Is this the filmic birth of both the wartime OSS and the SuperSpy genre? State department diplomat trainee Joel McCrea weds refugee Brenda Marshall, not realizing that she has gained her freedom by volunteering to become a Nazi spy. Released just as WW2 broke out but filmed and produced earlier, Warners’ production faced stiff political pressure from an isolationist Washington. Ever heard the phrase ‘premature anti-Nazi?’ Here there be patriots.
The Warner Archive Collection
1939 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 83 min. / Street Date May 1, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Joel McCrea, Brenda Marshall, Jeffrey Lynn, George Bancroft, Stanley Ridges, James Stephenson, Martin Kosleck, Rudolph Anders, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Egon Brecher, Nana Bryant, William Hopper, Glenn Langan, Chris-Pin Martin, George Reeves.
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Film Editor: Ralph Dawson
Original Music: Adolph Deutsch
Written by Warren Duff, Michael Fessier, Frank Donoghue, James Hilton, story by Robert Henry Buckner
Produced by Louis B. Edelman, Hal B. Wallis
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
I realize that the average filmgoer of 2018 can’t be bothered with the intersection of film and history, but I’ve always been fascinated by the political situation going into World War II, when Congress was putting pressure on Hollywood under the blanket policy of isolationism. Although MGM and some independents tried to buck the trend, it was Warners, the only studio that fully embraced social justice during the Depression, that came out and defied the ‘neutral’ element dominating Washington.
Should movies simply stay out of hot-button politics? In May of 1939 WB released Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which depicted Germany’s massive propaganda-espionage program in America. The right-wing faction in Congress was more concerned about Bolshevist revolution — considered a possibility here just a few years before — and the Dies Committee was already compiling lists of dangerous dissidents in movieland. Two years later, when America was about to enter the war, senators were still screaming that Hollywood had to stop spewing forth pro-intervention propaganda . . . like Warners’ Sergeant York.
In one way Espionage Agent missed the bus: it was released one month after Germany invaded Poland, when its subject was in some respects already obsolete. The Hal Wallis production is both a direct and indirect indictment of Nazi perfidy. The wartime-produced Casablanca melds politics and romance more gracefully, but the pre-war anti-nazi pictures took a stand when doing so was truly controversial. Although Agent is for the most part indifferently directed, its subject generates a real sense of urgency. It’s also an interesting forerunner of the spy movie subgenre.
Mid-level embassy officials Barry Corvall and Lowell Warrington (Joel McCrea & Jeffrey Lynn) work long hours at the U.S. Consulate in Tangiers, dealing with dozens of Americans fleeing The Spanish Civil War underway next door in Morocco. Barry falls in love with Brenda Ballard (Brenda Marshall in her first featured role), not realizing that her American passport is a fake, and that she’s actually been sent by nefarious German spymasters to work in America as an undercover agent. Barry and Brenda return to the U.S. on the same boat, as he’s going back to attend school in Washington to join the diplomatic corps. Brenda realizes that she’s poison to Barry’s career. She fends off his proposals. Barry’s mother (Nana Bryant) knows nothing but has misgivings as well. On graduation Barry finally gets Brenda to marry him. But Brenda is approached by one of her German contacts, Karl Müller (Martin Kosleck), who is posing as a newsman. She goes promptly to Barry, who consults with his superiors and immediately resigns. Brenda despairs, but Barry has a plan: if he can’t combat Germany in the State Department he’ll do so as a private citizen. He and Brenda go to Geneva to get proof of the German spy ring’s sabotage plans, so that complacent America will be forewarned. The only people they trust are Lowell, who is now in Geneva, and Donald Barrett (George Bancroft), a patriotic news correspondent with good connections in Europe. They find Brenda’s old associates operating out of the office of a ‘World Peace’ organization.
If Espionage Agent sounds familiar, it’s likely because star Joel McCrea is strongly associated with a similar thriller, the next year’s Foreign Correspondent from the liberal producer Walter Wanger and director Alfred Hitchcock. An escapist spy chase about a crime reporter uncovering a deceitful ‘peace organization’ as war clouds gather over Europe, Correspondent veers between hilarious light comedy and a dire warning to America in a famous finale broadcast from London during the Blitz:
“Yes, they’re coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don’t tune me out, hang on a while – this is a big story, and you’re part of it. It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come… as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world!”
That unforgettable call to arms — bombs were still falling on London as the film was released — makes the superb Foreign Correspondent a revered keepsake of the war’s dark beginning. A corresponding radio broadcast in Espionage Agent is nowhere near as compelling, but the earlier show is just as outspoken, and courageous. The big MacGuffin sought by Barry Corvall is a valise packed with Nazi sabotage plans and a list of agents ready to carry them out as soon as war is declared. In reality, the FBI’s record against German infiltration is a shining chapter for the Bureau — they rounded up most active enemy aliens almost immediately.
Although made a full year later, Foreign Correspondent didn’t identify the enemy as any specific country. Espionage Agent calls a German a German. The various German brotherhoods and Bunds are mentioned, and all the spies are ID’d as Germans as well. But there is one very visible, very screwy compromise with reality: no swastikas appear anywhere. Although we see a number of of German uniforms, the lighter, distinctive armbands have no insignia. To me that’s an indicator of Warners’ bitter dance with isolationist politics.
Espionage Agent proclaims that America needs a special intelligence service to combat foreign spies, instead of the uncoordinated intelligence efforts of the various armed forces. Wartime of course saw the creation of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the C.I.A.. In this escapist fantasy the ‘disgraced’ Barry launches his spy jaunt as a civilian, as in The Four Feathers. There is only one Hitchcockian scene in which he climbs out on a second floor ledge. The odd thing is that the complete amateur Brenda does most of the real risk-taking, directly dealing with the dangerous Nazis.
The Brenda Ballard angle is rather weak. An American citizen trapped in Austria (the timing with the Spanish Civil War is a little shaky) she found herself without passport when her parents died unexpectedly (no explanation given). This excuses her taking Nazi charity in the form of forged identity papers, etc.. Brenda doesn’t realize that these favors will have an attached price tag. Her Nazi contacts are overjoyed when she marries a diplomat, becoming their perfect conduit for sensitive secrets.
It seems odd that Barry would allow his adored wife to be put back in direct contact with a stack of sinister Nazis. Her sudden promotion to Emma Peel status is another stretch. Also half-baked are Brenda’s subsequent dealings with the Nazis, who have no real hold on her. They allow her to wander free even though she can identify all of them, even the top men.
Superspy film fans will detect the seeds of the 1960s in director Lloyd Bacon’s picture. Barry Corvall’s spy mission is one half of the formula for the James Bond escapism to follow. Both Barry and 007 behave as as if their country is already at war and that extreme extra-legal action is warranted. Before leaving on his personal quest Barry makes only unofficial contact with his previous employers. His old mentor is grateful for his sacrifice, but carefully adds the words that would become famous in the 1966 TV show Mission Impossible: “If you are captured, our office will have to disavow any knowledge of your activities.”
Hollywood produced a number of leading men that radiated healthy integrity and patriotism, and Joel McCrea led the pack. McCrea is his affable, charming self, as comfortable in a tuxedo as he is riding a horse. Although he looks a bit old for an entry-level diplomat, McCrea generates a winning spirit, minus the comic touches he added for his ‘Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock’ war correspondent in Hitchcock’s film.
New discovery Brenda Marshall could have used better directorial coaching, as she doesn’t seem a naturally expressive actress. Her Brenda Ballard is a slightly unwieldy character, but no more so than Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund in Casablanca, who also travels in high style despite being the harassed and harried wife of a hunted resistance leader. Ms. Ballard’s ability to con and flummox a room-ful of Nazi swine is not particularly credible: Jane Doe, aka Mata Hari. Critics aren’t always kind to Ms. Marshall, but she’s firmly implanted in my mental storeroom of star associations as a positive memory — dark, elegant, and forever accompanied by her sweet Korngold violin theme from The Sea Hawk.
This premature anti-Nazi thriller gives us a first look at some of Hollywood’s German-American and expatriate German actors that will be strongly associated with Nazi roles for the next six years. The great Martin Kosleck (right →) hit his stride as Joseph Goebbels in Confessions of a Nazi Spy and specialized in playing evil, rat-like Nazis for the duration. The same goes for Rudolph Anders, who traded off waiters and light supporting bits for sneering German officers spouting Nazi threats. Handsome Hans Heinrich Von Twardowski had starred long before in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari but also found a niche as a ‘cultured Kraut’ character in wartime pictures, like Casablanca and Hangmen Also Die!
Although light on action Espionage Agent has a feel for spy intrigues. When his plan falls apart, Barry discovers that the head German spymaster is personally escorting Brenda to Berlin for interrogation. Spy hijinks on trains are almost always good — cite The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich and From Russia with Love. Barry’s smooth but not particularly credible response sees him invading the train to pull both his mission and his wife out of the fire. It’s a little unusual that top spy Dr. Rader (James Stephenson) goes it alone when transporting a suspected double agent and a valise containing a treasure in security secrets. Director Lloyd Bacon is no Michael Curtiz — he doesn’t emphasize the excitement and tension as much as he should. Brenda beams with joy at the prospect of rescue, but the reaction is just a detail in a wide shot.
Espionage Agent sees a Nazi conspiracy thwarted by a few quick moves on a train, by an upscale couple that suffer only some ruffled clothing. But spies didn’t stay tame very long. The action-oriented wartime spy caper reached its high point in 1943’s The Adventures of Tartu, aka Sabotage Agent, produced in England for MGM. Unlike other thrillers content to present Reich officials as bumbling fools, its hero uncovers Nazi secrets that Dr. No or Hugo Drax would envy. An underground chemical warfare plant in Czechoslovakia is so vast that it dwarfs the fantastic constructions in Metropolis and Things to Come. The science-fiction exaggeration of technology became the other component of the later SuperSpy subgenre, that often centered on a terrible technological conspiracies.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Espionage Agent is a good encoding of this 1939 picture. Although it doesn’t have the snap of a new remaster, it plays well and Adolph Deutch’s music track is strong. The trailer included works up a good stock-shot fury to represent the sabotage threat. As with so many trailers of the time alternate takes and angles are used. That can be a mite disorienting when the memory of the movie is fresh in one’s mind.
Also a bit weird is the fumbling of some names. Several characters clearly refer to Martin Kosleck’s villain as ‘Karl Müller’ — (pronounced ‘Mule-ler’). Yet in both the end credits AND in a close-up of his business card, his name is given as a plain ‘Karl Mullen.’ George Bancroft is repeatedly identified as ‘Donald Garrett.’ In the end credits his newsman is listed as ‘Dudley Garrett.’
Movie studios were such a beehive of organized chaos in the ’30s and ’40s that it’s not surprising that name changes and other details didn’t filter down to various departments. Just getting the right actor to the right sound stage wearing the correct costume must have been a chore. I was on the Warner lot (TBS, actually) for months in 1978-1979, making a big movie that tied up more than one stage. To me the studio seemed busy, but I only remember seeing a street set up to film Movie Movie, and talking briefly to Lynda Carter (in costume!) as she took a walking break from her Wonder Woman TV show. Veterans frequently reminded me that compared to the old days, the studio was a ghost town.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good (Better for spy aficionados)
Video: Good +/-
Supplements: Original trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 15, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson