Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Conspirators (Warner Bros., 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched The Conspirators, a 1944 film from Warner Bros. that was obviously trying to be another Casablanca — just about every studio in Hollywood tried to make their own Casablanca and Warners, having made the real one, did more of them than anybody else (including a little-known one called To the Victor that attempted to keep the cycle going after World War II was over). TCM showed this as part of their July “Star of the Month” tribute to Paul Henried — though, in an intriguing coincidence I didn’t notice but Charles did, they also showed this film, in which Henried plays a fictional Dutchman named Vincent Van der Luyn, right after Lust for Life, in which Kirk Douglas played a real Dutchman named Vincent Van Gogh. The Conspirators began life as a novel by Frederic Prokosch and got turned into a screenplay by Vladimir Pozner and Leo Rosten, with additional dialogue by Jack Moffitt — of these writers Rosten is the only one I’d otherwise heard of — and was directed by a hot new up-and-coming director on the Warners lot, Jean Negulesco. The film reunited three members of the Casablanca cast — Henried as freedom fighter Vincent Van der Luyn (and this time, unlike in Casablanca, we actually get to see him blowing up things and otherwise engaging in resistance-type action — in Casablanca we rather had to take it on faith that this somewhat prissy, stuck-up actor was supposed to be an action hero), Sydney Greenstreet as retired romance novelist turned underground leader Ricardo Quintanilla, and Peter Lorre as underground go-fer Jan Bernazsky.

The plot is very convoluted and takes place in Lisbon (where, you’ll remember, all the characters in Casablanca were trying to get to), where Vincent has come on some sort of secret mission to contact a resistance agent named Jennings (Monte Blue) — only on his way to his rendezvous he’s sidetracked at the Café Imperio by another sort of rendezvous with drop-dead gorgeous woman of mystery Irene Von Mohr (Hedy Lamarr, top-billed — Warners had tried to get her for Casablanca but her home studio, MGM, didn’t loan her out; I guess MGM wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice!), who joins him at his table and then just as mysteriously disappears on him. Vincent car-jacks her and drives her around the Lisbon coastline (“played,” as usual in a Hollywood film then, by Malibu), and eventually learns that she spent six months in Dachau and was rescued by a German official, Hugo von Mohr (Victor Francen), who got her released and married her. (So this time it’s Paul Henried who’s playing the “other man.”) Unfortunately the Germans are one step ahead of the rest and murder not only Jennings’ contact but Jennings himself — and they set it up so Vincent looks guilty. Eventually the plot does the one-of-the-resistance-fighters-is-really-a-traitor number, and Quintanilla is convinced it’s Vincent until Vincent mentions something about an eagle — which turns out to be a rare Dutch coin that Jennings was supposed to present to his handlers once they smuggled him into the Netherlands. To no one’s surprise it turns out that Victor Van Horn, who’s a Nazi posing as a resistance fighter posing as a Nazi, is the traitor, and there’s a grim final shootout staged in relentless chiaroscuro darkness in which Vincent finally dispatches Victor — only to say a tearful goodbye to Irene because he’s going to have to go to the Netherlands to take Jennings’ place in the underground. The Conspirators has the air of a factory product about it — the writers were all too consciously rechanneling the elements that had made Casablanca a great film as well as an enormous box-office success — but overall, despite its ridiculously complicated and confusing plot line, it’s a triumph of style over substance, with Casablanca cinematographer Arthur Edeson showing his marvelous mastery of dark atmosphere and Henried turning in an acceptable performance even if he can’t bring Bogart’s complexity to the role (but then, who could?).