Spying for England
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).
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.