Friday, March 13, 2015

KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOR (1937)

In 1913, British journalist Robert Donat is on a train to Russia to take a job translating novels. On the same train is Marlene Dietrich, a Russian countess who has been visiting England and is now returning home to get married. They don't know each other and they don't interact, but their destinies are intertwined. Donat is threatened with expulsion from Russia for writing an article critical of the government, but he gets a job as a British spy, growing a beard and taking on a new identity. However, when a revolutionary friend of his tosses a bomb at some carriages (as it happens, in Dietrich's wedding procession), Donat is arrested as a political prisoner and sent to Sibria. By the revolution of 1917, Dietrich's husband is dead and she is taken prisoner by a mob of former servants and serfs; Donat has been freed and is now a trusted second-tier revolutionary. Their paths finally cross when Donat is enlisted to accompany Dietrich to Petrograd to stand trial for crimes against the people. Of course, he is actually in sympathy with her, so he risks his own neck to take her to safety.

This movie has generally received positive critical comments, though I found it fairly tedious for the first half, composed as it is of short, choppy scenes that seem designed to get exposition out of the way. It is beautifully photographed by Harry Stradling and the sets and d├ęcor are occasionally striking. Donat is his usual passive self and Dietrich doesn't have much to do until the last half; the scene where masses of workers move in on her is especially good—with almost no dialogue, she does the acting with her eyes. The movie generally picks up in the last half hour, and one extended sequence near the end almost makes it worth watching the entire movie: at one point, when Donat and Dietrich are in danger of being exposed, they are saved by a sympathetic Red Army commissar (Lawrence Baskcomb) who accompanies them on a train toward freedom. The three share a lovely nighttime scene together before the commissar meets a sad fate the next day. Baskcomb is very good, and even Donat rises to the occasion here. Making it through the first half of the film is dicey, but if you do, it's worth sticking with it until the end. [Criterion streaming]

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