Assignment—Paris (1952)

vt Assignment: Paris; vt European Edition
US, France, Italy / 84 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: Robert Parrish (plus an uncredited Phil Karlson) Pr: Samuel Marx, Jerry Bresler Scr: William Bowers Story: Trial by Terror (1952 Saturday Evening Post) by Pauline and Paul Gallico, adapted by Walter Goetz, Jack Palmer White Cine: Burnett Guffey, Ray Cory Cast: Dana Andrews, Marta Toren (i.e., Märta Torén), George Sanders, Audrey Totter, Sandro Giglio, Donald Randolph, Herbert Berghof, Ben Astar, Willis Bouchey, Earl Lee, Joseph Forte, Pál Jávor, William Woodson.

Although based on a Gallico serial, this Cold War outing becomes a surprisingly tough piece that’s full of noir sensibilities and has a cast to match. It’s set in Paris and Budapest, with filming being done on location in both cities; what the Hungarians thought about the finished product is anyone’s guess.

We open at the New York Herald Tribune’s Paris HQ, where, according to the narrator (Woodson),

“Into the offices early last year came a phone call that made one of the most shocking headlines of the day. This is the story of the man who tried to break through an iron wall of censorship to get the facts behind that headline . . .”

The man in question is hotshot young reporter Jimmy Race (Andrews). The phone call was from the Trib’s man in Budapest, Barker (Forte), and concerned the sentencing there of an American, Robert Anderson, to twenty years’ hard labor for espionage.

Meanwhile the Trib’s Paris editor, Nick Strang (Sanders), has ordered the paper’s other reporter in Budapest, Jeanne Moray (Torén), back to base despite the fact that she’s been hot on the trail of a story that would blow the current Hungarian administration to pieces if proved true: that Prime Minister Andreas Ordy (Berghof) and Minister of Justice Vajos (Astar) have been secretly plotting behind Stalin’s back with Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito.

Marta Toren as Jeanne and Dana Andrews as Jimmy

Jimmy and Jeanne meet for the first time, and he’s immediately smitten. She’s interested too, but far less impetuous—especially since she’s already to an extent Nick’s girl. Also in the office is an earlier paramour of Nick’s, fashion editor Sandy Tate (Totter), who still holds a candle for him. Totter’s every bit as good in the role as you’d expect, but her character is actually completely peripheral to the plot: essentially she’s there just to be Jeanne’s pal and make barbed comments about Nick and Jimmy.

George Sanders as Nick

Barker’s taken ill and hospitalized in Budapest, so Nick sends Jimmy to replace him—as a means, Jimmy suspects, to put some distance between him and Jeanne. Once there, Jimmy is welcomed by Vajos with soft soap and fake geniality. All his stories must be checked by the censors before he’s allowed to phone them home. (It comes as quite a startlement that he must use this cumbersome means of sending in stories—I kept irrationally expecting someone to send a fax—but I can remember that even as late as my own short period in Fleet Street in the 1960s reporters were phoning in their stories to trained transcribers.)

Audrey Totter as Sandy

Followed wherever he goes, Jimmy eventually makes contact with the underground in the form of tailor Laszlo Boros (Jávor). However, Vajos and Ordy are way ahead of him. Jimmy’s arrested and questioned, and then the tapes of the questioning are doctored to make it appear as if he’s freely confessing to Ordy that he’s in Hungary as a spy.

That’s when the psychological torture and brainwashing start, using similar methods to those used decades later in Guantánamo and elsewhere; I guess some things never change even with improved technology.

Sandro Giglio as Grisha

An important subplot concerns Gabor Czeki (Giglio), former aide to Ordy who became a dissident and went on the run. The Hungarians thought he was dead but now have tripped over rumors that he’s still alive. Since he was the one who drew up the deal with Tito and has retained a copy of it, it’s obvious he presents a unique threat to Ordy’s administration . . .

Herbert Berghof as Ordy (left) and Ben Astar as Vajos

Assignment—Paris ain’t no The SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965)—a very obvious major difference is that in the current movie it’s assumed the people on “our” side are, by and large, straight arrows—but neither is it a trivial piece. The particular denouement we expect doesn’t happen (shades of 1949’s The THIRD MAN although it’s a different twist), and, although the conclusion bears some hopefulness, there’s by no means any guarantee this hope will be realized. The grimness of the movie’s later stages is quite at odds with much of its earlier elements, which read more as if they were scenes from a light-hearted journalistic caper. Indeed, I found that the first half of the piece—as the relationship between Jeanne and the glib, fast-talking, cocksure Jimmy develops in a shower of one-liners—became tedious after a while. The movie was rescued once the main action moved to Budapest, where the tension and claustrophobia could build up.

Donald Randolph as Borvitch

It’s tempting to think this change of tone might coincide with the movie’s change of director midstream: Phil Karlson was fired partway through and Robert Parrish took over. But this would be to assume Assignment—Paris was shot linearly, and there’s no reason to believe it was.

It’s horrifying to realize that, just a few years after making this movie, Torén was dead: she died in 1957 of a cerebral hemorrhage, aged just 31. Other movies with a noirish connection in which she appeared include Rogues’ Regiment (1948), ILLEGAL ENTRY (1949), Deported (1950), ONE WAY STREET (1950), Panther’s Moon (1950; vt Spy Hunt), Sirocco (1951), The MAN WHO WATCHED TRAINS GO BY (1953) and even Casbah (1948), the screen musical based on PÉPÉ LE MOKO (1936).

10 thoughts on “Assignment—Paris (1952)

  1. Robert Anderson was probably inspired by a real American, Noel Field, in fact a sincere communist, who was accused of being a US agent. Assorted people in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia were accused of being recruited by him and some were hanged. Costa-Grivas’s L’Aveu was based on the memoirs of Artur London, a Czech framed as a US agent and very noir indeed it is..

    • Thanks for this! L’Aveu is one I should certainly plan to cover here: I see I had it listed for inclusion in THE BOOK but for some reason dropped it — I’m slightly puzzled as to why I made that decision, because I covered a bunch of other Costa-Gavras flix.

      • There were problems over releasing it for home viewing at one time, I think, so you may not have been able to get hold of it.

        • A plausible hypothesis, but according to my catalogue I have a copy of it . . . somewhere. Any putative entry may just have been squeezed out because of space considerations.

  2. Thanks for your review. I just watched the movie on YouTube.

    Jimmy is indeed the irritatingly glib and cocksure American. You would think he is caricature in an anti American movie! Also, as you note, the psychological torture scenes which I presume were supposed to convey to American audiences of the fifties how evil those communists were, arecreminiscent of what the US has been doing for the last decade and more in Guantanamo. And that is not even taking into account US rendition programs to foreign locations outside of US jurisdiction, military or civilian. What seems to have been an endorsement of the American Way when the movie was made comes very differently today.

    As often, George Sanders made the movie better than it would have been without him.

    • Certainly it’s a movie that leaves the viewer with a fair amount to think about. I wonder if even at the time it was intended that way: to remind us that we, too, are hardly without sin, so to speak. I dunno. Unsurprisingly, I can’t remember much about how things were in 1952 . . .

      For me it was Marta Toren who was the standout actor, but I agree with you that Sanders was very good too.

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