Sunday, August 16, 2015

Nazi Agent (1942)

Director: Jules Dassin                                       Writers: Paul Gangelin & John Meehan Jr.
Film Score: Lennie Hayton                                Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Ann Ayars, Frank Reicher and Martin Kosleck

It’s always fascinated me that MGM, the most conservative of the studios in Hollywood, was the first to go headlong into anti-Nazi propaganda with films like The Mortal Storm even before Pearl Harbor. This one, Nazi Agent, starring the legendary Conrad Veidt, was produced later during the flourishing of these pictures, coming out just a month before Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur. This was the first feature film for director Jules Dassin, who would make some powerful films noir in the late forties for Universal but, ironically, would be hounded out of the country by the communist witch hunts that began shortly after. He wound up spending the bulk of his career in Europe and made some stellar films there as well, including Night and the City in England and Rififi in France. Despite the title, this film is all about U.S. patriotism, and had gone through several title changes during production, finally settling on Salute to Courage during previews before the studio opted for a more sensational title on general release. As such, the film is known less for its cinematic qualities than it is for the bravura performance by Conrad Veidt in a dual role. The great actor would make only two more films before dying unexpectedly of a heart attack a year later.

The film opens in the days before Pearl Harbor with a radio announcer reporting on acts of sabotage around the U.S. Reporters in to visit the German consulate are told by Conrad Veidt that the Germans are not responsible. But when they are gone he instructs his man Martin Kosleck that it’s time to activate their undercover agent, who also turns out to be Veidt as a bookseller. Dorothy Tree works for him as a clerk, and Ivan Simpson helps him acquire rare stamps for his collection. One night, however, his twin brother shows up at his home above the shop and asks to use the shop as a blind for his agents to exchange messages. But bookseller Viedt has become an American citizen and wants nothing to do with his Nazi brother. Unfortunately Marc Lawrence is brought in and because he has blackmail information on him the bookseller reluctantly acquiesces. Tree turns out to be the Nazi brother’s agent and will report on anything he does to hinder their operations. The information is transmitted through stamps, the first communiqué from Canada resulting in the destruction of a convoy by Nazi submarines. But bookseller Veidt can’t take it and passes a note to Simpson the next time he comes in to call the police, which only results in Simpson’s death and more threats by his Nazi brother.

In a rage, bookseller Veidt attacks his brother, and turns his own gun on him, killing him. Then in a panic decides to shave off his whiskers and assume his brother’s place in the spy ring in order to destroy it. Of course, it’s not easy to impersonate someone else’s life even in the best of circumstances, and the suspense comes from seeing if Veidt can learn enough about the organization to really damage it before he’s exposed as the “Nazi agent.” He not only has to fool his closest aides, including Kosleck and Ann Ayars, but most crucially his personal manservant, Frank Reicher. Conrad Veidt had to play so many Nazi’s during his brief Hollywood career--the most famous being Major Strasser in Casablanca--that this role probably seemed a welcome relief, as it mirrored his own hatred of the Nazis and his emigration to the U.S. In fact, there’s a surprising amount of compassion expressed in the film for German people in America and the difficult choice they had to make, whether to honor the loyalty to their adoptive country or loyalty to the Nazi party, and it makes for a much richer story than painting all Germans as evil. Unfortunately it’s a compassion that Hollywood failed to extend to Japanese Americans as well.

Dassin has a good eye for framing shots, like the way he stays at the bottom of the stairs as bookseller Veidt goes up into the shadows, or when the camera is at the top when Nazi Veidt walks up toward it. He and cinematographer Harry Stradling also make occasional use of a moving camera to good effect, though clearly the emphasis of the film is not on its artistic qualities and was no doubt rushed through production to capitalize on its exploitative potential. Veidt has no real equal in the film, except perhaps Frank Reicher. Though he’s a pale ghost of Captain Engelhorn from King Kong, he had a lengthy and distinguished career as a character actor in Hollywood and supports the star well. Ann Ayars, on the other hand, is not quite a natural on screen, and she only made a few more films during the war before returning to her primary vocation as an opera singer. Character veteran Marc Lawrence is a familiar face, as is Moroni Olsen as the head operative of the spy ring, and Sidney Blackmer as the ring’s front man in the States. While Nazi Agent is definitely a lesser genre film, it does have the benefit of genuine suspense and a terrific performance by the great Conrad Veidt to recommend it.

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