Madeleine Carroll Blogathon: I Was a Spy (1933)

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One of the great pleasures of blogathons is discovering an old film, or an actor, or director and realizing that there’s still so, so many wonderful classic films yet to see. It’s sort of like knowing that there’s still a bunch of Graham Greene novels I haven’t read. Maybe the Graham Greene thing is just me.

Anyway, before the Madeleine Carroll blogathon, hosted by the delightful Silver Screenings and Tales of the Easily Distracted (we sympathize), the only film of hers I’d ever seen was, unsurprisingly, Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). I haven’t seen The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), or The General Died at Dawn (1936), Lloyd’s of London (1936), Blockade (1938), or Honeymoon in Bali (1939). Not even the other Hitchcock movie she did, Secret Agent (1936). To be fair, many of these films are annoyingly hard to get a hold of unless you’re in the market to buy. Or live near a video store that is a) still in business and b) happens to stock them. The first is so unlikely as to make the second all but moot.

As I was saying, I am simply not up on my Madeleine Carroll. I Was a Spy (1933), directed by Victor Saville, wasn’t a bad place to start. It costars Herbert Marshall and the glowering Conrad Veidt. Saville would later direct Carroll in Loves of a Dictator (1937). The film is based on the 1932 autobiography of Belgian nurse Marthe Cnockhaert, who spied for the British during World War I. Initially reluctant, she becomes a devoted Belgian patriot—and falls in love with Herbert Marshall, who plays Stephan, a fellow spy.

There is a brief, wonderful scene of her heading down a suddenly deserted alley, to deliver a message. Rounding a corner, Marthe seems to have stepped out of her familiar town and into a Dr. Caligari set. She stops and knocks at window, removes the note from her under her braid and gives it to a mysterious hand that materializes in the window. It’s worth pointing out that the cinematographer, Charles Van Enger, whose first film credit is from 1918, also shot Alla Nazimova’s fabulous 1922 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé

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Down the rabbit hole.

 

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Carroll projects an enviable competence as Marthe, until she meets Commandant Oberaetz (Veidt). Veidt is perhaps the original movie Prussian (shortly to become the original movie Nazi), and he is, as always, impossible not to watch. Oberaetz is the embodiment of the danger Marthe is running and his physical presence is the one thing that seems to unnerve her. It is, however, hard to imagine preferring Herbert Marshall over Conrad Veidt.

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This guy?

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Or this guy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not that I don’t appreciate Marshall, but I’ve never found him the suave hero he was so often cast to be. Faced with that penetrating stare on the right, though, who could resist?

Tearing myself away from Conrad… I Was a Spy was a great vehicle for the beautiful Carroll, and she has no trouble carrying the film. She and Marshall have an easy chemistry. Carroll is a bit cold, but it suits her here, and Hitchcock would make good use of it two years later in The 39 Steps. Which I now need to rewatch. I was inspired to watch Hitchcock’s Secret Agent, made the year after The 39 Steps, with John Gielgud in the Robert Donat role. Gielgud and Carroll are so awkward together, it’s almost like they’re in different movies.

As much as I’m looking forward to watching Carroll in her other films now, I have to say that my favorite discovery so far is Peter Lorre in Secret Agent as a Mexican general. The whole film is available on YouTube, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and if you’re not sure you want to watch it, start here and wait for the temper tantrum. Then watch the rest of it.

NPG x135035; Victor Saville and Madeleine Carroll on the set of 'I Was a Spy' by James JarchÈ, for  Daily Herald

Victor Saville and Madeleine Carroll on the set (James Jarchè)

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SBIFF 2015: Second Chance (2014) & Confession (2014)

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Taiwanese film number two of the festival was the frothy Second Chance, directed by Wen-yen Kung. Okay, maybe not frothy exactly, but definitely bubbly. Second Chance is (I assume) one of the only action movies about pool. Yes, that kind of pool, where you stand around a table and firmly poke a series of colored balls. Sure, there’s The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986)—did you remember Tom Cruise is in that?—but those are hardly action films. Although, Poolhall Junkies (2002) does have Christopher Walken, which is reason enough to watch it. Obviously.

Seriously, the man is a national treasure. But I digress. This is what I was talking about:

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Why are they standing in front of a rock slide? Don’t worry—it doesn’t matter.

Second Chance is a sweet and entertaining mishmash of redemptive sports story, redemptive family story, crime story, comedy, drama, and action. Within the first five minutes, it seemed like two different films, with two entirely different tones, had started. The film doesn’t give you a chance to get bored or invite deep contemplation. It’s easily the most fun I had at SBIFF this year—and that’s an oft-underrated virtue at film festivals.

A disgraced former pool champ, played by Jason Wang, is forced back to the table when his independent, spunky orphaned niece has to find a way to hang on to her family’s pool hall (and convince her social worker that she doesn’t need to go to a foster home). Formulaic? You bet. Does it matter? Not at all. Asian films often seem much better at taking formulas and recycling them without making the audience feel like it’s eating a 7-Eleven egg salad sandwich that probably wasn’t very good even before you accidentally left it roasting on the dashboard of your car. Maybe Asian filmmakers choose better formulas than Hollywood studios. (It certainly seems easier to get decent distribution in that part of the world for that sort of film, on which much less money is riding.)

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Peijiang Wang plays Shine, the budding billiards champion who finally gets her uncle Feng to stand up and fly right, i.e., quit drinking and find a way to pay off the gambling debts that have brought his old rival to the door of the family pool hall/home, the Outstanding Pool Hall. There are the requisite training montages, which are a lot more entertaining than what is, essentially, golf on a table has any right to be. It’s a tribute to good storytelling that the film doesn’t need a lot of locations, doesn’t need a lot of characters, and doesn’t need a complicated plot to be such a good time.

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Also on the agenda was the South Korean “neo-noir” Confession, directed by Do-yun Lee. If the characters from Partners in Crime grew up, they might have ended up like the three boyhood friends in Confession. 

Confession is a solid, enjoyable crime thriller, the first feature by director Do-yun Lee. The three friends grow up to be very different from but still devoted to (or maybe just tied to) each other. Slick insurance agent In-chul (Ju Ji-Hoon) has more in common with the greedy mother (Lee Whee-Hyang) of his friend Hyun-Tae than with either Hyun-Tae (Ji Sung) or their friend, the slightly damaged Min-Soo (Lee Kwang-Soo). The center of the film’s plot is the robbery In-chul and Min-Soo stage at the gambling hall owned by Hyun-Tae’s parents. Playing to the surveillance camera, In-chul and his friend’s mother mime a violent robbery while offering directions to each other. (Which is absolutely as silly as it sounds.) The camera can’t hear them, of course, so why not?

What could go wrong with this plan? Nearly everything, as you might expect.

As with Second Chance, it doesn’t matter a whit that we can see what’s coming. Indeed, in a genre picture like this, being able to see what the characters can’t—the absolutely inevitable disaster they have stupidly, arrogantly set in motion—is essential. As Hitchcock pointed out, that dynamic is what creates suspense. It’s not not knowing what’s going to happen; it’s knowing exactly what’s going to happen when the characters don’t that makes us squirm in our seats and talk pointlessly at the screen.

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Min-Soo, In-chul, and Hyun-Tae

One of the things that makes both of these films better than their average American counterpart (assuming it ever got a distribution deal) is that they both spend quality time developing their characters, so that we care about them. Rather than being told the main character’s backstory in dialogue— “My parents were killed in front of me!”*—or having the plot laid out for us in dialogue— “I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.”**—we watch characters do things and interact with each other. And so the characters seem like people rather than placeholders, and the plot appears to be generated by who the characters are rather than by the dictates of a marketing campaign aimed at 14-year-old boys.

I’m sorry. Did I say all that out loud?

Confession calls to mind another South Korean crime thriller traveling the festival circuit, A Hard Day. Seong-hoon Kim’s film about a corrupt cop having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is, I think, a better movie (though it’s hard to tell having only seen each once). Nevertheless, Second Chance and Confession are both a good time, and if you’re lucky enough that you can get to and afford a film festival, check these out. If not, don’t despair…they’ll be streaming soon.

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Up next from my SBIFF adventures… the Chinese thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014).

 

Colombiana (2011)

** Taken (2008) Really? You didn’t recognize that?