Monday, February 08, 2016


During World War I, soldier Valdar (Erich von Stroheim) gets a medal from the Belgian king for services rendered; when he leaves the Army, he winds up as a trusted butler to the improbably named British Navy bigshot Sir Winston Chamberlain. At the same time, nurse Frances Hawtree (Constance Bennett), working for the British in France, is actually a German agent. Her new assignment: go to London, infiltrate the home of Sir Chamberlain, find important naval secrets, and pass them on to master spy Blecher. One of Chamberlain's sons recently died at the front and Frances poses as his grieving fiancée; she is accepted into the household with open arms by everyone except the dead man's brother Arthur (Anthony Bushell) who knows that his brother already had a fiancée that the rest of the family didn’t know about. It turns out that Valdar is a German spy and Frances' contact (a Muslim prayer with the phrase "three faces east" is the password they exchange). He flirts with her a bit—in a very Prussian Von-Stroheim way—but won't let her meet Blecher. Just as Frances begins pulling off her plan, Yates, another house guest, gets suspicious of her. Soon, we're not quite sure who is on what side: could either Frances or Valdar (or both) be double agents? Is Yates what he seems to be? And who is Blecher?

I've discovered that were lots of WWI spy movies made in the early 30s, perhaps out of an odd sense of nostalgia or an uneasy feeling about the future—most of these movies could have been made 10 years later as WWII spy stories without much change in plot or even dialogue.  This one tries to be a little trickier than the average, but if you know your movie stars of the era, you’ll know the outcome. Still, I appreciated the little twists and turns of the plot here, though I wish someone besides the somewhat one-note Constance Bennett had the lead role. Stroheim is fun; his character is a little warmer than usual—he flirts with Bennett and even gets to smile in a couple of scenes. I liked him enough that [Spoiler alert:] I wished he'd be able to get away scot-free, though he doesn't. Bushell is fine, and William Courtenay has a couple of good moments as Yates. One standout scene that achieves good tension involves Bennett sneaking around at night, breaking into a safe, then getting her high-heel shoe stuck in a floor grate. [TCM]

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