Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Two interesting spy movies

TCM are showing a bunch of espionage movies on Wednesday, from the 1930s and early 1940s. Two of them are quite interesting, albeit for different reasons:

Confessions of a Nazi Spy, airing at 10:45 AM ET. Edward G. Robinson stars (although he only shows up in the second half of the movie) as the FBI man who helps break up a ring of Nazi agents in the US. These agents are operating under cover of the German-American Bund, an organization ostensibly of German-American heritage, but that was used in the 1930s to try to spread the idea of isolation, keeping the US from backing Britain in the upcoming World War. Paul Lukas plays a doctor who speaks about Hitler's racial policies at various Bund meetings, and George Sanders plays the Nazi agent who is a go-between connecting the Nazis in America with their paymasters back in Germany.

This movie is interesting for a bunch of reasons. It's told in a bit of a documentary style, presaging a lot of the police procedurals that would come into vogue after the Second World War. More interestingly might be the fact that the movie was made at all. Confessions of a Nazi Spy was released in May 1939, months before Germany invaded Poland. There was a substantial strand of American thought that considered the events in Europe a strictly European problem, and wanted the US to stay out of things. The idea that Hollywood would make movies that were seen as anti-isolationist propaganda horrified these people, so much that Congress eventually held hearings on the matter in 1941. A final interesting point is to watch for the wife of low-level agent Kurt Schneider. That's Grace Stafford. You might not recognize the name, but she went on to bigger things, marrying Walter Lantz, and becoming the voice of Woody Woodpecker.

The other interesting movie is Stamboul Quest, at 6:30 AM. This is a World War I movie about Germans passing secrets to Britain via a Turkish agent in Istanbul. The fascinating thing about this 1934 film is the casting: Myrna Loy plays the German agent. She's dispatched to Istanbul via train, which is where she meets an American doctor played by George Brent, another interesting casting choice considering that the movie was made at MGM and Brent was a Warner Brothers contract player. The movie itself is somewhat typical for the early-1930s studio era, a lot of fun despite the not terribly good production values.

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