Friday, February 22, 2008

A brief history lesson

The Fox Movie Channel is airing its 1952 spy thriller Diplomatic Courier on February 23 at 11:30 AM ET. It's not the greatest spy movie ever made, but it is eminently enjoyable, and has one of the more unique historical perspectives.

Tyrone Power plays the title role, that of American diplomatic courier Mike Kells. His job is to go to Salzburg, Austria, and retrieve some documents from a colleague who is smuggling them out of Romania. Unfortunately, they can't make the exchange at the specified location, and Kells' colleague is later killed and his body is unceremoniously dumped out of the train. One clue, however, is a note for Kells to meet his colleague's last contact, a mysterious East European named "Janine" (played by Hildegard Knef, spelled as "Neff" in the opening credits). Along the way, Kells is followed by the widow of another US diplomat, Joan Ross (played by Patricia Neal), who seems to have a thing for Kells.

The story itself is nothing earth-shattering, but what is interesting is the setting to which Kells travels in his search for Janine: Trieste. Trieste, and the surrounding region of Istria, had been part of several countries over its history; Austria-Hungary up until World War I, and Fascist Italy through World War II. After the Second World War, however, the city was given the status of a free state, and divided up into two zones and, much like Germany (and Berlin within) and Austria (and Vienna within) was occupied by multiple foreign forces: one zone by the US and Britain, and another by the Yugoslav Army. This, the multi-ethnic demographics of the region, and Yugoslav dictator Tito's relatively maverick diplomatic policy compared to the rest of the Communist bloc, combined to make nominally independent Trieste a perfect site for spies of all sides to engage in their espionage. The story uses this history to good effect, as you can never quite tell until it's necessary for the story just who is a good guy, and who is a bad guy. Sure, the story isn't the best ever; at times it delves into incredulity, and From Russia With Love makes much better use of the former Yugoslavia and the east Adriatic as a backdrop for espionage. But, Diplomatic Courier is still quite fun, and fine for watching on a rainy day with the proverbial bowl of popcorn. Sadly, Diplomatic Courier has not yet been released on DVD, so infrequent showings on FMC are your only way to catch it.

Watch out for a scene about an hour in, where Tyrone Power is approached in a jeep by his American contact and an MP. The MP, who has a brief speaking line, is a very young Lee Marvin in a brief role.

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