Stamboul Quest (1934)

SAM WOOD

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

USA, 1934. . Story by , Screenplay by . Cinematography by . Produced by , Sam Wood. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

sits in the courtyard of a convent looking breathtaking in a white gown, the setting and her appearance the old movie visual shorthand for a woman who has gone crazy for love. She flashes back to the first World War when she worked in counter-espionage for the German government, flawlessly pulling off her schemes while, offscreen, Mata Hari does the unthinkable and sacrifices her professional integrity to romance.

Loy, whose character is based on the real life “Fraulein Doktor” (who was still alive and teaching her trade at the time this film was released), is assigned to travel to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to discover if a Turkish commander () is the British double agent who has been giving away strategic secrets about the Dardanelles stronghold. She has recently uncovered a double agent in her own ranks in Berlin, and during the skirmish of arresting him at his dentist’s office accidentally ropes in an innocent bystanding American () studying medicine in Leipzig who falls madly in love with her.

Brent follows Loy to Turkey and she, despite opening the film with the pronouncement that a good spy does not let love get in the way of the job, falls for him as well, setting him up as her secretary when she arrives in her destination and letting him in on the nature of her business when he threatens to leave. The process of capturing a traitor redhanded without alienating the man who wants her to give up her career is one that poses a tough conundrum for our heroine, particularly when, in a move that only a script approved before the Production Code was stamped into practice could pull, her next dangerous move involves spending the night with the commander to trick him into giving up his secrets.

MGM attempts to go the Paramount route with this breathlessly exotic adventure, setting it in a vague approximation of a foreign land (the décor and music of what the film claims is Constantinople is closer to what you’d find in Baghdad) and making sure the female heroine has no end of glamorous, wholly impractical evening gowns stuffed into her steamer trunks.

Loy is iconic, divine and has all the range for the part, her face an iron stronghold when manipulating her peers on the job and sympathetic and spontaneous when making love to her amenable co-star. Director Sam Wood, however, is the wrong fit for the job, his famously conservative (some could easily say pro-fascist) politics lacking the humour necessary to pull off a story that is quite openly devoted to silly escapism.

The cast members are left to fend for themselves, doing their best to entertain Depression-era audiences with the carefree indulgence that the story demands, and clearly receiving no support from a director who seems embarrassed to be involved.

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