ESPIONAGE AGENT foreshadows the following year's NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940) and McCrea's own FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940), as well as the later Hitchcock film SABOTEUR (1942). While not on the same level as those films, ESPIONAGE AGENT is interesting viewing as it tries out themes and settings -- including a train bound for Germany -- which would soon be used in those better-known films. It's enjoyable and fast-paced entertainment which should please fans of the lead actors.
Barry Corvall (McCrea) is recalled from his State Department post in Morocco for further training in Washington. On the ship to the U.S., Barry courts the mysterious Brenda (Marshall), whom he met just prior to leaving the country. They wed, and then Brenda confesses her desperate past, spying for the Nazis in order to eat.
Barry and Brenda make a full accounting of her past to the State Department and Barry resigns, but he and Brenda are determined that their work on behalf of the United States has just begun.
The 1939 vintage McCrea and Marshall were a gorgeous team, and they're quite enjoyable to watch. This was Marshall's first leading role, and while I've never found her an actress of great range, I thought she was quite good in this. McCrea is handsome and charming, no surprise there, and he's also well teamed with Jeffrey Lynn, who plays his friend at the State Department. The script is only so-so, without much depth, but the actors make it interesting; just months later, McCrea would have a similar, better part in the more polished FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT.
The movie is quite interesting when viewed in its historic context. For instance, Barry's friend (George Bancroft), reporting the latest war news to a radio audience, states that America must remain neutral. As had been the case with CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939), Warner Bros. seemed to use the film in part to wake American audiences to the idea that what was happening in Europe could soon be affecting them at home. Another of the film's messages is to caution Americans against spies and saboteurs, both at home and abroad.
Some bits of the film still seem timely today. When discussing Congressional limitations on investigating spies within U.S. borders, one official asks "Will we as a nation ever learn the difference between tolerance and stupidity?" That provocative question certainly has resonance in the post-9/11 era.
I did chuckle a bit when a Nazi informs Brenda Marshall "We have ways of dealing with people like you." It seemed terribly cliched, and yet for all I know, it was a scene such as that which created the cliche!
ESPIONAGE AGENT was directed by longtime Warner Bros. director Lloyd Bacon. The black and white cinematography was by Charles Rosher. Among the many cooks who contributed to the story and screenplay was James Hilton, the author of LOST HORIZON, RANDOM HARVEST, and GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS. The film runs a quick 83 minutes.
The supporting cast includes Nana Bryant, Stanley Ridges, James Stephenson, Martin Kosleck, Edwin Stanley, and Nella Walker. Don't blink and you can spot George Reeves manning a desk in the embassy in Geneva.
This film has not had a release on VHS or DVD. It can be seen on Turner Classic Movies; the trailer is here.