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British Intelligence

British Intelligence(1940)

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British Intelligence (1940)

This tiny, speedy wartime chestnut comes to us by way of a play byAnthony Paul Kelly, Three Faces East, first produced for asuccessful stage run when Kelly was all but 21. He'd already beenwriting silent movie scenarios for years, including the script for D.W.Griffith's Way Down East (1920), and would die young in 1932.Having his play put on in 1918 while World War I still raged -literally, one day after the conclusion of the Battle of Amiens - makesKelly something of a pioneer. His quaint little espionage melodrama mayhave been the first of its kind, on stage or on film, insofar as ithinges on multiple double agentry, the sending and retrieval of secretwar messages, and the manufacture of "sleeper" identities that becamestandard issue text in both spy fiction and spy reality, in the 20thcentury. Before Kelly, you had "invasion fiction" from the turn of thecentury, and a few military blackmailing scenarios, but not full-blownespionage skullduggery as we've come to know it.

Kelly's play was shot in Hollywood three times in 15 years, in1926, 1930 and 1940, and remained remarkably unchanged as a WWI thrillereven as Europe and America grew farther from one war and closer toanother. The first was a vehicle for forgotten Dutch vamp Jetta Goudaland, in the key role as Valdar the spy-butler, Clive Brook; the second,an early talkie, had Constance Bennett and Erich von Stroheim, and wasclearly the most high-profile and lavish of the three. The third, TerryMorse's British Intelligence, is clearly one of those cheap andfast quickies the studios - in this instance, Warner - ground out at theonset of war, as the sheerest propaganda. In all likelihood, theimmediate demand for product that corresponded with the public's realityprobably prompted Warner to ransack its archive for quickly remakableprojects, and that's where Three Faces East waited. Hollywooddidn't want to wait for WWII stories to naturally emerge in 1939 and1940, so they began converting WWI material and simply making theGermans in 1917 rabid Nazis in behavior, if not in uniform. "Someday!"the raving Commandant hollers, "Someday Germany will own the world!"

That didn't seem so campy in 1940. Still, there's a good deal to besaid for the comfy, calm, resplendently fake confines, for dramaticpurposes in any genre, of the aristocratically appointed Englishmansion, and that's where most of Kelly's saga takes place.Specifically, the home of the Lord of the Admiralty, where Valdar (inthis incarnation, it's Boris Karloff, sporting an elaborate sword-slashfacial scar) butlers and where the heroine spy, played by MargaretLindsay, ventures, in pursuit of secret battle plans and/or themysterious master spy who's after the battle plans. Frankly, none of theversions of Kelly's play are easy to vet, in terms of exactly whichdouble agent is actually for the Kaiser and which is actually for theBrits, which was doubtless intentional. But in every case, the castingof a savvy but sweet female lead against an unsavory and somewhatcreature-ish character actor tells us how things will pan out when it'sall said and done. In the meantime, Karloff tries on three differentaccents as he discloses his "real" allegiances, and we're not sure ifLindsay is in fact officially British, Belgian or German, while ofcourse being perfectly sure all the while.

You pay for your pleasure with the propagandistic cant -- aclimactic speech extolling the call to war is spoken directly at 1940filmgoers -- but the fringe benefits are ample, including tons ofarchival stock footage, some real, some culled from movies like 1930'sAll Quiet on the Western Front, leading up to the Germanstrategic bombing of London featuring dreamy steampunk visions, fromwhere we do not know, of zeppelins floating through the clouds. Karlofffeels out of place in general, but of course his actorly commitmentrefuses to weaken; he had the courtly gift of seeming to be invested inhis movie moments regardless of the film he's in. (For Karloff, thatmeant lending dignity to hundreds of roles in undeserving films and TVshows.) But Lindsay, in the lead, is the surprise here, amidst a MountRushmore of craggy British supporting-role faces. A lovely brunettealmost-star who toiled in Hollywood not quite becoming famous fordecades, Iowa-born Lindsay has a disarmingly fetching middle-period JaneFonda smile and deep husk to her voice, and her mature sexiness andunforced poise are hypnotic. What happened to her? Warner Bros. kept hercareer at a low boil for most of the '30s, but once she went freelance,even grabbing the female lead in the 1940 version of The House ofSeven Gables, she became a B-movie staple, mostly supporting RalphBellamy in the Ellery Queen series. Her arc petered out in the'60s with a predictable litany of TV parts, before she retired at 65.Once you've noticed her in Morse's film, you'll be on the lookout forher, popping up in dozens of Golden Age projects, many of which you'veprobably already seen (G-Men [1935], Dangerous [1935], Jezebel [1938]), but now needto see again. British Intelligence is very much an artifact of its day:hurried, utilitarian, living on borrowed sets and manufactured withulterior motives in mind, as was so much of America in the early '40s.It's nostalgia that's nostalgic for the '10s, while never shaking theimmediate sense of preparing for war in 1940.

By Michael Atkinson

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