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Madeleine Carroll Blogathon: I Was a Spy (1933)

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.

Down the rabbit hole.

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.

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.

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

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