Madeleine Carroll Blogathon: I Was a Spy (1933)

ti104333_large

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

spy.alley

 

Down the rabbit hole.

 

window.spy

window3.spy

window2.spy

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.

Hebert_Marshall-06

This guy?

cropped-connie3

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)

m86Z5O8WeJozhb5zRGYTWJQ

 

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Ministry-of-Fear-swastikaAfter the first couple of paragraphs, this post is pretty much nothing but spoilers. Ye’ve been warned.

During the 30s and early 40s, Austrian-exile Fritz Lang wanted to make not just anti-fascist pictures, but anti-Nazi pictures. In the American studios where Lang began making movies in 1936, this was a hard sell for much of the war. He did make four films in which Nazis are central to the plot—Manhunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946). Of these, Ministry of Fear is the only one that has no actual Nazis* in it. Ministry is instead filled with collaborators, making everyone a potential threat.

Fritz Lang

A mischievous Lang at a typically Expressionist angle.

The film, adapted from the Graham Greene novel, opens with our hero, Stephen Neale (the sporting Ray Milland), being released from an institution where he’s been remanded for the “mercy killing” of his wife. In other words, Neale has been something of a collaborator himself. (He brought his dying wife some means of killing herself but couldn’t bring himself to administer it. Unbeknownst to him, she found it and killed herself.) Since the trial, Neale has been resting up in the Lembridge asylum.

In the Criterion Collection liner notes for the film, Glenn Kenny describes Ministry as a “nightmare film” rather than a Nazi film—that is, a film like Lang’s earlier M (1931) or the Mabuse (1922; 1933) films, movies in which the Ministry of Fearprotagonist is not so much involved in a plot as trapped in a psychologically overwrought context, an atmosphere rather than a real place. That atmosphere—which Lang excelled at—veers uncomfortably between oppressive and angst-ridden. Even before we know what sort of trouble Neale will get himself in, there is an unnerving emphasis on the passing of time. The film opens on a clock—the one ticking away the minutes until Neale is once again a free man. When he buys a ticket back to London at the Lembridge rail station, the clerk says he’ll have it “in the wink of an eye.” The train, however, Neale has to wait for.

To pass the time, Neale attends a village fête (pronounced by all and sundry as “fate”) benefitting the Mothers of Free Nations charity. Looking a bit dazed by what appears to be more social interaction than he’s had in a long time, Neale is first pressed into guessing the weight of a cake—made with tightly rationed eggs—and is then compelled to have his palm read. And here is where things go sideways for Neale.

The palmist tells Neale he will make a woman very happy; Neale protests, “I’m not married.”

Ministry palmist

“Well, you will be!” she practically shouts at him. “You’ve made at least one woman happy,” she insists, but Neale doesn’t want to hear any more about the past, and who can blame him?

“Don’t tell me about the past,” he says, “show me the future.”

Unfortunately, these turn out to be the magic words the palmist is waiting to hear from a Nazi spy. Brushing issues of romance aside, she informs Neale that what he really wants is that cake, and she tells him what guess will win it for him. (For a cake everyone insists is very light because of those rare eggs, the “magic” weight of the cake is pretty heavy.) Confused, but cheerfully following directions, he returns to the cake stand and offers this new weight, winning the cake.

cake_Ministry

It’s a Congratulations-on-getting-out-of-the-asylum cake!

Just as he is heading back to the station with his prize, the fête ladies stop him. The real spy (the criminally under-appreciated Dan Duryea) has materialized, and he wants his cake. The ladies insist that they’ve made a mistake, and that this new fellow has guessed much more closely to the “real” weight. Neale triumphantly points out that his original guess is much closer to this new weight than the angry, bowler-hatted interloper’s and heads back to the station. Fate, indeed.

In such circumstances, what can a spy do but send in a fake blind man to share Neale’s train carriage and steal back the made-with-real-eggs-secret-spy cake? Neale offers the fellow a slice (using the pocket knife all gentlemen used to carry), but rather than popping it in his mouth like a normal fake blind man, the man crumbles it in his fingers as though trying to find something in it. While the two men share the cake, the Nazis begin bombing a nearby munitions factory. The train slams to a stop. The fake blind man, not finding what he was looking for in the cake, whacks Neale over the head, hops off the train, and makes off with the rest of the cake.

The bombs are going off, the train is stopped somewhere in the countryside, and we can see the fake blind man scurrying off with his contraband, but Neale comes to pretty quickly. And this is where things get weird. Neale gathers himself, jumps off the train, and runs—towards the Nazi bombs—after the man who stole his cake. Just take a minute to savor that.

Of course, things have to clatter off the rails for Neale to really reassimilate. In order to rejoin civilization, he needs to be purged of his guilt in collaborating in his wife’s death. When Neale confesses his part in his wife’s death to his new love interest, Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds), they are even Underground, so that Neale can re-emerge a truly free man. Now, he can be the good guy, pursuing collaborators and Carla with a free (well, free-ish) conscience. So, when he says, “Show me the future,” it isn’t so much an unfortunate coincidence as a gateway to actually having one.

Carla and Stephen

Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) in a fabulous Edith Head suit with a slightly spooked Stephen (Ray Milland). Hey, remember the box in “Kiss Me Deadly”?

Austrian exiles Carla and her brother, Willi, run the Mothers of Free Nations, which has been hijacked by Nazis spies and collaborators. As Neale runs around London trying to find out who stole his cake, he and Carla are constantly framed in doorways, suggesting both a sense of being trapped and that somehow the pair are inescapably visible to their pursuers. In an attempt to track down the cake-foisting palmist, Neale and Willi attend a séance, and the angry man who wanted his cake (Duryea), turns up—and then gets shot, apparently with Neale’s gun. Then we see a second dour, bowler-hatted fellow tailing Neale.

Ministry-of-Fear_bowler

Bowlers, bowlers everywhere…

Neale is surrounded not only by people with suspect motives but also by fakes of one sort or another. Neale’s palmist was the spies’ replacement for the regular palmist, a professional fake who runs the séance. (But of course Neale’s palmist is quite real in that her readings turn out to be quite accurate.) There is the fake blind man, of course. The man who wanted the cake and then gets shot at a séance later turns up with yet another name, as a tailor, and very much not dead. The second bowler-hatted man who seems so menacing is a good guy. One can’t even be sure of the cake. The unknowableness of others’ motives until it is perhaps too late is essential to the queasy atmosphere Lang creates, and it is superbly effective at conveying an aspect of the terror Nazis were so good at manufacturing: paranoia. Upon finding the names of various suspect persons in their files, Carla exclaims to Willi, “They’re Nazis, Willi, I know it! The same as they were in Austria. It’s the way they work, all around you, knowing about everybody, everything, where to find you. …They’re here.” It’s this sense of collaborators hiding in plain sight, turning up everywhere you go, that I think makes Ministry of Fear not only a classic Lang “nightmare” film, but a Nazi film as well.

ministry-of-fear

Hillary Brooke as the real Mrs. Bellane, psychic.

Ministry of Fear is often introduced (or dismissed)  as one of Lang’s lesser films, but recently—especially since the Criterion re-release in 2013—interested parties are making a case for it. Perhaps trying to see the film as an anti-Nazi picture has masked its finer qualities. Looking at Ministry of Fear as a noir, a genre for which Lang is justifiably famous, might shift the focus to what the picture does (really) well, rather than its failure at things it’s not trying to (and maybe couldn’t) do. It certainly hits many of noir’s high (low?) notes: an imperfect man in over his head, the constant sense of unease and danger, typical noir angles, framings, and some noir-ish lighting.

Ministry is a fine film either way, not only because it’s Fritz Lang; it had loads of talent working on it. I’m becoming quite a Ray Milland fan, especially after watching this and another 1944 Milland picture, The Uninvited, a ghost story directed by Lewis Allen. Art director Hans Dreier (who has a whopping 535 credits on IMDb) worked on both, to wonderful effect. The unflappable and very tall (6′ 6″) Alan Napier (Alfred to Adam West’s Batman, for those of my generation) is also in both pictures. Character actor Dan Duryea, no slouch at 6′ 1″, deserves a post of his own; here, he gives us what Kenny describes as “uncharacteristic but altogether deliberate blandness” in a character who turns up like a bad penny, helping to evoke the paranoid sense of imminent betrayal that pervades the film. Plus, Duryea gets to dial a phone with a pair of ludicrously enormous tailors’ scissors, which look like an overisze prop for Hitchcock’s 3D Dial M for Murder (1954, another Milland picture).

Duryea_Ministry

Unfortunately, Ministry of Fear isn’t currently streaming on any platform I’m aware of—you just gotta wait for it from Netflix or buy it (or get it from your library, of course—mine had it!).

Here’s a peek – the fake blind man and the cake:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Svuz0HEeslc?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

(*There is no one in the film who identifies as a Nazi, no one sporting jackboots or spouting fascist rhetoric. But one can make an argument for Carla’s brother Willi as one of those apparently affable Nazis who are inevitably revealed as cold-blooded bastards, both because of his false “old boy” avuncularity and the fact that he is the person giving the other collaborators their marching orders.)

Nazidom book

More Reading on Ministry of Fear:

MUBI essay focusing on the romance between Carla and Stephen

Turner Classic Movies’ page on Ministry of Fear

Bosley Crowther’s 1945 New York Times review 

IMDb’s page on Ministry of Fear