Spy in Black, The (1939)

vt U-Boat 29
UK / 79 minutes / bw / Harefield, London Film, Columbia
Dir: Michael Powell
Pr: Irving Asher, Alexander Korda (uncredited)
Scr: Emeric Pressburger, Roland Pertwee
Story: The Spy in Black (1917) by J. Storer Clouston
Cine: Bernard Browne
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Sebastian Shaw, Valerie Hobson, Marius Goring, June Duprez, Athole Stewart, Agnes Lauchlan, Helen Haye, Cyril Raymond, George Summers, Hay Petrie, Grant Sutherland, Robert Rendel, Mary Morris, Margaret Moffatt, Kenneth Warrington, Torin Thatcher.

Spy in Black - 0a opener

Spy in Black - 0b opener

In 1917 the German newspapers are full of propaganda to the effect that the country’s U-boat campaign to sink food vessels has brought Britain to the verge of starvation. U-boat commander Captain Ernst Hardt (Veidt) and his second-in-command, Lt. David Schuster (Goring), are all too well aware, though, that food shortages are just as rampant at home. No sooner have they returned to Berlin on leave than they’re sent out on a fresh mission—a secret one to the Orkney Islands, far off Scotland’s northwest tip, where the British destroyer fleet is based. There Hardt is to go ashore and make contact with the new schoolteacher at Longhope, supposedly called Anne Burnett but in fact a German spy called Fraulein Tiel (Hobson).

We see the real Anne Burnett (Duprez)—the name’s spelled Ann in a newspaper report but Anne in the credits—being abducted as Continue reading

Four Just Men, The (1939)

vt The Secret Four; vt The Secret Column

UK / 82 minutes / bw / CAPAD, ABFD Dir: Walter Summers Pr: Michael Balcon Scr: Angus MacPhail, Sergei Nolbandov, Roland Pertwee Story: The Four Just Men (1905) by Edgar Wallace Cine: Ronald Neame Cast: Hugh Sinclair, Griffith Jones, Francis L. Sullivan, Frank Lawton, Anna Lee, Alan Napier, Basil Sydney, Lydia Sherwood, Edward Chapman, Athole Stewart, George Merritt, Arthur Hambling, Garry Marsh, Ellaline Terriss, Percy Walsh, Roland Pertwee, Eliot Makeham, Frederick Piper, Jon Pertwee, Liam Gaffney.

Wallace’s novel was a massive bestseller in its native land, and the assumption of this movie was that viewers were at least vaguely familiar with the book’s premise: that a group of four men, working to secure justice where the cops could not, operated covertly—often taking the power of life and death into their own hands—to defend justice and the British way of life. In the novel they were essentially conspiratorial vigilantes; in the movie, made as Europe trembled on the verge of World War Two, the emphasis is more political.

In 1938 one of the Four Just Men, James Terry (Lawton), awaits execution this very morning in the German prison of Regensberg. Even as he’s being prepared for the ax, an imperious officer arrives with instructions that Terry is to be taken away for further interrogation. Sure enough, as the staff car speeds away, it’s revealed—to the surprise of no one in the audience—that the officer and his driver are two of the other Just Men, respectively distinguished stage actor Humphrey Mansfield (Sinclair) and theatrical impresario James “Jim” D. Brodie (Jones). Back in London, the three reunite with the fourth of the quartet, French couturier Léon Poiccard (Sullivan).

The Four Just Men - 1 Poiccard (Sullivan) has it easy - for now

Poiccard (Francis L. Sullivan) has it easy — but for how long?

Terry, who’s dying of emphysema or some similar illness, managed to discover at Regensberg some further details of a dastardly plot against international peace that the Just Men have been investigating. He’s promptly despatched to the Near East to make further inquiries while Continue reading

Clairvoyant, The (1935)

vt The Evil Mind

UK / 81 minutes / bw / Gainsborough, Gaumont, Vogue Dir: Maurice Elvey Scr: Charles Bennett, Bryan Edgar Wallace Story: Der Hellseher (1929; vt The Clairvoyant) by Ernest Lothar (i.e., Ernst Lothar) Cine: G. MacWilliams Cast: Claude Rains, Fay Wray, Mary Clare, Ben Field, Jane Baxter, Athole Stewart, C. Denier Warren, Carleton Hobbs, Felix Aylmer.

Max (Rains) is The Great Maximus, performing a fake telepathy routine around the shabbier music halls with his wife Rene (Wray) as assistant. One night, as Rene loses her way from the stalls to the circle and it becomes obvious to the audience that his “telepathy” relies on her coded messages, his gaze catches the face of Christine Shawn (Baxter) as she watches from one of the boxes; at once he’s empowered with genuine clairvoyance, and correctly describes the letter that a jeering spectator is holding up.

Clairvoyant 1935 - in court

Scary stuff — Claude Rains is the Clairvoyant.

Later, on a train to Manchester for the next gig, Max, Rene, Max’s mother Topsy (Clare) and his congenially boozy business partner Simon (Field) encounter Christine again, and once more Max is filled with the gift of prophecy—this time foreseeing that the train will crash. He pulls the cord, the quintet disembark, and sure enough the train crashes.

Christine, whose father Lord Southwood (Stewart) is the owner of the Daily Sun, ensures that Max’s successful prophecy becomes the talk of the land. Impresario James J. Bimeter (Warren) gets Max top billing at the London Paladrome (sic) for a princely three hundred pounds a week, but Max soon disappoints the theater owner by failing to come out with any new prophecies. Further, Rene is becoming concerned that Max may have fallen for Christine. In fact, it’s Rene whom he loves, but it’s Christine—who eventually admits that she’s deeply in love with him and would take him from Rene if she could—who’s the source of his psychic powers.

His successful offhand prediction that 100–1 rank outsider Autolychus will win the Derby (“Autolychus can’t win. They’re only running him in the hope he’ll Continue reading

They Came by Night (1940)

UK / 73 minutes / bw / TCF Dir: Harry Lachman Pr: Edward Black, Maurice Ostrer Scr: Sidney Gilliat, Michael Pertwee Story: stage play by Barré Lyndon Cine: Jack Cox Cast: Will Fyffe, Phyllis Calvert, Anthony Hulme, George Merritt, Kathleen Harrison, John Glyn Jones, Athole Stewart, Cees Laseur, Wally Patch, Hal Walters, Kuda Bux, Leo Britt, Sylvia St. Claire, Grant Tyler.

A nice noirish title but . . .

Pawky Scottish comedian Fyffe, although largely forgotten now, was very popular in his day. Obviously the makers of this movie wanted to capitalize on his reputation as a comic; at the same time, they had a thrillerish tale to tell. The result is an oddity: not a comedy thriller but a narrative that lurches between dramatic scenes and comedic ones. (I’ve been unable to track down Lyndon’s play, so I’m not sure if this jarring dichotomy was part of the original.)

Only once does one of the comic scenes significantly affect the main plot. In order to discover the secrets of the Turner security system (“Turner’s do not employ anyone who has not signed the Pledge”), Fyffe’s character calculatedly introduces his friend, Bible-thumping Temperance safebuilder Llewellyn Evans (Jones), to the demon alcohol; later, when it matters, the sobered-up Fyffe rather tiresomely can’t remember the details he learned. Another lengthy comic interlude involves the testimony of gossipy witness Mrs. Lightbody (Harrison); the height of its wit is when she asks to be shown where she can “wash her hands”.

As to the plot:

The latest exploit of the gang of jewel thieves led by Carl Vollaire (Laseur) is to have one of their number, skilled conjurer Ali (Bux), spirit away the Taj Ruby from the auction house where Vollaire has just paid for it with a dud check, leaving a replica in its place. When the substitution’s discovered, the cops—in the shape of Insp. Metcalfe (Merritt) and the young Det.-Sgt. Frank Tolly (Hulme)—consult London jeweler James Fothergill (Fyffe) for expert advice. While they’re visiting him, his younger brother Stephen (uncredited), commits suicide, for no immediately apparent reason. It soon emerges that Stephen was in cahoots with the gang, as James discovers when he opens a package that arrives through the mail for his dead brother and discovers within, nestling in a bed of pipe tobacco, the Taj Ruby. James concocts a clever plan to ensnare the robbers while at the same time keeping the perfidy of Stephen from the cops and, more importantly, from Stephen’s young son Davy (Tyler) and older daughter Sally (Calvert) . . . who just happens to be stepping out with young Sgt. Tolly. After the expectable complications, the climax of the movie occurs during a bullion robbery that James manages to thwart.

Calvert was to have her big break the following year in Kipps (1941), where she played Kipps’s true love, Ann Pornick; in They Come by Night, as romantic lead, she exudes appropriate virginity while portraying quite well the girl torn between her cop boyfriend and the adored uncle whom circumstances conspire to persuade her is a criminal. Lyndon would of course go on to become one of Hollywood’s legendary scripters in his own right; his most famous screenplay was undoubtedly The War of the Worlds (1953), but he assembled quite a track record in noir: The LODGER (1944), HANGOVER SQUARE (1945), The HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945) and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948). There’s some casual racism of the kind that must have seemed goodhearted at the time but grates today.