Thursday, November 16, 2006


A historically important landmark as the first openly anti-Nazi Hollywood film; it was produced before the war when the Nazis were largely reviled in America, but the country was still officially neutral and Germany had not yet invaded Poland. Hollywood studios didn't want to risk losing the lucrative foreign markets so, though there had been movies with vaguely Middle European enemies, none had gone so far as to name the Nazis as villains. This film was based on a series of newspaper articles written by FBI man Leon Turrou which detailed the breaking of a Nazi spy ring in the U.S., and though it doesn't actually name real names, it does follow the real-life outlines of the case quite closely. The film was so controversial that Jack and Harry Warner were accused by Congress of warmongering. While it's certainly no stylistic masterpiece for the ages, it is a fast-moving spy movie for at least half of its length, and, while lacking much in the way of thrills or action, it is mostly compelling, interesting, and contains a handful of good performances.

The film begins in a documentary newsreel fashion by swiftly introducing us to most of the characters we'll be following for the next 100 minutes. In a Scottish village, we see Mrs. McLaughlin (Eily Malyon) receiving and resending mail for a Nazi spy ring. Next we visit a German-American social group meeting at which Dr. Kassel (Paul Lukas) is whipping up support for Germans who want to "save" America, who want to make America "our America." Lukas uses the overexcited style of Hitler in his speechifying, and is not above encouraging heavy-handed tactics to quash dissent, as we see in a scene in which Ward Bond gets roughed up after he speaks out at a meeting, saying "We don't want any --isms in this country except Americanism." Lukas is soon made head of American spy operations and told to wrap his fascist messages "in the American flag," and to incite race and class hatred. Next, on a German ocean liner on its way to America, we meet Schlager (George Sanders), his mistress Hilda (Dorothy Tree) and two Gestapo agents, who intimidate the captain of the ship into following Nazi orders. Finally, there's unemployed Kurt Schneider (Frances Lederer); his wife objects to his "sitting around and thinking" all day, but he's biding his time as a minor spy until his friend (Joe Sawyer) agrees to get him military information to pass on to his contact, Sanders. Lederer hopes to prove his worth to the Nazis and to make good money, but Sanders gives him chump change and little respect, so Lederer tries to go over Sanders' head and sends some spy info directly to Malyon in Scotland. Unfortunately, a clever mailman has alerted authorities to the wide array of foreign mail she receives and she's busted, which leads to the FBI being called in on the trail of the spy ring.

The energy flags a bit during the second half of the film, which focuses on Edward G. Robinson as the FBI man tracking down the ring members. Lederer is busted when he naively poses as the "Under-Secretary of State" in an attempt to smuggle passports, and Robinson uses some basic psychology to make the poor schmuck feel more important than he really is to get him to talk. Sanders escapes and Lukas, who is betrayed by his wife, talks to the feds and later gets on a ship for Germany, certain to face the music from his superiors. Lederer and some of his associates are put on trial, and the film ends anti-climactically with an odd little conversation in which Robinson and U.S. attorney Henry O'Neill express the surreal absurdity of their adventure. Though the documentary style of the film works against any real depth of characterization, the central trio of Lukas, Sanders, and Lederer are always quite watchable. Sanders, in particular, is striking; he has a modified Prussian buzz cut, and I'd swear that his nose or chin have been altered to give him an even more sinister look; his voice never drips with his usual patina of sarcasm and irony and he completely disappears into his role. German actress Lya Lys has a small role as Lukas' mistress, and John Ridgely, one of my favorite Warners supporting players, has a line or two as an Army hospital clerk. This runs on Turner Classic Movies quite a bit, but it would be nice to have this on a DVD, with a commentary track, given how much has been written about the film. [TCM]

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