dictatorship speeches are a good deal less didactic than usual (probably because Robert E. Kent really didn’t seem to care much about them) — and a good example of how well the studio system could turn out a movie like this and how a major company could give a strong technical gloss even over a workmanlike movie destined for a second spot on double features.