Sunday, June 10, 2018

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.


Blogger barrylane said...

Your criticism of the sound balancing is a shame because this would be a must have, must see, otherwise.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Yes, it was too bad that it made the movie more challenging to watch than it should have been. Wonder how expensive it is to do work on an issue like that --


11:18 PM  

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