Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 1943. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Screenplay by Keith Winter, Melville Baker, Patricia Coleman, based on the novel by Helen MacInnes. Cinematography by Robert H. Planck. Produced by Victor Saville. Music by Bronislau Kaper. Production Design by Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design by Gile Steele. Film Editing by George Hively.
It begins on the wedding day of an American couple in England, Fred MacMurray is a professor at Oxford who has just walked down the aisle with Joan Crawford and they are zipping off towards their continental honeymoon. MacMurray’s old friend from the foreign office catches up with them in Dover, just as they’re getting into bed on their wedding night, and asks a huge favour of them: since they’re going across the channel on their trip, couldn’t they please help him locate a missing agent? He could send one of his own but he feels like a honeymooning couple would be so much more inconspicuous.
MacMurray, who is deeply annoyed considering he was just about to get laid, reluctantly agrees, while Crawford, whose head is suddenly filled with the cliches of spy movies, can’t wait to get started, eager to put together clues and disguises. They head to Paris, then to Germany and Austria following coded messages and rendezvousing with their contacts, picking up Conrad Veidt (in his final film, he died before its release) and Basil Rathbone along the way; with both of the most famous shady character actors in the cast, it’s not possible that they’re both bad, so who knows who to trust?
The game this couple is playing gets more serious as the stakes rise and eventually they are actually in danger of losing their lives, but the importance of doing their part against the threat of Nazi power is too great to abandon now. The delights are many in this highly satisfying caper, it doesn’t overdo its plot twists so it comes off as more than just a gimmicky thriller, taking its time to enjoy the stars’ genuine chemistry and the things they witness in a series of increasingly unusual circumstances.
The sense of topography is less impressive, it looks more like visiting various countries in a theme park rather than actually going there, but the artificiality isn’t distracting and contributes to the fun. This was Crawford’s last film with MGM before she bought out her own contract and resurrected her flagging career with Mildred Pierce two years later, and the decision makes sense; she looks great and gives the movie a great deal of exciting energy, but the effort she is putting into keeping her face and image flawless have given her a steely exterior that makes her emotionally remote as a romantic heroine, and her desire to play the more grounded roles that her colleagues Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck were getting is much more suited to the image she was cultivating at the time.