UK / 89 minutes / bw / Two Cities, GFD, Rank Dir: Roy Ward Baker Pr: Antony Darnborough Scr: Eric Ambler Cine: Reginald Wyer Cast: Margaret Lockwood, Dane Clark, Bill Casey, Marius Goring, Naunton Wayne, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Eugene Deckers, Olaf Pooley, Gladys Henson, Paul Hardtmuth, Michael Hordern, Eric Pohlmann, Joan Haythorne, Anton Diffring, Anthony Newley, Ewen Solon, Michael Rittermann, Lance Secretan.
Entomologist Frances Gray (Lockwood) is asked by her boss Rawlins (Hordern) and Mr. Hedgerley (Wayne) from the Secretariat of the Imperial General Staff if she could go to an obscure Iron Curtain country to investigate the possibility that a scientist called Kassen has succeeded in breeding insecticide-resistant fruitflies that could be used as vectors for germ warfare against the West.
Mr Hedgerley (Naunton Wayne), Frances’s recruiter.
She refuses point-blank: she’s just about to go on her hols to Torquay. Hedgerley hitches a lift from her to the station, and en route she plays the night episode of the radio serial Frank Conway, Secret Agent. It is her duty to do so nightly, so that she can tell the story to her nephew Alan (Secretan) before he goes to bed. That night, affected by her listening to the drama, she phones Hedgerley and agrees that, yes, she’ll do it. She’ll pretend to be a tourist agent while in reality trying to get hold of some insect samples.
When next we meet her she’s on the final stages of her journey behind the Iron Curtain, her flimsy cover being that she’s no longer Frances Gray but Frances Conway (Frank Conway—geddit?). Although she doesn’t realize it, her cabin companion is Commandant Anton Razinski, the sinister Chief of the State Police (Goring). From this point onward Razinski will dog footsteps she didn’t even know she’d taken.
Curtains for Alf.
At the terminal, after having with difficulty got rid of the seemingly randy Razinski, she’s met by the contact man Hedgerley set up for her, Alf (Deckers). A few hours later Alf has been shot dead and his corpse dumped in Frances’s hotel room, this circumstance being used by Razinski as sufficient cause to arrest her on suspicion of murder. He and his team try bright-light torture on her, then a truth drug. What they haven’t reckoned with is that her solid nightly diet of Frank Conway, Secret Agent, combined with the truth drug, will make her respond with fanciful garbage in place of the truth.
The corpse of Alf (Eugene Deckers), theatrically dumped in Frances’s hotel room.
Unable to make any headway with her, Razinski releases her into the custody of the British chargé d’affaires, Luke (Hyde-White); she must leave the country within the hour.
Frances disagrees. An aftereffect of the truth drug is that she now thinks she’s Frank Conway, Secret Agent! More than that, she believes that Bill Casey (Clark) of the American Press Service, a journalist who has helped her escape Razinski’s clutches because much attracted to her (I euphemize), is Frank’s intrepid sidekick Rusty . . . From here on, as Frances and Bill build up their relationship, there are quite often moments when they seem to trade the Frank and Rusty roles between them.
Frances (Margaret Lockwood) and Bill (Dane Clark) sample what few sights this Iron Curtain hellhole has to offer.
Most of the rest of the movie is a Frank Conway-style thriller. Against all odds (but not against all expectations) Frances and Bill break into the super-secret establishment where the fruitflies are being bred, capture some samples, escape with the help of a resistance-minded priest (Hardtmuth), and so on.
The sinister secret police chief Razinski (Marius Goring) supervises Frances’s interrogation.
Frances (Margaret Lockwood) languishes briefly in jail.
Although this isn’t an adaptation of scripter Eric Ambler’s first novel, The Dark Frontier (1936), there are many similarities. In the novel, a man inadvertently adopts the persona of an E. Phillips Oppenheim-type character; here she’s infected by a similarly gung-ho fictional creation thanks to the BBC Radio Light Programme. The (male) lead of The Dark Frontier does tremendous derring-do in an Eastern European country before rediscovering his essentially milquetoast self. The super-scientist Kassen recurs, although in the novel he’s a nuclear physicist while here he’s a pioneering biologist.
Frances’s master plan to break into the bug farm.
Bill (Dane Clark) in the verboten grounds of the lab.
The movie’s standout performance is Goring’s. This may be because Goring could often be a bit of a ham; one of the most frightening personae that tyrants and their powerful minions can adopt is that of the ham—think Stalin. Here is Razinski trying to warn Frances and Bill off the bug farm:
Razinski: “You see, Miss Conway, I told you, there is nothing beautiful in Paritsa province. Nothing but pine trees.”
Frances: “And soldiers.”
Razinski: “And soldiers, yes. This is a military training area. That is why we have these barriers and precautions. A few months ago some people were shot accidentally in the woods. It was terrible.”
Frances: “What people?”
The best scene in the movie is arguably one that occurs late on. Razinski has mounted a manhunt that has failed: his search of the countryside for Frances and Bill has gotten nowhere. His last hope is to find the couple aboard the train that nightly leaves the nightmare of the USSR for the West. He gets his goons to call everyone aboard the train out onto the platform. What confounds him is that so many of the couples look a bit like Frances and Bill, even though they aren’t. The message is of course that lovers all over the world share so much in common that it’s hard to tell them apart—a message that totalitarians have difficulty in understanding.
The movie’s stuffed with fine UK actors in small parts, often uncredited; quite a few of them would soon reach national or international fame. I’ve probably missed plenty, but I spotted Anton Diffring as a happily psychopathic soldier in the station scene just described, a very young (but already irritatingly smug) Anthony Newley as a messenger whom Frances has to brief in detail lest through carelessness he allows some of her insects to die en route to Sierra Leone (you get the impression, as Newley rolls his eyes at the pernickitiness of this mere female, that them bugs ain’t going to make it), the estimable Ewen Solon—best known as the sidekick Lapoint of Rupert Davies’s Maigret—in a tiny part as one of the bug-breeders (Solon has appeared on this site here, here and here), Eric Pohlmann as the all-knowing barman Joe, Joan Haythorne as a stroppy food-seller, and Michael Rittermann as a tail whom Razinski puts on Frances whose very slight chance resemblance to Bill is just enough for the couple to bullshit their way into the Paritsa complex.
Ambler’s screenplay has plenty of good moments:
Bill: “There’s a rumor going around that [Razinski] had a mother.”
Mr. Luke, the Wilfrid Hyde-White character, to Razinski: “An accident can sometimes be more convenient than a trial, and less embarrassing.”
and, by way of contrast, in that ultimate cliché moment we all wish we’d never penned:
Bill: “It’s just a graze, but it’s bleeding.”
Wilfrid Hyde-White has a small part as Mr. Luke, the chargé d’affaires.
Highly Dangerous does not compare with movies like The SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965). But, for all that, it’s a seminal piece of UK cinema that deserves so much more attention than so far it’s gotten . . . and it has a very enjoyable, witty soundtrack by Richard Addinsell.
On Amazon.com:Highly Dangerous [DVD]