Saturday, November 2, 2013

British Agent (1934)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                  Writer: Laird Doyle
Film Score: Bernhard Kaun                             Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Leslie Howard, Kay Francis, J. Carrol Naish and Irving Pichel

This is an interesting historical drama from Warner Brothers’ independent unit, First National, that explores the political intrigue during the Russian Revolution from the standpoint of the British and their allies who desperately wanted the Russians to continue fighting during World War One to keep those German soldiers occupied on the other side of the continent. Though First National was known mainly for its low-budget features, this is a first-class production, with terrific art direction as well as the great director Michael Curtiz at the helm. Add to that the brilliance of Kay Frances and Leslie Howard, as well as a host of great character actors, and British Agent is very nice piece of Depression era entertainment.

The film opens with Leslie Howard being sent to the British Embassy in St. Petersberg. While he’s there the Bolshevik revolution breaks out and the embassy evacuated, all but Howard and a handful of supporters. Before the staff leaves, however, Howard witnesses a trench-coated Kay Francis taking a shot at a soldier during one of the massacres of the revolutionaries, and he meets her briefly before she melts back into the night. Of course when they meet a few weeks later they fall madly in love, but she’s working for the Russian people in support of the revolution while he is attempting to keep them fighting and dying for an alliance made by the Tzar. At every turn Francis betrays Howard, and yet he keeps coming back for more. It’s a fascinating story, though being so familiar with the actual history takes a lot of the suspense out of the film. Still, the ending more than makes up for that.

The film also boasts a number of great character actors. At the British Embassy is the ambassador Halliwell Hobbes, impressively unflappable during the opening of the revolution. The head of the secret police is played by Irving Pichel, whose voice makes the viewer wish he had many more lines. Trotsky is J. Carrol Naish who could give Lon Chaney a run for his money in playing character parts. The wonderful Doris Lloyd plays a British aristocrat in St. Petersberg while Frank Reicher plays the mystery man working for the revolution, and along for the ride is Cesar Romero as an Italian. Howard, stiff upper lip firmly in place, is great. He brings a real sense of genuine British heroism that few actors possess. Kay Francis, of course, is luminous and a joy to watch.

The story is based on the memoirs of H.R. Bruce Lockhart though the title of his book, as well as the film, is a tad misleading. This is not the tale of a spy, but of a British diplomat who was forced to act under his own authority. As a film, it’s a curious mixture of politics and romance, neither of which really succeed. All of the elements are there, however, to make a great film. Curtiz is incredibly confident, even with this weak material, and there are a dozen great stars, as well, but the film can’t seem to lift off dramatically, not the least because Francis is oddly out of place as a Russian supporter. But even with all of that it’s not a bad film. It’s extremely watchable for all of the reasons state above, and while British Agent would never be considered a great piece of cinematic art, it’s still a very enjoyable movie.

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