Wednesday, July 26, 2006


I don't like Lee Tracy. In fact, I avoid Lee Tracy movies. Part of it, I admit, is the kind of role that he specialized in, the snarky, wisecracking smartass who rubs everyone the wrong way. I think audiences were supposed to like Tracy's characters either because of or in spite of his personality, but I guess he succeeds too well because I can't stand him. I watched this movie because of my interest in WWII propaganda films and found Tracy to be a little toned down here, maybe because of his age (nearing 50). He doesn't hurt the movie, but his relatively low-key performance also doesn't help it much. The film begins with real-life journalist Drew Pearson assuring us that what we are going to see is based on truth (even though the credits call the book the film was based on a novel). The narrative is set in the weeks before America entered the war. There's a short sequence in which an American diplomat (Louis Jean Heydt) and a news bureau chief (Jason Robards Sr.) are both bumped off for knowing too much about a ring of Japanese spies operating along the West Coast, then the story focuses on Tracy, an aging, disgruntled carnival barker who is approached by an old acquaintance (Philip Ahn) to do some work in Panama. It turns out that Ahn, a member of a Japanese spy ring who believes that ex-soldier Tracy still has contacts in Panama, is trying to recruit Tracy to get hold of defense plans for the Panama Canal. A suspicious Tracy contacts Army Intelligence and he becomes a counterspy, who will pass along false information in order to capture the ring. Complicating matters is Nancy Kelly, an aspiring fashion designer who turns out to be an Army spy out to keep an eye on Tracy. When she is killed in a car accident before Tracy's eyes halfway though the movie, it doesn't take a genius to know that she's not really dead and will return soon enough, which she does, having cozied up to a big shot Nazi (Roland Varno) who is in league with Ahn's spies. Most of the good guys wind up sacrificing themselves for the cause, but the big shots in the spy ring also wind up dead. The most startling scene is the torture of Kelly in an overheated steam room. Other cast members include Regis Toomey as a solider who pretends to give Tracy the Canal plans, and Richard Loo (who later played Master Sun on the "Kung Fu" TV show) as the leader of the Japanese spies. The B-production values show through a bit too much at times, and according to sources I've read, the kind of sprawling West Coast spy ring posited in this film simply didn't exist, but that doesn't stop the film from being an acceptable wartime spy thriller. [TCM]

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