MY FAVORITE BLONDE (1942). Tonight I watched one of her early British movies, the nail-biting suspense film I WAS A SPY.
Carroll plays Martha Cnockhaert, a Belgian nurse who works in a military hospital in German-occupied Belgium during World War I. Inspired by her aunt (Martita Hunt), Martha begins carrying messages to aid the Allied cause, and soon finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into espionage. Herbert Marshall plays a fellow spy.
The film in many ways has the feel of a silent movie. Some of the most memorable moments are wordless, such as Martha's anxiety attending a church service for the German military in an open field, knowing the Allies are about to strike because of information she passed on. Her prayers as she faces her possible doom, and the later shots of the utter destruction made possible by her espionage work, are hard to forget. Martha faces real conflict between her desire to save her country from occupation and her desire to save lives.
Later, Martha must face the man she loves after spending a night with the German commandant, and there is no dialogue, simply looks and gestures. It's a beautifully played moment.
Yet another wordless moment, when Martha hears the sound of bagpipes at the end of the film, is enough to make one's eyes mist.
Carroll is marvelous as the nurse who has the courage to help the wounded, regardless of nationality. Although she is initially frightened by the idea of spying, which carries the death penalty if discovered, she courageously takes on increasingly dangerous jobs. Carroll does an excellent job conveying both Martha's fear and her bravery. Carroll's Martha reminded me of the saying attributed to John Wayne: "Courage is being scared to death -- and saddling up anyway."
Mordaunt Hall wrote in the New York Times in 1934, "Miss Carroll is both beautiful and convincing in her acting. She looks like a Belgian girl and she arouses no little sympathy, particularly in a closing scene when she gazes upon the Highland soldiers as they march past to the welcome skirl of the pipers." Hall also terms Marshall's work "splendid."
The excellent cast also includes Conrad Veidt as the German commandant at the hospital and Edmund Gwenn as the town mayor. Gerald du Maurier, father of famed author Daphne du Maurier, plays a kindly German doctor. Nigel Bruce has a small role early in the film as a prisoner of war Martha aids.
The movie was directed by Victor Saville. During the '30s he directed several British films with popular actress Jessie Matthews. Like many of the film's cast members, he would later move to Hollywood, where his work included one of Rita Hayworth's best movies, TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (1945), and the memorable historical melodrama GREEN DOLPHIN STREET (1947).
Leonard Maltin lists the runtime as 83 minutes, while IMDb pegs it at 89. I didn't think to check when I was watching, but I believe it was closer to 83.
Although I WAS A SPY is currently difficult to find, a number of Madeleine Carroll's other films are available on DVD, including the aforementioned MY FAVORITE BLONDE and THE 39 STEPS (1935), THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937), ON THE AVENUE (1937), and HONEYMOON IN BALI (1939).
It's worth noting that the suspense of Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS, the swashbuckling duels of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, and the humor in MY FAVORITE BLONDE and ON THE AVENUE make them excellent choices for helping to introduce younger viewers to the world of classic black and white movies.