Given the strength of The Ship That Died of Shame, I had hoped this wartime spy thriller would prove as compelling and focused: instead, this is another film of fascinating moments, unconvincing narrative developments and unwieldy structure. It is, like The Magnet, a film by names that have become synonymous with Ealing Studios: scriptwriter T.E.B. Clarke and director Charles Crichton, and features several familiar performers (Jack Warner, Gordon Jackson, Robert Beatty) who would make other Ealing appearances.
Unlike The Magnet, this has a simple storyline: a British spy agency trains and organises international and national recruits to take part in sabotage in mainland Europe (Belgium, in the film’s case). The film follows several such recruits, including a Canadian Catholic priest Father Elliot (Beatty), Michele Dennis (Simone Signoret), and Scottish bomb expert Johnny Duncan (Gordon Jackson) as they undertake several missions in occupied territory.
(I should state that I’ll be discussing spoilers here)
The film has a tremendous opening: Father Elliot enters a museum, is guided to a particular room, and is confronted by giant statues of dinosaurs and extinct beasts. Accompanying this, sinister music builds – and there remains generic uncertainty. This could be heading in the direction of a horror film, maybe something more science-fiction... before the reveal of Ackerman (James Robertson Justice) and an on-the-nose speech about the role of the secret organisation – to re-train people as saboteurs.
Which should be the set-up for a solid thriller about operating behind enemy lines, traitors and failed missions, tense midnight meetings, working with the resistance... all the tropes of a spy film. Most of those elements are here, but the tension and unease, the questioning of the morality of their actions, is lacking in the film: this isn’t a James Bond-style romp through the spy game, but its more realistic approach feels episodic, rarely building to any sort of thrilling or thematic denouement.
Part of the problem may be that the characters are thinly sketched, and seem detached from the emotions they are supposed to be experiencing. When Michele is upset because she didn’t get a particular mission, she drowns her sorrows in a bar and complains to colleague Max Cronk (Jack Warner), but the audience don’t know enough about her to understand her complaint. Characters seem defined by their accent as much by their actions: the Irish one, the Scottish one, the French one, the Canadian one. Initially, given the first act of the film is essentially, ‘getting the band’ together (or, at least, meeting the band), the most interesting characters are Johnny and Julie (Giselle Preville): Julie because she is energetic and fun, less dour than most of the rest, trying to seduce Father Elliot, chatting away about being a cabaret dancer, going on honeymoon with a married man, being a typist, wanting to have an accordion-shaped secret wireless set rather than one shaped like a sewing machine... there does appear to be some depth to her character. Of course, it is in the nature of such films that her neck is snapped when she parachutes into Belgium on a mission and we're left with Beatty and Signoret.
Johnny is a different matter, however, as the film increasingly becomes about him, and his unlikely romance with Michele. When he is first introduced, the film is at its most proto-James Bond, with Johnny as a youthful Q, wandering through a laboratory (eagerly preceded by a mobile camera) and pointing out to Michele the various fruits of his labour: explosives shaped like clogs, dead rats, and manure, or expensive lingerie dropped behind enemy lines to cast suspicion on local prostitutes. But Johnny has been selected for this secret organisation, and is soon seen in the montage training sequences that are necessary in such films. Johnny isn’t really a modern man, not liking women in ‘slacks, uniform or authority,’ and says this is no job for a woman, but seems to make an exception for Michele who mocks his advances and then, rather unconvincingly (and for no real narrative reason other than the film wants a romantic plotline), falls in love with him. By the end of the film, and undermining any sense of reality the film might have aimed for, Johnny is an action hero: having briefly moped about his actions getting someone killed, he’s machine-gunning down Gestapo and driving a getaway truck like he’s auditioning for the Dirty Dozen. (perhaps more amusing for any Great Escape fans, at one point Johnny is captured because he cannot speak the local language)
Before all the final action, however, the middle third of the film moves at a glacial pace: Father Elliot (a rather wooden and unappealing turn from Beatty) is set up in Belgium, but a mission fails, there is rumour of a traitor, and someone who’s barely been in the film up to this point is in jail and needs to be rescued. The central issue of the traitor seems solid, a good source of tension and uncertainty: yet the film tells the audience in no uncertain terms who it is (Jack Warner playing against type as the bad guy who simply sees betrayal as business, selling information to whomever will pay) and then, a couple of scenes later, when Michele finds out, she shoots him, and the film gets on with other plotlines. The revelation scene is nicely framed: Signoret in the foreground decoding a message, Warner in the back, shaving, a narrowing of her eyes and movement of her head the only real sign that anything has changed. But it feels like a missed opportunity to play up the tension, and there is no real exploration of the obvious friendship those characters have shared up to this point.
It is nice to see an Ealing film that deals with internationalism during the war – the idea that it was more than just Britain fighting and sacrificing – but, as noted above, the characters are never fleshed out. There are hints of previous love affairs and betrayals, but they are largely notes in dialogue.
Other high points: there is a nice training scene that visualises a lecture on how to act when spying in a foreign country (‘you must be a heartless swine, it’s your job... there is no sentiment in our job, so be aware of it. Duty always first’) that has more tension than much of the rest of the film, a nice idea about a character’s plastic surgery meaning his wife doesn’t recognise him (yet this becomes a throwaway piece about the organisation keeping tabs on him, rather than anything emotional), and a lovely comic moment where Emile drops explosives hidden in canisters that roll down the hill and past a squad of Gestapo, who simply laugh as he attempts to run after them.
The finale, as noted, is stronger stuff: a train job involving switching points, explosives, machine guns, a getaway truck, and plucky villagers filling the streets with cows, barrels and a church parade in order to slow down the German pursuit of the saboteurs. Here, the editing picks up pace, the location cinematography is well-framed, the performances are solid, the effects work decent, and the film finds the momentum it has been lacking for almost fifty minutes. Ultimately, it is too little too late, and the sight of Michele slipping a lit cigarette between Johnny's (now heroic) lips is perhaps a step too far into cliche, but it does demonstrate the potential of this narrative when it eventually finds its footing.
Next time: more Beatty in Another Shore (1948)