Sunday 1 June 2008

Highly Dangerous (1950)

I believe I only know Margaret Lockwood from her leading role in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, as the young lady who believes that the elderly Miss Froy of the title has mysteriously vanished. That was in 1938 when she was only 27. Here she is at 39 but she finds herself back on a train again heading into danger in the east. This time she's on her way to Zovgorod, in an unnamed eastern European country, where she's been recruited to investigate reports that these unnamed eastern Europeans are setting up some sort of biological warfare laboratory using insects as the carriers.

Lockwood plays Frances Gray, who works at the Biological Control Laboratory in Brockhurst and is apparently the country's preeminent entomologist. The government need a qualified expert to verify the reports they're getting so she would seem to be an obvious choice. She doesn't want to go though, because she's heading off on holiday the next day, but soon the man from the government works out how to sell the concept to her by discovering that she's addicted to Frank Conway, cliffhanging radio secret agent.

Officially she only listens to Conway as a deal with her nephew, who promises to do his homework if she tells him what happens to him in the latest episode, but it's pretty obvious as she listens that she's just as hooked herself and thrives on the second hand danger, whether she can admit it to herself or not. So off she goes, under the wish fulfilment and highly convenient pseudonym of Frances Conway, to do a little cliffhanging of her own. She's no special agent, that's for sure, and she flounders around unable to really do anything: she can't speak the language and has a dumb cover of investigating possibilities for tourism in a repressive country with a powerful secret police and soldiers everywhere. To make matters worse she finds herself in the same train compartment as the local chief of police, Anton Razinski, who is far from stupid.

She gets precisely nowhere by the time Commandant Razinski brings her in for questioning. While she breaks as quick as you'd expect, the truth serum used on her doesn't provide the desired results and leaves her convinced that she's a real secret agent, in a very unrealistic radio cliffhanger way. Suddenly she's actually ready and willing to do the work, and her sidekick, an American reporter who rumbled her from moment one because of an article on her in Life magazine, has the story he needs to get out of Zovgorod, though he ends up far deeper inside it than he ever expected.

The reviews I've read of this film suggest that's it's not very good at all. The story is unbelievable, the acting is terrible, the direction poor. Some people seem to like it but even they are well aware of its limitations. I agree that it's hardly an awe inspiring achievement but I think the key to enjoyment comes in how you watch it. As a serious spy thriller, it's admittedly a failure, but I don't think it was ever intended to be a serious spy thriller. As a comedy, it's completely not compatible with modern trends in comedy, but there's no way it was ever intended to be an Adam Sandler movie. I think that it's a misunderstood film that is precisely what it was intended to be.

Frances Gray is useless as a secret agent but she knows precisely how secret agents are supposed to act from the radio series she knows backwards. As her nephew points out, she always knows what Frank Conway is going to do before he does it, making her intelligent and a very appropriate candidate to be a cliffhanger plot writer. One plot contrivance later, she finds herself doing precisely that: writing a cliffhanger plot that fits the circumstances at hand. She just happens to prove her story by testing it in a reality only her companion really has to deal with.

My guess is that this was something very dear to the hearts of Roy Ward Baker and Eric Ambler, very talented individuals who knew each other well from the Second World War where Baker worked for Ambler in the Army Kinematograph Unit. Baker went on to at least reasonable renown as a film director making horror movies for Hammer and Amicus and a great deal of TV episodes on classic British series like The Saint and The Avengers. He'd also worked on The Lady Vanishes as a second unit director, so the similarities are understandable.

This was early in his directorial career but Ambler was already renowned as a best selling novelist and screenwriter. Before this, his novels had been adapted into films as well known as Journey into Fear and The Mask of Dimitrios. Later would come his most famous work: as a Oscar nominated scriptwriter for The Cruel Sea and as the novelist behind what would be filmed as Topkapi. Ambler had a connection to The Lady Vanishes too, though I'm not sure it was apparent at the time. Eight years after this film, he would marry Joan Harrison, who had been Hitchcock's secretary between 1933 and 1941, before moving onto other work in the film industry. As The Lady Vanishes was released in 1938, I'm sure she was notably involved.

I thought Lockwood was fine here, working against type. Dane Clark, as her American reporter sidekick, was fine too, not that he got much to do. Working more in type, are notable supporting actors like Marius Goring, who hams it up a little too much as the chief of police, and Wilfrid Hyde-White as the British consul in Zovgorod. I also recognise Michael Hordern and Anthony Newley from the credits but they slipped past me in the film itself. It's no laugh a minute comedy but I was entertained throughout. Maybe it's the pulp fan in me that appreciated the playfulness.

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