Traitor Spy (1939)

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Whose torso is it?
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vt The Torso Murder Mystery
UK / 72 minutes / bw / Rialto, Pathé Dir: Walter Summers Pr: John Argyle Scr: Walter Summers, Jan Van Lusil, Ralph Bettison Story: Traitor Spy (1939) by T.C.H. Jacobs Cine: Robert LaPresle Cast: Bruce Cabot, Marta Labarr, Tamara Desni, Romilly Lunge, Edward Lexy, Cyril Smith, Percy Walsh, Eve Lynd, Alexander Field, Hilary Pritchard, Miriam Minetti, Davina Craig, Vincent Holman, Anthony Shaw, Peter Gawthorne, Bernard Jukes, Nino Rossini, Rosarita, Ken Johnson’s West Indian Band.

Carl Beyersdorf (Cabot) is a freelance spy, currently working under the name Jim Healey for the Bideford Marine Engineering Company in Devon, England. (For convenience we’ll call him Jim throughout, even though sometimes he’s in his true guise of Carl.) He’s aiming to get the blueprints of the company’s new antisubmarine patrol craft and sell them to the Germans.

Bruce Cabot as Jim.

And, sure enough, he’s able to steal the prints. Later, when an armed German agent arrives, Jim tries to jack up the price of the purloined documents from £1,000 to £4,000. But the agent, shouting threats, draws his gun. There’s the sound of gunfire and . . .

. . . and the next day a dismembered body is fished out of a reservoir nearby. Evidence leads the cops, led by Detective-Inspector William Barnard of the Yard (Lexy) with sidekick Detective-Sergeant Trotter (Smith), to the home of one Hubert Kessler (Jukes), but by the time they get there Kessler’s been gassed in his garage. Even so, a bloodstain on the carpet and more on the underside of the kitchen table offer enough of a clue that this is where the initial killing and the dismemberment took place.

Bernard Jukes as Kessler.

Also interested in Kessler’s house is a mysterious woman, Marie Dufreyne (Desni). She’s almost caught there by the cops, but persuades ace investigative journalist Beverley “Bill” Blake (Lunge) to help her out. Blake’s yet another who’s interested in the house, and not just in his capacity as a journo: he’s actually working under the instructions of Commander Anderson (Shaw), a senior officer of MI5—or, as the commander himself oddly calls it, “M-one-five.”

Romilly Lunge as Blake and Tamara Desni as Marie.

Anthony Shaw as Commander Anderson.

For much of the first half of the movie we’re supposed to think that the rotten Germans murdered Jim and then hacked the body to pieces to confuse the plods. Of course, we believe nothing of the sort: aside from anything else, no movie would kill off its expensive imported star within perhaps at most sixty seconds of the outset. Well, okay, there was the 1991 Albert Brooks vehicle Defending Your Life, and there have certainly been others. But they’re special cases. In the instance of the Brooks movie the bulk of the tale was set in the afterlife. A similar consideration applies to 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan. And so on.

But I digress.

Jim sure enough turns up alive. Also, we discover, he’s not just two-timing but actually three-timing his lovely wife Freyda (Labarr). While she’s still stuck in Devon loyally misdirecting the cops, he’s prancing around London with the equally lovely Marie Dufreyne, whom we met and were dutifully mystified by earlier. Waiting in the wings—although it seems he recently gave her the heave-ho—is nightclub chanteuse Florrie McGowan (Lynd), who is, you’ve guessed it, lovely.

Marta Labarr as Freyda.

Hiding out with crooked dentist/tattoo artist Toni Vencini (Pritchard) and the latter’s wife Palominta (Minetti), Jim is still, in between extracurricular canoodles, attempting to extract £4,000 from German ringleader Otto Lemnel (Walsh) for the blueprints.

Hilary Pritchard as Toni Vencini and Bruce Cabot (seated) as Jim.

Miriam Minetti as Palominta Vencini.

But Inspector Barnard and undercover M-one-five agent Blake, making the most of their testy relationship, are hot on Jim’s trail . . .

This almost alarmingly predictable movie was obviously produced as one the passel of fillers the British film industry came up with in the early stages of World War II as part of a propaganda campaign to persuade the American people, and thereby the US government, that a fascist takeover of Europe might on the whole be a bad thing. The US distributors responded by renaming the movie The Torso Murder Mystery . . . which may in fact have been to the benefit of the movie’s aim, because I confess it was the US title that reeled me in, like Judge Roy Moore to a Junior Prom.

Percy Walsh as Lemnel.

There are plot holes galore. When Blake picks up Marie outside the dead Kessler’s house, he knows she’s been up to something nefarious and that the cops are after her, yet he in essence simply drives her home and waves her goodbye rather than having her investigated or passing her over to Barnard. And, while the cops are supposedly sleuthing in the belief that it was her husband who was slain and dismembered, Freyda Healey is left completely without police supervision or even surveillance, carrying on with her life much as if nothing had happened: did the dishes, caught a mouse in the trap, swatted a fly, discovered my husband’s dismembered body was dumped in a reservoir, yah-de-dah, so it goes.

Eve Lynd as Florrie.

To say the US title is the best part of this movie is arguably true, but would give quite the wrong impression. Bruce Cabot—a sort of Pierce Brosnan before his time—is a likeable enough antihero, scum though he obviously is, while Romilly Lunge, an actor whom I had not previously registered, is equally fine as the romantic lead. The three leading women are uniformly excellent—four, if you count Miriam Minetti, who plays the crooked dentist’s loquacious wife. Anthony Shaw plays Commander Anderson with an accent that could cut through your hangover like a knife, but luckily his role is small.

Romilly Lunge as Blake.

The only real disappointment is Lexy as Inspector Barnard, and this is probably not at all the actor’s fault. The movie’s source novel was #8 in the author’s twelve-strong Inspector Barnard series, yet here Barnard is reduced to essentially a supporting character. I haven’t read any of the novels, so it’s possible some of his irascibility and slowness on the uptake are brought across from there, but I think it’s unlikely a series detective hero would be so reminiscent of the senior partner in one of those dire cop duos espoused by the Poverty Row studios like Monogram. Here’s a single example of Barnard bantering with his sergeant, Trotter:

Trotter: “Well, Chief, it looks as if this case is going to be simple.”
Barnard: “Trotter, the only thing simple in this case is you.”

Painful, eh?

Edward Lexy as Inspector Barnard.

Cyril Smith as Sergeant Trotter.

The part of the Bideford Marine Engineering Company was played by John I. Thornycroft & Company Ltd, a geographically unsound substitution since Bideford is in Devon and Thorneycrofts was based on the Solent, more than half the width of England away. Early in the movie there’s a scene of the antisubmarine boat being tested, and the water it’s being tested on looks like the Solent. Ho hum.

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