Thursday, July 9, 2009

They Made Me a Spy (RKO, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we ended up watching was They Made Me a Spy, an engaging if somewhat unthrilling 1939 RKO “B” starring Sally Eilers as Irene Eaton, who offers her services to U.S. intelligence as a counterspy after her brother is blown up while the U.S. Army is testing a new bazooka shell he’s invented — an “accident” later attributed to a sabotage ring led by a mystery man in the pay of a carefully unnamed foreign power. (The U.S. wouldn’t be involved in World War II for another two years and the studios were still treading carefully around the sensibilities of isolationists in the movie audience.) On assignment from Col. Shaw (Frank M. Thomas), she hangs out at the Dome restaurant (obviously a set left over from an earlier, bigger-budgeted RKO film) which is also the secret headquarters of enemy agent Dr. Krull (Fritz Leiber — whose German accent leaves no doubt which country we were supposed to think was behind the sabotage).

Using the name “Margaret Brennan,” Irene joins the enemy spy ring and feeds them secret information, and is then assigned to help with the landing of another agent, George Wolf (Alan Lane), who’s being infiltrated on a beach after he’s swum to shore from a ship. The moment handsome, personable Alan Lane lands on the beach and he and Irene start to vibrate with mutual romantic (or at least sexual) attraction, we know that he’s going to turn out to be a good guy in the last reel — just as we’re sure that the secret head of the spy ring is going to turn out to be one of the four people in Col. Shaw’s office at the opening of the film and we’ve got a pretty good idea of which one, too: Brock (Addison Richards), listed on the site as a U.S. Senator and in the American Film Institute Catalog synopsis as a Congressional investigator (the latter seems more believable), who had crashed the staff meeting in Col. Shaw’s office and demanded more immediate action against the saboteurs (oh, the irony!).

The film pretty much works out the way we think it’s going to, though there’s an unexpected action climax inside the Washington Monument, where Brock, once he’s been found out, tries to flee; he meets up with an intensely patriotic elevator operator (Alec Craig) who talks about how proud he is to have that gig — this is the one scene in the movie that shows the wit of screenwriter Michael Kanin, one of the four members of this film’s writing committee (he and Jo Pagano wrote a script from an “original” story by George Bricker and Lionel Houser) and about the only one who went on to a major career — and, when he’s trapped there by the good guys, either falls to his death accidentally or commits suicide (we’re not sure which), thereby shutting down the espionage/sabotage ring without any embarrassing publicity. There’s also a welcome, if short, appearance by the strikingly tall blond actor Louis Jean Heydt as Gillian, a.k.a. “Waiter No. 4” at the Dome, who’s Irene’s contact there and who gets found out and killed for his pains — Heydt was a handsome and charismatic performer and why he didn’t become a bigger star is a mystery — and though predictably the “enemy” agent Gregory Wolf turns out to be on the side of good after all (thereby enabling him and Irene to pair up at the end), there is a bit of novelty in that instead of being a fellow American intelligence agent, he’s revealed to be a reporter on the trail of the spy ring for a news syndicate.

Otherwise They Made Her a Spy (a misnomer since she made herself a spy and had to persuade the American intelligence bosses to accept her as one!) is a comfortable little movie, not especially exciting — director Jack Hively was efficient but uninspired and even the big action scenes don’t really thrill (a recurring problem with RKO’s crime films in the 1930’s) — and suffering from a virtual absence of background music even though RKO stalwart Roy Webb gets an “original music” credit. As much as the wall-to-wall scoring Jack Warner insisted on in his studio’s products gets oppressive at times, the absence of music through most of this film makes it look like a product of 1929 instead of 1939 (though at least the dialogue is delivered naturalistically and the camera moves!) and makes it a good deal less exciting than it could have been — and the acting, except for Leiber’s marvelously sinister performance as the villain (in these sorts of stories the bad guys are almost always more interesting than the good guys!), is also workmanlike rather than inspired.