Saturday 29 January 2011

British Agent (1934)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Leslie Howard and Kay Francis
Of all the great leading men of the golden era, I've never really understood Leslie Howard. He was certainly an accomplished actor but he has such a lack of charisma that every time I watch a Leslie Howard movie I tend to find myself watching everyone else instead. This always surprises me because the charisma he has is a by product of the 'perfect Englishman' persona that he cultivated: tall and slim, intellectual and sensitive, reluctant to fight but willing to commit to the bitter end when needs must. These are attributes I admire and they should have made Howard a refreshing counter to the brutish leading men of the time, who tended to be quick with their fists and their wits, but short on sophistication. Yet characters like Ashley Wilkes, which epitomises his persona, simply annoy the crap out of me while I appreciate more dynamic and decisive roles that seem to be played against type, such as in The Scarlet Pimpernel and British Agent.

Here he's Stephen Locke, a loose fictionalisation of the very real R H Bruce Lockhart, who worked for the British secret service in Russia and whose bestselling 1932 autobiography, Memoirs of a British Agent, quickly became this film. Lockhart was a Scot, from teaching stock, but an obvious wanderlust led him to lead an action packed life, one ripe for adaptation to the screen. Even at a mere 21 he had travelled to Malaya, where his uncles were rubber planters, opened up a new rubber estate, 'caused a minor sensation by carrying off Amai,' a ward of the local prince, was subsequently poisoned and, in an emaciated state, bundled back home. You'd think joining the British Foreign Service and being posted to Moscow as a Vice-Consul would have been a chance to live the quiet life, and sure enough, he spent a good deal of his time playing in a local Moscow football team. The Russian Revolution was not far away, though, and he played a central part.

Our fictionalised version begins in St Petersburg in 1917. The Russians have revolted and exiled the Czar but the provisional government is only just hanging on and a second revolution is more than likely. Great Britain is worried about Russia leaving the war effort by signing a peace with Germany, thus releasing wide swathes of the Kaiser's army from the Eastern Front to move back west and plague the other allied powers. Stephen Locke wants his government to recognise the Russians now in power, to demonstrate to the Russian people that Britain is behind them, but he only succeeds in persuading his superiors that he might be a good man to have on the ground, so off he goes as the new British Consul General in Moscow. This is a Hollywood movie from the golden age so we don't expect accurate history, especially given that it's based on the memoirs of a spy, so it isn't surprising to see plenty of liberties taken, but this is great setup for drama.

There are a number of things done very right. As Locke arrives at the embassy in St Petersburg, it's alive with one of Lady Carrister's parties and there's a glorious contrast between the civility inside with the unrest outside. The gentlemen are paying attention to what's going on in the streets but they're doing so while dancing the night away as if it's nothing of concern, similar to the infamous black tie dinner in Carry On... Up the Khyber. A lot of effort is given to authenticity, in feel if not in historic detail. When Lenin foments revolution, he does so in Russian and is even played by a Russian actor, Tenen Holtz, who had admittedly moved to the US at the age of ten. Orders are in Russian, signs are in Russian, even songs are sung in Russian. This is unusual for Hollywood in the thirties, but then this was a notable production with 41 sets built, 1,500 actors cast and 3,000 rounds of ammunition shot during the riot scenes.
Of course, there are a number of things done very wrong too, as is the case with almost every historical film made during the golden age. The most obvious is the imposition of a ludicrous romantic subplot between Locke and a Russian lady, Elena Moura, who hangs out with the head of the Russian secret police and works as an undersecretary to the Soviet government after the second revolution. It's a notably unlikely romance, as well as being a particularly doomed one that begins quickly and never engages on a single level. It doesn't help that when First National needed a romantic Russian leading lady, they cast Wavishing Kay Fwancis, who I have a great respect for when not appearing in films like this. Hollywood did much worse, even in 1934, such as casting Katharine Hepburn as a backwoods hick in Spitfire, but that doesn't make Francis a good choice for a seductive Russian. The happy ending she's given is soul destroying too.

There's also an early attempt at a multicultural set of friends for Locke, who are there to help him run a guerrilla campaign to overthrow the Soviets in Moscow, but turn up long beforehand without a thing to do except hang around and play cards until something happens. Walter Byron is the Brit, William Gargan the American, New Yorker Phillip Reed the Frenchman and a young Cesar Romero the Spaniard. This was only Romero's third film after The Shadow Laughs and The Thin Man, but he was already well worth watching, even though Gargan is the highlight of this quartet as Bob Medill, a rough and ready sort who would stand up to anyone or anything. It helps him that at this point, Howard is in full on stir crazy mode, itching for action, and while he's great when being dynamic and demonstrative, he's far less capable in scenes where he's tasked to be unsure, frustrated or weak. A weak Howard is a waste of film, a dynamic Howard is alive.

When he's finally given something to do, instructed to act as an unofficial representative of His Majesty's Government, his first act is to read his unofficial instructions aloud with a member of the opposing government listening from the next room. It's a little careless for a secret agent, but there are more such scenes to come, all tied around Elena Moura, apparently suggesting that even the best agents are useless when there's a pretty girl hanging around. She's there as an undersecretary, when he attempts to persuade the Soviet central committee not to sign a peace with Germany, but she throws a spanner in his works and he only manages to keep hope alive for three weeks before everything falls apart. Yet he never gives up on her. What a gift he is... to the Russians! When the Soviets move from St Petersburg to Moscow, signs that peace and assassinates the Czar, Locke follows in the hope that he can talk them back into the war.

What he ends up doing is discovering many attempts to overthrow the Soviets from within, and whether the attempts are being mounted by the Russian royalists, the white army or those who just plain don't like them, he does everything he can to support them. Here's where the picture comes alive, with Locke's name on the lips of every interrogator. It doesn't take long for Sergei Pavlov, the head of the secret police, to enlist the aid of Elena to do away with the pesky Scot who loves her. Director Michael Curtiz ably builds the tension as Lenin is shot and it's unclear whether he will survive, but there's too little time and too much inevitability. History is only surprising when it's obscure. When it comes to the big stuff that we know, only the details can surprise and this is a truly epic story straining to explode out of a mere 80 minute running time. There's a vast amount crammed into this film but very little opportunity to do any of it justice.

It doesn't help that every time we get caught up in the flow of history, we have to pause to find out the latest in the romance angle. Perhaps this could have made a palatable romance story if there was nothing else to compete with it, but it's merely an intrusive subplot shoehorned into a spy film and it really has no place, especially when handled by Kay Francis, who should never have been cast. She's much better than Irving Pichel, as Pavlov, which doesn't say much for his performance, but J Carrol Naish is a surprisingly effective Leon Trotsky, at this point Commissar for War. It's not that Howard and Francis don't have capable scenes together, because they do, one in a gypsy café in particular, it's that they don't belong in this film. If Warner Brothers had adapted Lockhart's memoirs more literally, or jettisoned the first half and phrased the picture as a guerrilla action movie in Moscow, it would have been far more worthwhile.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

well, you know, Howard hated the Ashley Wilkes character. I am a female, so I may see him in a different light, but the two Pimpernel movies are my personal favorites as well. (The thing with Ashley Wilkes is we females believe there is some fire hidden underneath that stoic facade, and we imagine ourselves being the only ones to light it!) LOL

I particularly like Spitfire too. Well I'm a Howard enthusiast, that's obvious. I like reading your movie reviews. Will have to scout out some more.