Saturday, March 16, 2013

I Was a Spy (1933)

Director: Victor Saville                              Writers: Ian Hay & W.P. Lipscomb
Film Score: Louis Levy                             Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Madeleine Carroll, Conrad Veidt, Herbert Marshall and Nigel Bruce

This British production is the first of many between-the-wars era spy movies that came out during the period. I Was a Spy is based on the true story of Martha Cnockaert McKenna, who worked as a spy for the British behind German lines during World War I. She was a Belgian medical student who worked as a nurse during the daytime tending to wounded German and Allied soldiers. At night she delivered messages and carried out mission of sabotage and was awarded both the Belgian and French Legions of Honor awards for her actions. In an ironic twist of fate, she was also awarded the Iron Cross by the Germans for her work in the hospital. After the war she wrote numerous spy novels and stories in addition to her autobiography.

The film is set in Belgian city of Roulers in 1915. When Madeleine Carroll’s aunt reappears after they thought she had been killed, she tells her that she is running messages to the British. She quickly enlists the help of Carroll to deliver a message for her and thus begins her work for the Allies. Conrad Viedt is the Komandant in charge of the town, his biggest problem getting enough food for his troops by raiding the houses and farms in and around the town. Nigel Bruce has a small role as a wounded British soldier, and Edmund Gwenn is the hapless mayor of the town, who can do little but follow Veidt’s orders.

Director Victor Saville also directed another well-known World War I spy story a few years later, Dark Journey, with Veidt again and Vivian Leigh in the lead. He and cinematographer Charles Van Enger do a really nice job with the photography for a British picture of the time. Perhaps they were inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s example, but the quality of the production is extremely good. The set design is very believable, and there are some extended travelling dolly shots that are quite good for a period known for static cameras. There is no film score, of course, which was only beginning to be used regularly in Hollywood at this time and would have been an unnecessary expense for the British production.

One might think that it would be a bitter irony for Conrad Veidt--who detested the Nazis so much that put “Jewish” as his nationality on his passport before emigrating to England almost the second they took charge--to always wind up playing evil Germans. But another famous German émigré, Curt Siodmak, always used to say, “Thank God for Hitler, because without him I wouldn’t be in this wonderful place.” One suspects Veidt, whose distinguished career in films was cut short prematurely in 1943, would have felt the same way. Madeleine Caroll would, of course, appear in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and Secret Agent a few years later, but I Was a Spy is the film that started the genre, and the excellent print by The Rank Collection makes it a definite classic.

No comments:

Post a Comment