Friday, June 22, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Secret Enemies (1942)

SECRET ENEMIES (1942) is a nice example of the type of "B" movie at which Warner Bros. excelled in the late '30s and early '40s.

Clocking in at just 57 minutes, it's a zippy spy thriller with a fast-paced story and plenty of familiar faces.

SECRET ENEMIES, which was released nine months after Pearl Harbor, begins on December 8, 1941. Attorney Carl Becker (Craig Stevens) heads for the German embassy in Washington to try to obtain help getting the sick wife of a close friend (Frank Reicher) out of Germany.

Becker has no luck, and the friend is pressured by a German spy (Robert Warwick) to spy for the Nazis in order to save his wife's life.

Becker, meanwhile, joins the FBI when an agent friend (Charles Lang) is gassed to death in the hotel where they were both staying.

Becker's training supervisor, John Trent (John Ridgely), is initially somewhat suspicious of Carl and whether he could have played a role in the agent's death, but eventually the two men work together closely to break up the German spy ring. Little does Carl know that not one but two important people in his life are part of the ring.

Faye Emerson costars as Carl's girlfriend Paula, a nightclub singer; she never sings and the role is underdeveloped -- I mean, it's a 57-minute movie! -- but she ends up having a key part in the story as the finale unfolds.

There's a particularly good scene where Stevens and Ridgely arrive to stay at the hotel well-prepared to prevent their own deaths by gas and catch some bad guys, and on the whole the movie hurtles along quickly with spies and gun battles galore. It's a fun watch which is particularly interesting as an example of of the kind of films Hollywood studios were turning out in the earliest days after our entry into WWII.

Stevens is an acceptable leading man although I find him just a bit bland; I honestly feel that longtime supporting actor fave Ridgely is more charismatic and fun to watch. Fortunately they have numerous scenes together!

SECRET ENEMIES was directed by Benjamin Stoloff and filmed in black and white by James Van Trees. The supporting cast includes George Meeker, Monte Blue, Addison Richards, Cliff Clark, and Ray Teal.

I saw this film thanks to recording a past showing on Turner Classic Movies. Perhaps one day it will turn up on DVD via the Warner Archive. I'd love to see the Archive release sets of hour-long WB "B" films such as this one!

Tonight's Movie: A Notorious Affair (1930) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

My latest Kay Francis viewing was A NOTORIOUS AFFAIR (1930), recently released on DVD by the Warner Archive.

Kay steals every scene she's in as a man-eating vamp, Countess Olga Balakireff. She's obsessed with chasing after men, and she's not picky, romping with the stable boy and other servants before setting her sights on a newly famous violinist, Paul Gherardi (Basil Rathbone).

The spineless, emotional Paul falls for Olga and is unfaithful to his wife Patricia (Billie Dove), who was disowned by her wealthy father (Montagu Love) for marrying an untitled nobody. The long-suffering Patricia meanwhile reconnects with a former suitor, Dr. Allen Pomeroy (Allen Thomson, recently seen by me in THE FAMOUS FERGUSON CASE), who is called in to attend to her unstable husband.

Rathbone is simply annoying as a whiny man who doesn't appreciate his fine career and beautiful wife. There is no hint here of the sophisticated type of villain he would be playing just a few years later in films such as THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) or THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940). It's rather difficult to imagine how this unhappy fellow ever swept beautiful Patricia off her feet, to the extent she would leave behind family and fortune in order to be with him.

This isn't a particularly scintillating film, being on the creaky side, but every time it seemed ready to slow down to a crawl Francis would reappear to wake things up. It also must be said that Dove is lovely as the heroine of this melodrama, the type of role Francis would so often play in later films. And on the plus side, the movie wraps up in just 69 minutes. In the end it was worth a look, though not one of the more memorable films I'll see this year.

Look for future cowboy star Bill Elliott as a party guest early in the film.

A NOTORIOUS AFFAIR was directed by Lloyd Bacon and photographed by Ernest Haller.

The print of this 1930 film is soft but otherwise acceptable, with a fairly strong soundtrack. There are no extras.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Incredibles 2 (2018)

It's hard to believe it's been 14 years since the release of one of Pixar's very best movies, THE INCREDIBLES (2004).

In a nice touch, INCREDIBLES 2 (2018) is preceded by a brief featurette in which cast members thank the fans for waiting so long and express the hope the audience will enjoy the movie. I'm happy to report that I definitely did!

INCREDIBLES 2, like the original film, was written and directed by Brad Bird, who also voices "fashion designer to superheroes" Edna Mode.

Composer Michael Giacchino also returns, along with the entire cast, excepting Spencer Fox as Dash, who's voiced this time around by Huckleberry Milner.

The movie picks up right where THE INCREDIBLES leaves off. Bob (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen (Holly Hunter) Parr, aka Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, are arrested after trying to stop the Underminer (John Ratzenberger), as superheroes are still illegal. They're released and move into a motel with their children Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash, and baby Jack Jack (Eli Fucile).

Uncertain of their next step, the Parrs are unexpectedly approached by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who has a plan to make superheroes legal again. Elastigirl is at the forefront of his plan, as a sort of "kinder, gentler" superhero; the family needs an income, so Bob agrees to stay home with the kids while Helen is at "work."

Bob is soon completely worn out dealing with the kids, from Dash's "new math" to the sudden realization that not only does Jack Jack have powers, he has lots and lots...and lots...of them! Fortunately it's Edna to the rescue when Bob is at his wit's end trying to keep his baby boy under control.

Meanwhile Helen is enjoying her newfound popularity with the public, but little does she know that there is more to a new villain, Screenslaver (Bill Wise), than she suspects.

As with the original film, the family dynamics are pitch perfect, from Violet's adolescent angst to a very relatable scene with a mathbook ("Why would they change math? Math is math!").

Baby Jack Jack is a total scene stealer, especially when he goes into combat against a raccoon, and when he's introduced to Edna, utter hilarity ensues. I was not expecting Edna to be baby friendly, but her delight in finding ways to manage Jack Jack's powers is really wonderful. (P.S. I'm wondering if Disney will eventually write and publish a complete version of Jack Jack's bedtime book, DOOZLES ARE DOZING.)

Samuel L. Jackson also returns as Bob's best friend Lucius, aka Frozone, and Kimberly Adair Clark is also on hand again as the voice of Lucius's unseen wife Honey.

I found this 118-minute movie well-plotted and completely enjoyable. Be sure to stay all the way through the end credits, which are superbly animated and show off Giacchino's jazzy score to good effect, along with some fun superhero theme music.

(Fun trivia: Three of the four trombonists on the INCREDIBLES 2 soundtrack have served as the Grand Marshal for the Trombone Christmas concert my husband organizes in Anaheim every year.)

Input from other reviewers: Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times finds the movie "sparkling," while Brian Truitt of USA Today compares it to other Pixar films and says it "surpasses most everything without TOY STORY in the title." He also notes "Every scene involving Jack-Jack is a complete joy." Leonard Maltin's only complaint was that it was too long, but he suggests that viewers won't care as "They'll be too busy having a good time."

Parental Advisory: This film is rated PG. There is a bit of bad language which should have been dropped, but studios seem to fear a G rating.

A trailer is here.

INCREDIBLES 2 was preceded by the Pixar short BAO (2018), about a Chinese dumpling which suddenly comes to life as a baby. I didn't particularly enjoy this one as there was no line connecting the fantasy of most of the short with the reality of the last minute or two, which made it hard to follow. More often than not I like Pixar shorts but this one was just a little too "out there" for me to appreciate.

INCREDIBLES 2 is a recommended film which will be finding its way onto my Disney/Pixar Blu-ray shelf in due course!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Whispering Smith Speaks (1935)

George O'Brien plays the title role in the Fox film WHISPERING SMITH SPEAKS (1935).

O'Brien plays Gordon Harrington Jr., whose wealthy father (Frank Sheridan) is intent on handing him the family business on a silver platter...eventually. Meantime he doesn't have much for Gordon to do other than sit in an office stamping his signature on documents.

Gordon feels useless so one day he quits the family business and heads west. He hires on with a small railroad, the Blake Line, run by Nan Roberts (Irene Ware). Not wanting to give his own very well-known name, Gordon says his name is John Smith. He begins learning the railroad business from the ground up, walking tracks and handling maintenance.

Eventually "Smith" protects Nan from selling land she believes is worthless; Gordon is suspicious about its value and learns she's sitting on valuable property filled with tungsten.

This is a pleasant but very minor O'Brien film, chiefly enjoyable due to the fact that O'Brien is onscreen for most of the 65-minute running time. The film also has some very interesting rural railroad footage; I'd love to know where it was filmed but so far haven't had any luck.

There's also a fun scene near the end where O'Brien rides a sidecar as a motorcyclist tries to get him somewhere in a hurry. Again, it would be interesting to know the city where that was filmed.

The movie was directed by David Howard, who worked with O'Brien on many of his very good "B" Westerns. It was filmed by Frank B. Good.

The cast also includes Maude Allen, Kenneth Thomson, Spencer Charters, Edward Keane, and Si Jenks. Frequent bit player Bess Flowers has a larger-than-usual speaking role as Gordon's secretary near the beginning of the movie.

This isn't a particularly easy movie to find; I watched a "gray market" copy that was in fairly good shape, other than a bad moment here or there. It would certainly be nice if all of O'Brien's early Fox work would be available "on demand" or by another viewing method!

Addressing that issue and more, I did find a nice 2011 piece on this film by Steve at Mystery File, an excellent site where I frequently find reviews and interesting bits of info on otherwise obscure films. There's a lengthy quote by historian Ed Hulse about his relationship with O'Brien; at the 2016 Lone Pine Film Festival I was privileged to hear Ed discuss getting to know O'Brien.

Quoting from that blog post, Ed said, "I often cite WHISPERING SMITH SPEAKS -- which is really a romantic comedy, not a blood-and-thunder action piece -- as the film whose protagonist best represents the real George O’Brien: warm, funny, gregarious, supremely self-assured without being arrogant. It’s well worth seeking out for that reason alone, although it’s never been commercially available on any home video format. You can only get it in bootleg VHS or DVD versions."

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Ocean's Eight (2018)

It's hard to believe it's been over a decade since our family saw OCEAN'S 13 (2007) while on a vacation trip. OCEAN'S 13, of course, followed OCEAN'S 11 (2001) and OCEAN'S 12 (2004); now, 17 years after OCEAN'S 11, we have OCEAN'S EIGHT (2018), the story of Danny Ocean's sister Debbie.

As the film begins, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is released from five-plus years in prison. Debbie immediately looks up her old friend Lou (Cate Blanchett) to discuss a genius plan she came up with in prison to rob fabulous gems from the annual Met Gala in New York City.

Debbie plans to arrange for actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear a fabulously expensive necklace which the gang will steal. While Debbie's at it, she'll also frame her old boyfriend Claude (Richard Armitage), who betrayed her and sent her to prison after a job gone wrong.

Debbie and Lou recruit their team, including fence and corporate expert Tammy (Sarah Paulson), hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina), jeweler Amita (Mindy Kaling), and dress designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter).

As the film unspools over a well-paced hour and 50 minutes, the pleasure is in watching this finely tuned team work their magic. Some critics have criticized the fact that there's not much dramatic tension in terms of a threat to the plan, but I actually liked that as it made the movie very relaxing. It's more of a comedy or female buddy movie than a suspenseful heist film.

Of course, it's a total fantasy, which is also part of what makes it fun. Among other things, I marveled over the women seemingly having completely clear consciences about helping themselves to other people's money. That doesn't seem to ever cross their minds; this is simply the job they're good at.

Bullock is always enjoyable, and that's true again here as the woman with a plan. Blanchett, as Bullock's friend and top lieutenant, is the blandest of the women, a helpful cog in the machinery but otherwise something of a cipher. Hathaway, on the other hand, is pure genius in a sly comedic role as a celebrated celebrity. Her scenes with Bonham Carter as the fashion designer are particularly amusing.

There are a couple nice cameos from the previous films, but the movie really called for an appearance by Danny (George Clooney) in the final scene, and I was disappointed we didn't get one.

Everyone does a good job and turns out an entertaining film. Great art it's not, but it's a very enjoyable "summer popcorn film," and I was glad I went to see it as I had quite a good time.

OCEAN'S EIGHT was directed by Gary Ross and filmed by Eigil Bryld.

Parental Advisory: OCEAN'S 8 is rated PG-13. It's pretty mild as these ratings go, but there are a couple of racy moments which would be awkward for children to view.

A trailer is here.

Final note: Although many sources refer to the film as OCEAN'S 8, including posters, I give opening credits the last word, and in this case the number in OCEAN'S EIGHT is spelled out.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Every Girl Should Be Married (1948) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

A top cast stars in EVERY GIRL SHOULD BE MARRIED (1948) available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Cary Grant plays Dr. Madison Brown, who attracts the notice of a (very) marriage-minded young lady, Anabel Sims (Betsy Drake). Anabel dreams of her own home with a husband and children, and she believes that women should have as much opportunity as men to pursue relationships. Charmed by the news that he's a pediatrician who thus must love children, Anabel forms plans to snag Dr. Brown with single-minded intensity.

As part of the plan, Anabel decides that Dr. Brown needs to think another man is interested in her, and through a series of circumstances that man turns out to be the oft-married Roger Sanford (Franchot Tone), an old college friend of the doctor's who happens to own the department store where Anabel works.

Dr. Brown is seemingly on to Anabel's every move; initially perplexed and frustrated by her intensity, he ultimately finds he can't quite help himself when it comes to falling for her.

The always-enjoyable Diana Lynn plays Anabel's friend and partner in crime who assists her myriad schemes to land the doctor, and Eddie Albert has an amusing uncredited role as a radio actor posing as Anabel's boyfriend from "back home."

These days we'd probably call the never-say-die Anabel a stalker! I veered between feeling embarrassed for her and admiring her determination to achieve her goals, which seems to be pretty much how Dr. Brown feels for much of the movie as well.

Rather interesting to me was that Anabel seemed to be a forerunner for Maggie MacNamara's character in THE MOON IS BLUE (1953). THE MOON IS BLUE originated as a 1951 Broadway play, and I couldn't help wondering if playwright F. Hugh Herbert took any inspiration from this movie; the stories have in common a very talkative and determined leading lady, a befuddled leading man who doesn't know what hit him, and an urbane bachelor "third wheel."

Rather amusingly, exactly one year after this film was released, Drake married Grant; they were married over a dozen years and also costarred in the very good family comedy ROOM FOR ONE MORE (1952), which was shown on TV as THE EASY WAY when I was growing up. EVERY GIRL SHOULD BE MARRIED is one of a small number of Grant films I'd never seen, and I was glad to finally check it off my list.

Despite finding Anabel exhausting at times, on the whole this is a cheerful and well-made movie, with interesting little touches such as the action under the opening credits and end title. It has a bright soundtrack score and crisp photography of an attractive cast by George E. Diskant (ON DANGEROUS GROUND), and it knows when to quit at the 85-minute mark.

In the end much of the movie's appeal boils down to: Who could possibly not enjoy a romantic comedy with Cary Grant and Franchot Tone as the male leads?

The film was directed and cowritten by Don Hartman (HOLIDAY AFFAIR), who sadly would die a decade later at the age of 57.

The supporting cast includes Elisabeth Risdon, Alan Mowbray, Chick Chandler, and Richard Gaines. Anne Nagel, the leading lady of '30s Dick Foran Westerns, has a brief scene as a mother attending Dr. Brown's lecture. Look for James Griffith as an insurance salesman who tries to give Annabel a car (it's a long story). The minister is played by Selmer Jackson.

This is an early Warner Archive release which, like all WAC releases, continues to be manufactured "on demand." Other than a couple minor flaws the DVD picture looks great, and the disc has a strong soundtrack. There are no extras.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Kid Nightingale (1939) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

John Payne stars as KID NIGHTINGALE (1939), just released on DVD by the Warner Archive.

Steve Nelson (Payne) is a singing waiter unexpectedly recruited to the boxing ring after tussling with an obnoxious customer.

Steve becomes popular with the ladies as "Kid Nightingale," singing a song after each victory. Along the way he also romances Judy (Jane Wyman), a piano player.

The movie is so lacking in plot that there's not much more to say about it than that! It's a minor film which runs only 57 minutes, but it has its compensations, especially the pleasure of watching the young Payne and Wyman.

The scene where the couple duet singing "Hark, Hark, the Meadowlark" is a charmer, and Payne having several chances to sing is one of the elements which makes the movie worth seeing for his fans.

Payne was gorgeous, as is shown to good effect in the boxing scenes, and Wyman, in her "blonde period," is cute and personable.

Fave Warner Bros. supporting actor John Ridgely is also on hand, along with Ed Brophy and Walter Catlett.

A great movie it's not, but fans of Payne and Wyman will enjoy spending under an hour watching a pair of talented young actors as they worked their way up through the studio system, headed toward better things.

KID NIGHTINGALE was directed by George Amy and filmed by Arthur Edeson.

The Warner Archive DVD is a good print. The disc includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Winner of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) Blu-ray Drawing

The day has arrived to announce the winner of the drawing for the Blu-ray copy of BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY (2017)!

I wrote the names of everyone who entered the contest on strips of paper and put them in a bowl, then asked my husband to draw the winner.

I'm happy to announce that the winner is...Amanda!

Amanda recommended HER HIGHNESS AND THE BELLBOY (1945) as a favorite Hedy Lamarr movie.

Amanda, please use the "Contact Me" button near the top of this page's lefthand margin in order to email me your address. I'll mail you the Blu-ray ASAP after receiving your address. Congratulations!

Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to share their favorite Hedy Lamarr films and enter the drawing!

For more on BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY, please read my recent review.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing the Blu-ray awarded in this drawing.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Baby Face Harrington (1935) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

I had a hectic workweek, hence a quiet few days here on the blog. It was great to reach Friday evening and curl up with a cute little 62-minute comedy, BABY FACE HARRINGTON (1935). It was just released on DVD by the Warner Archive.

BABY FACE HARRINGTON was directed by Raoul Walsh. Charles Butterworth plays the title role. Willie, as he's known in ordinary life, is a milquetoast clerk with a loving wife, Millicent (Una Merkel), but not much else.

Being a glass is half full kind of man, Willie points out to Millicent that they have a house, a car, a radio, and a vacuum cleaner, all the things one could want in life. When Millicent responds that they have a mortgage and that the car and vacuum aren't in good shape, Willie hopefully asks, "How's the radio?"

Butterworth, whose deadpan line readings always tickle my funnybone, is amusing as a man whose life from that point spirals out of control. He plans to ask for a raise and ends up being fired; he cashes in a life insurance policy to pay off the mortgage only to erroneously think it's stolen, and he robs the man (Donald Meek) he thinks took the money.

Willie later finds his own money in his car, but it's too late, he's now a robber and a bored news media in need of eye-catching headlines decides to dub him "Baby Face Harrington." They create an entire persona and storyline for him, asserting that he has a dual personality and is responsible for a crime wave. It's "fake news," 1935 style!

Things get even crazier as Willie is sprung from jail by a gang headed by Rocky (Nat Pendleton).

It may not be a great movie, but it's a fun and entertaining little film which sprints by quickly in not much more than an hour. Butterworth and Merkel are backed by a solid cast which also includes Eugene Pallette, Harvey Stephens, Robert Livingston, and Claude Gillingwater. Look for Dennis O'Keefe in the background at the country club.

The movie was filmed by Oliver T. Marsh.

The print and sound are generally quite good, though there are a couple random lines in the print. The DVD includes a trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Tonight's Movie: The Hanging Tree (1959) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

Gary Cooper stars as a doctor with a troubled past in the Western THE HANGING TREE (1959), available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive.

Having recently enjoyed Gary Cooper in the romantic comedy DESIRE (1936), today I turned to THE HANGING TREE, one of the last few films released before Cooper's death in the spring of 1961.

THE HANGING TREE begins in promising fashion, with gorgeous vistas of Washington State, filmed by Ted McCord, while Marty Robbins sings the title song. The score by Max Steiner is notably good.

Between Cooper and the movie's opening, I was predisposed to like the film...but I didn't. I really didn't. It's the rare Western that simply didn't work for me.

Cooper plays Dr. Joseph Frail, who has just set up shop in a mining town when he rescues a young criminal named Rune (Ben Piazza) from a mob. The doctor, who is equal parts kindly and controlling, turns Rune into an indentured servant of sorts.

Shortly thereafter, the townspeople rescue an immigrant named Elizabeth (Maria Schell) who was wandering in the wilderness after her stagecoach was attacked; she's deathly ill from exposure but the doctor nurses her back to health. Elizabeth comes to love the doctor but he pushes her away; he has a dark past involving burning down a house with his wife and brother inside, and he lets people get only so close and no closer.

Elizabeth ends up digging for gold with Rune and an oddball character named Frenchy (Malden). They're successful, but when Frenchy physically attacks Elizabeth and the doctor metes out frontier justice, it precipitates a climactic confrontation in which the townspeople threaten to lynch the doctor.

I like a number of director Delmer Daves' films very much, most recently THE RED HOUSE (1947), but THE HANGING TREE has what I can only describe as an "icky" feel throughout, whether it's Malden's loon having a carbuncle removed from his rear end (really?! did we need that?) or George C. Scott's alcoholic itinerant doom-and-gloom preacher constantly ranting warnings about the doctor.

Part of the movie's problem is its lack of admirable characters. The most ethical man in the movie is the kindly storekeeper played by Karl Swenson (LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE), and unfortunately he has a selfish shrew of a wife (Virginia Gregg) who causes Elizabeth great pain. Young Rune is semi-sympathetic, but otherwise the only character to root for is Elizabeth, and she spends a good chunk of the movie horrendously sunburned and with her eyes bandaged, to the point that in her early scenes I honestly didn't want to look at her and that ghastly sunburn.

I suppose the film is attempting to tell a story of the doctor's redemption, as he helps Elizabeth behind the scenes and finally allows her to love him, but I simply didn't feel anything for him. And if I don't feel anything for a Gary Cooper character, that's a problem.

I know this film has admirers among my fellow Western fans, so other viewers who try the film may well have a different take.  The Warner Archive Blu-ray is a beautiful print which I can recommend for anyone who wants to see it. (There are a handful of odd-looking insert shots with fake backgrounds but I think those would look poor no matter what.) The disc includes the trailer.

Vincent Sherman and Karl Malden are listed by IMDb as having made uncredited directing contributions to THE HANGING TREE. It runs 107 minutes.

For a very good mining town movie I recommend Anthony Mann's excellent THE FAR COUNTRY (1954), a film I loved and look forward to seeing again.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Tonight's Movie: Espionage Agent (1939) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Joel McCrea stars in the Warner Bros. spy thriller ESPIONAGE AGENT (1939), just released on DVD by the Warner Archive.

I first saw ESPIONAGE AGENT half a dozen years ago and was glad to revisit it thanks to the new Warner Archive release. As McCrea's character tries to expose German spies and saboteurs while America dangles on the precipice of entry into WWII, the movie almost seems like a dry run for the following year's FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940), which McCrea made with Alfred Hitchcock.

Released just over two years before Pearl Harbor, we listen as a radio reporter (George Bancroft) urges that America remain neutral and avoid European entanglements. Moments like this make the film historically fascinating as well as entertaining.

McCrea plays Barry Corvall, a State Department employee who courts mysterious Brenda Ballard (Brenda Marshall) while on a ship bound from Europe to the U.S. He persuades Brenda to marry him, but soon after the wedding Brenda confesses the awful secret in her past: She had been recruited to spy for Nazis and, so broke she couldn't eat, she accepted the job, not realizing just how terrible the Nazis were. Now she wants nothing to do with them, but they're trying to reel her back in.

Barry and Brenda explain everything to the State Department and then, after Barry's forced resignation, they head back to Europe, determined to expose the spy ring while working as private citizens.

The middling script of this 83-minute film keeps it from being top-flight entertainment, but it certainly has its compensations, starting with lead actors Joel McCrea and Brenda Marshall. My appreciation of Joel McCrea probably needs no restating here, but he's delightful to watch as always.

As I've written here in the past, the beautiful Marshall had a somewhat limited range, yet I find her enjoyable and have seen most of her films. Known by her real name, Ardis, offscreen, she would marry William Holden in 1941, a marriage which was apparently tumultuous at times but which lasted for three decades before they finally divorced in 1971.

The genial Jeffrey Lynn brings energy to the film in his scenes as McCrea's pal at the State Department. Nana Bryant also gives an interesting performance as Barry's steely mother, who clearly has concerns about her son's marriage yet also wants to support him and his new wife. She brings nice depth to what could have been a controlling cartoon character. I did ponder what it said about Barry's relationship with his mother that he and Brenda would head to Baltimore to marry and only bother telling dear old Mom once it was a fait accompli!

As mentioned above, the film is also of interest for its reflection of America prior to our entry into WWII. A discussion about limitations on investigating spies within U.S. borders still has resonance today, particularly in light of 9/11. I also enjoyed a montage about the training of State Department diplomats.

ESPIONAGE AGENT was directed by Lloyd Bacon. It was filmed in black and white by Charles Rosher. The supporting cast includes Stanley Ridges, James Stephenson, Howard Hickman, and Nella Walker. Look for a young William Hopper (PERRY MASON) as a student.

The Warner Archive DVD is a good print although the sound balancing could be better, as the musical score and sound effects threaten to drown out the dialogue at times. I would turn the volume up to better hear the dialogue over the music, only to have a huge blast of noise like a ship's horn force me to turn it back down again!  The disc includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.