Monday, January 14, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Background to Danger (1943)

BACKGROUND TO DANGER is a fairly enjoyable WWII spy film based on a novel by Eric Ambler.

George Raft plays American salesman Joe Barton, who travels to neutral Turkey during WWII. A pretty woman (Osa Massen) on a train gives him an envelope which she says contains securities which represent the last of her family's money. She's worried they'll be taken if she's searched by the Nazis and asks Joe to carry them since an American won't be searched.

The woman ends up dead, the envelope ends up stolen, and Joe may not be exactly who he says. It's also a good bet the envelope didn't contain securities!

Joe immediately becomes entangled with all sorts of shady characters. Sydney Greenstreet plays an extremely nasty Nazi, while Peter Lorre and Brenda Marshall play a Russian brother and sister who are spies. That same year, incidentally, Lorre and Marshall played a married couple in THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943).

Turhan Bey, who passed away last fall at the age of 90, plays a young Turkish man who comes to Joe's aid. The sequence where he enters the film is one of the best in the movie.

Raoul Walsh directs with verve; the energetic direction and the performances of Greenstreet, Lorre, and Bey are what make the film as enjoyable as it is. Lorre is particularly entertaining as a quirky Russian. Try as I might, I just can't warm up to Raft, who is adequate but gives one of his typically flat performances.

Brenda Marshall looks lovely but her lines of dialogue can probably be counted on two hands. Most of the time she simply watches Raft and Lorre engaging in conversation.

The movie is entertaining, has a nice sense of mood and some exciting sequences, but ultimately one is left with the feeling that it could have been quite a bit better. Aside from giving Brenda Marshall an actual character to play, rather than simply having her decorate the screen, I think it especially would have helped if the film had been cast with a more personable leading man. I just don't find much depth or range of emotion in Raft's performance. He was quite popular in his day so perhaps others see something in him that just doesn't work for me.

Eric Ambler's book, also known as UNCOMMON DANGER, was adapted for the screen by W.R. Burnett, who was himself a novelist as well as a screenwriter. As is sometimes the case with spy movies, the plot of this 80-minute film gets a bit murky, but that isn't too much of a problem compared to the other issues cited above.

This movie has been released in a remastered edition by the Warner Archive. BACKGROUND TO DANGER was also released on VHS in 1998.

BACKGROUND TO DANGER can be seen on Turner Classic Movies; the trailer is here.


Blogger Lasso The Movies said...

You bring up so.e excellent points particularly about Raft. I watched this film because of my love for Greenstreet and Lords and althougbt this is the stronger part of the film it still doesn't quite elevate itself into a great movie. Its really too bad. Because it had some potential.

7:40 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I do not believe RAft is the problem. Had he been replaced by Bogart or Dick Powell or Mitchum, the prblems remain and you identified the, Story contruction is inconsistent and weak. We don't know how that came about, but after a strong start, the film simply sputters. Raft was liked a lot of filmgoers, his looks were appealing and his voice well placed. He could be effective in a part he understood. No one could understand this.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your input on this one, Paul! Glad you could check it out. At least your faves Greenstreet and Lorre were entertaining!

George Raft was one of my dear grandmother's favorite actors, Barrylane, along with Clark Gable. Maybe I just haven't seen him in the right roles yet, but though I'm predisposed to like him, I find him wooden -- JOHNNY ALLEGRO is another example.

That said, this one did have more issues than Raft...I initially thought it would be a very good film, between the first 20 minutes and a strong 3-star review in the Maltin book, but ultimately it let me down...

Best wishes,

10:35 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Laura, some Raft performances that I believe work well are, The Glass Key, Broadway, They Drive By Night, Rogue Cop, Spawn of the North, Souls At Sea. It is understood that Raft at his worst isn't appealing. But, when he is on, quite a pleasure to be with.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for those recommendations, Barrylane! Now that you mention it, I've seen THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT and Raft did work better in that one for me than in his other films.

Saw ROGUE COP a few years ago but don't remember Raft in it, I'll have to rewatch it. And I have a Region 2 disc of SOULS AT SEA that I've never seen. I'll be watching for the other titles to turn up and see if I like Raft better in those. Thanks!

Best wishes,

11:22 AM  

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