Thursday, July 2, 2015

Conspiracy (RKO, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened a 1938 (though gives 1939) “B” from RKO called Conspiracy, a movie whose sheer quirkiness sets it above the usual “B” pack even though it’s not all that good. Turner Classic Movies’ synopsis read, “A shipment of poisonous gas is delivered for use in a mythical Central American country,” but the original posters read, “A woman’s lips...a mystery cargo...terror over Europe!” It’s not clear where Conspiracy is supposed to take place; it’s about an American cargo ship which sails to a mythical country whose inhabitants speak German-accented English but whose public signs are in the international language Esperanto, the one Ludwig Zamenhof created in the 19th century in hopes that he could get the world to speak one language and therefore unify the various nations and bring about world peace. As a long-time Esperantist, Charles was particularly interested in this aspect of the movie — especially when he heard bits of dialogue in Esperanto when the officials of the country were talking to each other. Probably the most famous movie that featured Esperanto was Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler spoof The Great Dictator (1940), which didn’t contain any Esperanto dialogue but did feature Esperanto-language signs in the scenes representing the Jewish ghetto. (Since Hitler viciously opposed Esperanto — as the Wikipedia page on Esperanto explains, “In Nazi Germany, there was a motivation to persecute Esperanto because Zamenhof was Jewish, and due to the internationalist nature of Esperanto, which was perceived as ‘Bolshevist.’ In his work Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler specifically mentioned Esperanto as an example of a language that could be used by an international Jewish conspiracy once they achieved world domination” — using Esperanto as the language of his fictitious “Adenoid Hynkel”’s victims was probably yet another twist in the knife by Chaplin.)

There’s also Leslie Stevens’ Incubus (1966), which was filmed entirely in Esperanto — wretchedly pronounced Esperanto, Charles assured me when we watched it together (and it would be a terrible movie even if it were in English, Swedish, Sanskrit or Swahili). Aside from the Esperanto, Conspiracy is an odd little movie which appears to be referencing the world situation as it stood on the brink of World War II: the MacGuffin is a shipment of poison gas on board the U.S. freighter that’s about to dock at the main port of Wherever-It-Is (alas, the real Nazis didn’t need to import poison gas because they had companies capable of making it themselves) and the country is full both of people who want to get hold of the gas so they can slaughter large numbers of their people (something like the Bashir al-Assad regime in present-day Syria) and of a native resistance trying to stop the gas from being imported in order to save the lives of its potential victims and ultimately bring down the government that was willing to use it against its own people. The principals are Allan Lane as Steve Kendall, radio operator on board the U.S. ship, who in the opening scene gets a gun held on him by a mysterious crew member who forces him to send a coded message and wait for a reply; and Linda Hayes (in a quite good performance that should have marked her for a major career, but didn’t) as local woman Nedra Carlson, who holds forth as a singer at Tio’s Café, owned by an expatriate American named Edwards (Robert Barrat in what’s a relatively sympathetic role, at least by his standards) and is part of the resistance. She takes in Steve and hides him out, explaining that the government has already declared Steve dead and the U.S. embassy has demanded the return of his body — so they have to kill him in order to do that — and for the film’s hour-long running time there’s a lot of back-and-forth maneuvering and a lot of uncertainty as to which side everyone other than Steve and Nedra is on.

For much of its running time Conspiracy seems like a knockoff of the Sternberg-Dietrich movies — Linda Hayes even tries to speak like Dietrich — but it also looks forward to Casablanca: the good guys attempt an escape by speedboat but are turned in by Tio, who double-crosses them and gets them busted by the authorities, then pulls a triple-cross, explaining the only reason he pretended to go along with the bad guys was to gain access to the government’s radio set so he could radio the U.S. to fly a seaplane and pick them up. The plane lands and picks up Steve, Nedra, Tio and “Studs” (Charley Foy, the supposedly obligatory “comic relief” character who, as usual, simply isn’t very funny), only it turns out the country has an air force — or at least one plane with two machine guns — and Tio has to climb out of the cockpit and fire his own Tommy gun at the opposing plane, ultimately shooting it down. When they finally rendezvous with the seaplane Nedra decides to remain behind in a bittersweet, Casablancan entry, saying that as hot as she finds the irresistible charms of Allan Lane there’s a lot of work to do that he can’t be part of and so she has to return to her country to continue the resistance — yes, here it’s the American who flies out instead of the woman he’s nobly giving up for political reasons, but it’s the same emotional twist. Conspiracy was written by Jerome Chodorov from an “original” story by John P. McCarthy and Faith Thomas, and directed by Lew Landers, who blew a lot of fog in front of cinematographer Frank Redman’s lenses but otherwise avoided the atmospherics he was at least occasionally capable of, and it’s one of those movies that’s constantly reminding you of all the other movies you’ve seen that used these plot devices and did more with them, but it’s quirky enough to stand above the usual run of Landers’ output (though hardly at the level of the two genuinely great films he made for RKO about this time, Condemned Women and We Who Are About to Die) and the use of Esperanto gives it an added oddball appeal.