Monday, July 26, 2010

Out, damned Crawford!

By the early 1940s, Joan Crawford had been under contract to MGM for 15 or more years. She wasn't getting any younger, and the outbreak of World War II led to a cultural shift that resulted in a whole new wave of actresses, leaving a lot of the female stars of the 1930s, not just Crawford, on the outside looking in. MGM tried to deal with Crawford by giving her increasingly lousy roles, leading up to her final film for the studio, 1943's Above Suspicion. It's airing at 4:30 PM ET this afternoon on TCM.

The date is early 1939, just before the beginning of World War II. Crawford plays Frances, a young American woman who has travelled to England to marry Richard (Fred MacMurray), a fellow American who is teaching at Oxford. As they're starting their honeymoon, one of Richard's former classmates spots him. This man is working for the Foreign Office, and figures that, since the two Americans were going to be honeymooning in Nazi Germany, perhaps he could convince them to do some spy work. After all, the Nazis surely wouldn't suspect these guileless American newlyweds of spying. This is only the first of many plot points that strains credulity.

Amazingly, the young married couple agrees to this, obviously not having been given enough informatino about what spying is really like. They travel through Europe, first to Paris and then to Nazi Germany and Austria (by early 1939 a part of Germany) meeting a series of contacts, and relatively unaware that they've got Gestapo agents around who might just be up to something. They get involved with the murder of a high-ranking Nazi at a concert of Franz Liszt music, which eventually results in the Nazis figuring out that the two are spies, and their being forced to try to escape with their lives. Along the way, though, they keep coincidentally meeting people who Richard knew from Oxford. There's Bruce Lester who seems to share the newlyweds' interest in the music of Liszt, but may be the murderer; and Basil Rathbone, who helps the newlyweds escape from the concert, but might have ulterior motives of his own.

It's all fairly standard stuff, and even the presence of a bunch of good actors isn't enough to rise above the material. It doesn't help that it seems to be riddled with even more coincidences than your normal spy movie. At least in, say, North by Northwest, the inexperienced Cary Grant was being helped by a professional Eva Marie Saint (and we the audience are let in on this). Even the ending is problematic, as the newlyweds make their final escape to Fascist Italy. In Night Train to Munich, the escapees realize they have to get to Switzerland.

Still, Above Suspicion is worth at least one viewing, as it does have so many professionals in it. It's also gotten a DVD release, albeit as part of the Warner Archive collection.

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