Cinemagic

Spy­ing for Eng­land

Evergreen - - Contents - Jeremy Havardi

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, Eng­land ex­pe­ri­enced a golden age in cinema with a string of clas­sic films pro­duced by emerg­ing di­rec­to­rial tal­ent. The Sec­ond World War nat­u­rally played a key role in in­flu­enc­ing the con­tent and ide­ol­ogy of the movies and among the war film genre, es­pi­onage thrillers fea­tured quite heav­ily. Night Train to Mu­nich, The Ad­ven­tures of Tartu, Con­tra­band and Yel­low Ca­nary were just a few of the more mem­o­rable movies and they show­cased the tal­ents of a galaxy of English stars, in­clud­ing Rex Har­ri­son, Robert Donat, James Ma­son, Va­lerie Hob­son and Anna Nea­gle.

All these films tap into a dis­tinctly English sense of na­tional iden­tity. They usu­ally in­volve plucky in­no­cents help­ing to out­wit a sin­is­ter Ger­man en­emy threat­en­ing na­tional lib­er­ties. Guile, rather than tech­ni­cal prow­ess or strength, is their chief weapon. In keep­ing with the English love of im­pro­vi­sa­tion and am­a­teurism, these spies are usu­ally ama­teurs who lack for­mal train­ing or ex­per­tise. In other words, they have to mud­dle through in a very English sense, of­ten against tech­ni­cally su­pe­rior ad­ver­saries. Given the com­pro­mised sit­u­a­tions they find them­selves in, they are heroic un­der­dogs, an­other key at­tribute of na­tional iden­tity.

Carol Reed’s Night Train to Mu­nich ( 1940) is a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of the genre. It fea­tures an English in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer called Ran­dall ( Rex Har­ri­son), on the hunt for a Czech mu­ni­tions sci­en­tist, Axel Bo­masch ( James Har­court), and his daugh­ter Anna ( Mar­garet Lock­wood) who have been cap­tured by Gestapo agents. To com­plete his mis­sion, Ran­dall must con­stantly out­wit the Ger­man au­thor­i­ties. He ar­rives dressed up as a Ger­man army ma­jor and per­suades the au­thor­i­ties to take him to Mu­nich where he can in­ter­ro­gate Anna. He helps her to

es­cape just as the Nazis have dis­cov­ered Har­ri­son’s real iden­tity, but he is one step ahead of them. To­gether with his two pals, they are able to flee the Nazis and es­cape over the Swiss bor­der af­ter a fi­nal, dra­matic shootout.

The film’s he­roes are up­per- class gen­tle­men, es­pe­cially the suave and debonair Har­ri­son, and the comic cricket- lov­ing duo, Char­ters and Caldicott, played by Naun­ton Wayne and Basil Rad­ford. Har­ri­son was the ar­che­typal English gen­tle­man, a suave and debonair ro­mancer whose off- screen phi­lan­der­ing was le­gendary.

Con­tra­band, an amus­ing 1940 pro­duc­tion star­ring Con­rad Veidt, also be­longs firmly in the spy sub­genre. Cap­tain An­der­sen ( Veidt) is the cap­tain of a Dan­ish ship which is stopped by the Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties for car­ry­ing sus­pected con­tra­band. Af­ter co­op­er­at­ing with the au­thor­i­ties, he dis­cov­ers that some board­ing passes have been stolen by two pas­sen­gers, Mr. Pid­geon ( Es­mond Knight) and Mrs. Sorensen ( Va­lerie Hob­son), and promptly fol­lows them both to Lon­don. When the cap­tain ar­rives, he and Sorensen are kid­napped by Ger­man spies, and it tran­spires that Sorensen is ac­tu­ally a Bri­tish agent in­ves­ti­gat­ing how Ger­mans use neu­tral ships to trans­port goods. Even­tu­ally he tracks down the Ger­man spies af­ter a hair- rais­ing chase through Lon­don. The film high­lights the work done by Bri­tish

con­tra­band con­trol in the early stages of the war.

An­der­sen de­fies au­thor­ity on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions, ig­nor­ing the black­out reg­u­la­tions and over­pow­er­ing the mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties in or­der to track down the spies more ef­fec­tively. De­spite this ap­par­ent lack of re­spect for au­thor­ity, he is very much the hero neu­tral. He is re­source­ful in track­ing down en­emy spies and shows pluck­i­ness in evad­ing his cap­tors. There are also some de­li­cious flashes of English hu­mour, such as when the cap­tain uses a bust of Cham­ber­lain to at­tack a Ger­man spy be­fore declar­ing, “They al­ways said he was tough.”

Like Con­tra­band, They Met in the Dark ( 1943) is an es­pi­onage thriller with a light- hearted ro­man­tic sub­plot. This one in­volves not one but two in­trepid in­di­vid­u­als who be­come spies by ac­ci­dent. Richard Her­itage ( James Ma­son) has been dis­missed from the navy for dis­obe­di­ence af­ter his fail­ure to fol­low in­struc­tions led to the sink­ing of a mer­chant ship. How­ever, he be­lieves that fifth colum­nists changed his in­struc­tions. In a bid to

clear his name, he ar­rives at a cot­tage where he be­lieves these traitors are based. He bumps into Laura Ver­ity ( Joyce Howard) who has al­ready un­cov­ered a dead body there, lead­ing her to as­sume that Her­itage is a mur­derer. She calls the po­lice, but they dis­miss her al­le­ga­tion as ab­surd, charg­ing her with time­wast­ing.

With both now de­ter­mined to prove their in­no­cence, they un­ravel clues that lead them to a dance academy, in re­al­ity a front for proNazi spies and fifth colum­nists. Here in­no­cent women have been re­cruited to meet naval of­fi­cers and ex­tract vi­tal in­for­ma­tion from them, one of whom had ear­lier ma­nip­u­lated Ma­son’s or­ders at the start of the film. While evad­ing cap­ture by the po­lice and the spies, both these he­roes suc­ceed in un­mask­ing the ring and pre­vent­ing the fur­ther loss of Bri­tish mer­chant ships.

Again, this is a tri­umph of im­pro­vi­sa­tion and in­ge­nu­ity by ama­teur spies. With their backs against the wall, Her­itage and Ver­ity over­come the odds to smash a Nazi or­gan­i­sa­tion, sav­ing the coun­try in the process. The film, which owes much to the plot of Hitch­cock’s The 39 Steps, re­mains en­ter­tain­ing and sus­pense­ful through­out.

The Ad­ven­tures of Tartu, made in 1943 and star­ring Robert Donat, of­fers a very dif­fer­ent kind of spy melo­drama. In the film, Donat plays Cap­tain Ter­ence Steven­son, a trained Bri­tish chemist who is parachuted into Ro­ma­nia. He as­sumes the iden­tity of Jan Tartu, a mem­ber of the pro– Nazi Iron Guard, and he is tasked with sab­o­tag­ing a fac­tory man­u­fac­tur­ing poi­son gas in oc­cu­pied Cze­choslo­vakia. Be­fore he can do that, he has to per­suade the Nazis that he de­tests the Czechs, while at the same time as­sur­ing the Czech un­der­ground that he is not be­tray­ing their in­ter­ests. To­wards the end, his iden­tity as a Bri­tish dou­ble agent is un­masked, and he has to out­wit the Gestapo, with the help of the un­der­ground, in or­der to com­plete his mis­sion. This is a com­plex and un­usual pro­duc­tion, with con­stant games of bluff and dou­ble bluff and shift­ing allegiances. Steven­son is not a trained spy and must live on his wits and in­ge­nu­ity to out- think both the Nazi guards and also Ro­ma­nia’s net­work of fas­cist col­lab­o­ra­tors.

Donat was a ris­ing star of the Bri­tish cinema, a dash­ing, ro­man­tic fig­ure adept on both film and stage. He was best known for his por­trayal of Richard Han­nay in Hitch­cock’s The 39 Steps ( 1935) and a pop­u­lar teacher in Good­bye Mr. Chips ( 1939). Like Rex Har­ri­son in Night Train to Mu­nich, Donat man­ages to com­bine a debonair man­ner with de­ci­sive­ness, though with­out Har­ri­son’s up­per­class bear­ings. In the film, he stars along­side Va­lerie Hob­son, in many ways a quintessen­tially English ac­tress, and the sex­ual chem­istry be­tween the pair is gen­uinely ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

Most of the wartime spy melo­dra­mas were char­ac­terised by hav­ing male pro­tag­o­nists. Her­bert Wil­cox’s Yel­low Ca­nary ( 1943) is very much an ex­cep­tion be­cause it stars the English ac­tress Anna Nea­gle. Nea­gle was well used to play­ing sto­ical and pa­tri­otic char­ac­ters from her roles in Nell Gwynn, Nurse Edith Cavell and Vic­to­ria the Great. She came to typ­ify a very English sense of re­solve and sto­ical de­ter­mi­na­tion from her por­trayal of real- life hero­ines thrown into sit­u­a­tions of dif­fi­culty.

In Yel­low Ca­nary, she ex­em­pli­fies these qual­i­ties to cre­ate a con­vinc­ing spy. How­ever, this is not a straight­for­ward es­pi­onage thriller be­cause the iden­ti­ties of the char­ac­ters are not as they seem, and the film is full of twists and sur­prises.

Nea­gle plays Sally Mait­land, a Lon­don so­cialite no­to­ri­ous for her pro- Nazi views. En route to Canada she re­ceives the at­ten­tions of two men, a “Pol­ish” of­fi­cer, Jan Or­lock ( Al­bert Lieven), and a Bri­tish man,

Jim Gar­rick ( Richard Greene). While cool to­wards Gar­rick, she be­gins to warm to Or­lock, and a ro­man­tic sub­plot de­vel­ops. When she ar­rives in Hal­i­fax, she meets Or­lock’s mother, and it soon be­comes clear that the two have dif­fer­ences of opin­ion over for­eign pol­icy.

It later tran­spires that Or­lock is a fa­nat­i­cal Nazi who has been trail­ing Mait­land from the start, des­per­ate to re­cruit her for covert wartime ac­tiv­i­ties. But un­known to him, Mait­land is ac­tu­ally work­ing for Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence and her af­fec­tions are but a ruse to in­fil­trate Or­lock’s Canadian spy ring. At the end she thwarts a Nazi plot to de­stroy the port of Hal­i­fax and man­ages to sur­vive be­ing shot be­cause the bul­let lodges in a cig­a­rette case given to her by Or­lock.

With­out be­ing clas­sics in their own right, these films fea­ture le­gendary stars of the English cinema and are im­bued with a very English sig­na­ture trait of na­tional iden­tity. The he­roes, of­ten ama­teurs, are coura­geous un­der­dogs mud­dling through against stronger en­e­mies. They are also pa­tri­ots who un­der­stand the need to de­fend the English home­land from de­ter­mined en­e­mies seek­ing its de­struc­tion. They are sto­ical, res­o­lute and im­bued with a sense of duty. In that sense, these spies are fic­tional he­roes whose ex­ploits should be cel­e­brated by all pa­tri­otic English­men. Jeremy Havardi is the au­thor of Pro­ject­ing Bri­tain at War: The Na­tional Char­ac­ter in Bri­tish World War II Films ( McFar­land, 2014).

( con­tin­ued)

Af­ter first ap­pear­ing in The Lady Van­ishes in 1938, Char­ters ( Basil Rad­ford, right) and Caldicott ( Naun­ton Wayne) were cricket- lov­ing char­ac­ters in a num­ber of films.

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