Espionage Agent (1939)
I’ve always suspected that if someone began attending movie theaters in the late 1940’s on into the fifties, there’s a good chance they’d have no idea that western favorite Joel McCrea’s career had a first act prior to his settling in to cowboy pictures for thirty years. A career that saw him as the screen’s first Dr. Kildare, play The Most Dangerous Game with Fay Wray, romance Jean Arthur, Veronica Lake and Claudette Colbert in classic romcoms or even getting tangled up in a 1940 Hitchcock thriller long before Cary Grant and James Stewart settled in to Hitch’s world.
Which brings me to this enjoyable Warner Brother outing from house director Lloyd Bacon. Clearly designed as a warning to viewers of the tyranny that was to come in real life, McCrea and beautiful Brenda Marshall, are to find themselves globe trotting while trying to bust a German spy ring intent on causing harm to the good ole’ U.S. of A.
McCrea and Jeffrey Lynn are young up and comers working as government trainees under the tutelage of Stanley Ridges to be stationed in American Embassies around the globe. The film begins with them working in Tangier where Miss Marshall is caught up in a spy ring that includes Martin Kosleck and Rudolph Anders. Tangier has been declared a war zone and McCrea is lending aide to get American citizens out of the country and onto the Queen Mary for it’s final voyage before war breaks out across all of Europe.
Let the flirtations begin when Brenda walks into his office looking to get back to America. A shipboard romance ensues and in record time that only a Hollywood script can deliver, McCrea and Brenda, are head over heels in love. But she harbors a dark secret that could put an end to his chosen career. She’s carrying a phony passport that’s been issued to her by Kosleck and when the time is right, she’ll be called upon by the Fatherland to pay her debt.
McCrea is too wound up in her beauty to realize there’s a danger in the air but not his Mother, Nana Bryant. She may give her approval to the marriage but that won’t stop her from knowing nothing good will come of it. Woman’s intuition or just that a Mother knows things, plain and simple?
Once Ridges has approved them for full duty, Lynn is assigned to Geneva and McCrea is set to go to the Paris embassy. Not so fast. Now that he’s a full fledged Government man, Kosleck puts the bite on Brenda to get some vital information from her husband.
And so the confession begins and the bloom is off the rose. Full marks to McCrea who will have none of it and along with his new bride tells her story to Ridges at which point McCrea resigns from his post. Now that he’s unemployed, how better to serve one’s country then to enter the spy ring alongside his wife and head to Geneva to bust the operation Kosleck is fronting for.
These are dangerous times and as McCrea and Brenda will be acting on their own if they are caught, Ridges, won’t be able to help them. They’ll not be just playing cat and mouse games but rather life and death ones.
As McCrea points out in a haze of propaganda, “still there are cases where the jobs to be done are more important than the risks involved.”
The final third of the film goes into overdrive that will see Brenda fall back into the clutches of Kosleck but then that’s all for show with McCrea as the husband who has supposedly turned his back on his homeland after being dumped from his post due to his wife’s past. Plenty of action lay in wait for McCrea via planes, trains and automobiles (you know I can’t help myself) as he races to put an end to Kosleck and company and save Brenda who may have gotten in over her pretty head.
Produced by Hal Wallis, this along with plenty of other similarly themed titles sometimes blur together when looking back as if they’re all trial runs to come up with Casablanca, or in later cases to capitalize on it’s success. Why not, Casablanca is the film that would perfect all the key ingredients. Spies, far off locales, axis and allies, expatriates, sacrifice, romance and the love and longing for one’s country.
Then again, maybe it really was just a dry run for Wallis who would go on to produce Casablanca which in turn would lead to his falling out with Jack Warner for Warner’s brash behavior at the Oscars. According to legend and the history books Warner grabbed the golden statuette for himself as head of the studio as opposed to the producer who put the movie together which was customary. Wallis is seen here with Casablanca’s Ingrid Bergman.
This production was the first credited role for Miss Marshall in a career that spanned the decade ahead. I’ve always been quite taken with her beauty and wish things had turned out better career wise for the leading lady who would settle down and give up the screen after marrying William Holden. Warner kept her busy casting her opposite the likes of Flynn, Cagney and Garfield in short order. Her final film would be a George Montgomery western in 1950, The Iroquois Trail.
Come 1946, McCrea, would stick to westerns save for one overseas British film, Shoot First, though that title seems to be clearly aimed at western going movie fans. He’d remain busy in the genre up till 1962’s now classic Peckinpah film, Ride the High Country, before settling down and making just three appearances over the next 14 years calling it a day with 1976’s Mustang Country.
I caught up with Espionage Agent thanks to a TCM broadcast so keep your eyes on that station’s scheduling if you’re hoping to get a look at Joel and Brenda embark on a dangerous mission in a pre-war film. One that’s clearly beginning the march towards propaganda story lines that would inhabit many a Hollywood release in the coming years.