Tuesday, January 03, 2012


Damascus during WWII is, we are told, "a breeding place of espionage and intrigue." When reporter George Sanders and his young sidekick Robert Andersen (both pictured at left) get off the plane, Andersen asks, "What is this, the Middle Ages?" and Sanders replies, "No, the Middle East, but it sometimes comes to the same thing." When they witness a lovely young woman meet an older man who had been on the plane under an assumed name, they smell a story and Andersen decides to follow up. Sanders goes on to the hotel where he meets up with Robert Armstrong, an American diplomat, and Alan Napier, the British owner of the hotel and a Nazi sympathizer. Both men, for different reasons, warn Sanders to leave, but when Andersen is found dead, knifed on the street, Sanders stays to get to the bottom of things. He has an encounter with Gene Lockhart, a spy with news about Nazi relationships with Arabs, and gets friendly with Virginia Bruce, who claims to be in the Free French movement; she is supposedly stuck in Damascus with a sickly aunt, but Sanders suspects she has other reasons for hanging around, and he’s right. It turns out that the Arab tribes are meeting to determine which side they will back; the head sheik (H.B. Warner) is throwing his support to the Allies, but the Nazis are out to subvert that, and will stop at nothing to get their way.

I suspect that this was intended as a poor man's Casablanca—Nazis in the desert, a hero in a white suit, a gambling room, and even Marcel Dalio, Rick’s croupier, crops up—but George Sanders, fine actor that he is, is no Bogart, or Errol Flynn, or even George Montgomery (who made an OK B-film Bogart-type in CHINA GIRL. He strikes no sparks with Bruce and never comes off as heroic even when he is. Still, for fans of B-wartime spy films, this has some pleasures. The elaborate hotel lobby set is atmospheric and the supporting cast is strong, particularly Armstrong and Lockhart, who both get to be ambiguous figures who could swing either way (by which I mean Allies or Nazis). Of course, none of the major Arab roles are played by Arab actors, except for Kareem, a tribal leader, played by Syrian actor Jamiel Hasson. The impressive scenes of the Arab tribes coming together in the desert in the latter half of the film are composed of bits of footage shot in the late 30s for a movie about T.E. Lawrence which was never made. [TCM]

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