Thursday, June 23, 2011

Marlene Dietrich makes an adventure movie

It might be difficult to imagine somebody as glamorous as Marlene Dietrich making a movie that's best categorized in the adventure genre, but such a film is coming up tomorrow at noon on TCM: Knight Without Armour.

Dietrich plays Countess Alexandra, a countess in Tsarist Russia in the days just before World War I. But more on her later. The beginning of the film belongs more to the male lead, Robert Donat. He plays a British man who's fluent in Russian, which brings him to the attention of the British Foreign Office. They know that there's a lot of intrigue going on in Russia, and they'd like to know exactly what is going to happen there. So, they recruit Donat to by a spy; specifically, they want him to play the part of a would-be revolutionary so that they can determine what the revolutionaries really want. It's dangerous work, because the British would have to deny all knowledge of his existence.

Anyhow, fast forward several years to 1917. If you know your history, you'll know that the autumn of 1917 brought about the October Revolution, which nominally brought the Communists to power. I say "nominally" because while they deposed the Provisional Government, there was a significant anti-Communist movement in Russia, with the result that there was a civil war which lasted several years. Countess Alexandra unsurprisingly gets caught up in all this, as her servants leave and the Reds take her hostage. Alexandra, having been part of the old nobility, is clearly an enemy of the New Communist Man.

Donat has been caught up in the Civil War as well, which is similarly unsurprising since he's been playing at a revolutionary. However, for perfectly understandable reasons he wants out (and besides, the Foreign Office probably doesn't need him any longer). Meeting the good Countess gives him another reason to get out, hopefully with her following close behind. And so, the two begin to try to make their way to the border. But with a civil war going on, there are a lot of obstactles as well as a lot of danger facing them.

Knight Without Armour was made by the Korda brothers at London Film in the mid-1930s, which means it's one of those movies that hasn't become very well known in the US. Indeed, I had never heard of it before it had its TCM premiere some time back. However, it's a pretty darn good movie. The Korda brothers tried their hardest to come up with exquisite production values, and the look is better than other British movies of the same time, and even a lot of Hollywood movies not made at MGM. The story, to be fair, is not particularly special; if you've seen one escape movie you might not have seen them all, but you'll recognize similar elements. Still, Knight Without Armour is suitably suspenseful, and has the right amount of dark humor. This is especially true in one scene where the two leads meet a railway station master who is insistent that the trains at his station are going to run on time, even if there aren't any trains.

Amazon lists Knight Without Armour as having gotten a DVD release in Australia, while TCM's database doesn't seem to have it available on DVD.

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