Enemy Agent (1940)

US / 61 minutes / bw / Universal Dir: Lew Landers Assoc Pr: Ben Pivar Scr: Sam Robins, Edmund L. Hartmann Story: Sam Robins Cine: Jerome Ash Cast: Richard Cromwell, Helen Vinson, Robert Armstrong, Marjorie Reynolds, Jack Arnold (i.e., Vinton Hayworth), Russell Hicks, Philip Dorn, Jack LaRue, Bradley Page, Abner Biberman, Luis Alberni, Jack Carson, Milburn Stone.

A fast-moving little B-movie that capitalized on the fact that the US was becoming paranoid about fascist conquests of democracy in Europe while at the same time Corporate America, Hollywood included, was nervous about adversely affecting business through upsetting the Nazis. So we’re given no clue here as to who the jackbooted, sauerkraut-scarfing foreign power is that seeks the secrets of the new flying fortress aircraft and its fiendishly accurate bombsight.

Richard Cromwell as Jimmy.

The plans are being worked on at the Fulton Aircraft Co. by draftsman Jimmy Saunders (Cromwell), and he becomes first suspect of the FBI’s Agent Gordon (Armstrong) after their original suspect, Evans (uncredited), is gunned down. We know, however, that the Fulton employee who’s really the spy is Jimmy’s colleague Lester “Les” Taylor (Arnold).

Robert Armstrong as Agent Gordon.

Taylor is working for espionage kingpin Dr. Jeffry (sic) Arnold (Dorn), whose goons Alex (LaRue) and Baronoff (Biberman) were the ones who iced Evans when he was getting unreliable. It’s soon clear to Taylor that he could meet the same fate if he fails to produce the goods.

Helen Vinson as Irene.

Taylor and Jimmy are both rivals for the affections of Irene Hunter (Vinson), a pretty waitress at their customary lunchtime joint The Grotto. Irene’s the heartthrob of all the unhitched male workers at Fulton and, probably, some of the married ones as well, but Jimmy seems to be making headway until she suddenly ditched him in favor of Lester.

Marjorie Reynolds as Peggy.

However, another waitress at The Grotto, Peggy O’Reilly (Reynolds), volunteers to take Irene’s place. Their first date that begins inauspiciously:

Peggy: “Oh, a fellow gave me a couple passes to a show instead of a tip. Wanna go?”
Jimmy (bitterly): “If there are a lot of murders in it.”
Peggy: “They tell me they have to wring out the stage after each performance.”

Very soon, though, Jimmy realizes he’s come out with by far the better bargain, girlfriendwise.

The “other” Jack Arnold as Taylor.

Taylor frames Jimmy as the spy. Although the feds release him for lack of evidence, the public in its wisdom assumes he’s guilty, and he becomes a social leper—although a few people stick by him, including Peggy and, oddly, Irene . . .

Where this movie scores very highly indeed is that, from the early minutes almost until the close, we’re kept in a constant state of uncertainty as to what Irene’s game is. Is she an airheaded gold digger, a tramp, a moll of Dr. Arnold’s, a blackmailer, or what? In most movies of this ilk such switcheroos are so clumsily done that it’s easy enough to spot PDQ what the truth is. In this instance all we can tell before the final revelation is that Irene is a lot more than the persona she presents to the world.

Philip Dorn as Dr. Arnold.

 

Jack LaRue as Alex (left) and Abner Biberman as Baronoff.

Richard Cromwell was one of those Hollywood actors who looked set to become a major star before everything fell apart. He came to screen acting through his art: Working as a painter and ceramicist, he became friendly with all sorts of Hollywood clients, so that, when he acquired the yen to change careers and try acting instead, he at least had the contacts. This isn’t to denigrate his talent: he won his first significant role, the title character in Tol’able David (1930), fair and square in competition with professional actors. Through the 1930s he had a number of major support roles, but at the end of that decade his career took a downturn, so that he started to appear instead in B-movies like Enemy Agent. He’s now mainly remembered, if at all, as Angela Lansbury’s first husband; they separated within months when it became evident his homosexuality represented an insuperable problem, but remained firm friends until his death, from liver cancer, in 1960.

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7 thoughts on “Enemy Agent (1940)

  1. Well, this sounds very intriguing indeed, something to keep the viewer guessing right to the very end. I don’t suppose it’s on YouTube by any chance?

    (PS I do love the women’s clothes from this period, all those beautifully tailored suits and matching hats. They definitely add an air of panache.)

    • I’d have guessed YouTube too, but it seems not. Some of the people who post old movies there do so for only a limited period. I haven’t got time to go looking elsewhere right now; I’ll try to remember later in the day.

  2. There was a real ” fiendishly accurate bombsight” – the Norden sight developed for the real Flying Fortress aircraft – at that time. The Nazis were trying to get hold of it. They actually succeeded and decided it was no better than their own bombsights anyway.

    • Many thanks for that interesting piece of background info, Roger. Now that you mention it, I’d vaguely heard of the Norden sight, but I’d not have recalled that in a million years without the reminder. And I’d completely forgotten (if I ever knew) that bit about the Nazis getting hold of it.

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