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Saturday, 16 August 2008

Background to Danger (1943)

One year after Casablanca and two after The Maltese Falcon, Warner Brothers were keen to put Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre back together again. So in 1943 came Background to Danger. Even though this knock off of Casablanca completely failed to replicate the success of its two predecessors, the pairing was still so powerful that 1944 saw no less than three Lorre/Greenstreet pictures: Passage to Marseille, The Mask of Dimitrios and The Conspirators.

We're in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, which in 1942 is the most important neutral country in Europe. The Germans want to bring Turkey into the war and try at the beginning of the film with an assassination attempt on their own ambassador which they plan to blame on the Russians. They fail but there will always be another plan. After all they tried the assassination on what is known as the street of a thousand plots. As the name would suggest, what appears to be every foreigner in Ankara is a spy, an agent, a provocateur. They certainly make up almost all of our cast.

The lead actor is George Raft, because this film didn't have a budget big enough to cast Humphrey Bogart. Raft is an American agent called Joe Barton who's pretending to be an oil machinery salesman. Whatever his real intentions in Turkey, he gets caught up in intrigue before he even gets to Ankara. On the train in he shares a carriage with a young lady calling herself Ana Remzi. As she's being followed, she persuades Barton to carry into Ankara an envelope containing something important. Quite what it is is open to question but it's important and it's the macguffin around which everyone in our story revolves, and there's so much revolving that it's easy to get dizzy.

What's difficult is watching Raft without hearing Bogart. Raft turned down the part of Rick in Casablanca because he felt too important for such a B picture, but if you've ever wondered what it would have become in his hands, you should watch this. Raft is believably tough but he's pretty wooden, with none of the charisma that Bogie exuded without even trying. He sits in the middle of this film just like the macguffin as the rest of the cast act their parts out around him.

This woodenness is a real downfall especially when playing opposite Sydney Greenstreet, who acted mostly with his voice. Greenstreet sounds awesome here as a Nazi colonel masterminding the chaos, both in English and German, but he doesn't move much, which makes their biggest scene together not far off being a photograph with sound. Much better are the scenes with Lorre, who is a delight as a Russian agent called Zaleshoff. The biggest problem with the film is that there's too much Raft and not enough Lorre. I wonder what the film would have looked like had the Americans had swapped places with the Russians so Lorre could be the lead and Raft a supporting actor.

Other problems are that Brenda Marshall has very little to do as Lorre's sister (not that Lorre had enough to do himself), the car chase is sped up way too fast for the laws of physics to apply and there's nowhere enough ties built between the various characters. On the good side, there's so much intrigue and so little screen time (this is only an 80 minute movie) that there's hardly time to breathe, which is how such a story should be shown. It's notably flawed but definitely worth watching, especially for Greenstreet and Lorre, who are both excellent if not excellent together, as they rarely appear in the same scenes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love Peter Lorre's character in this movie, but you're right -- he didn't have much to do. Zaleshoff had a much better role in the original novel, Background to Danger, by Eric Ambler. And if you like Zaleshoff and his sister Tamara in that book, you might be interested in the sequel, Cause for Alarm.