Background to Danger (1943)


(director: Raoul Walsh; screenwriters: W.R. Burnett/based on the novel Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler; cinematographer: Tony Gaudio; editor: Jack Killifer; music: Frederick Hollander; cast: George Raft (Joe Barton), Brenda Marshall (Tamara), Sydney Greenstreet (Col. Robinson), Peter Lorre (Nikolai Zaloshoff), Osa Massen (Ana Remzi Baronvitch), Turhan Bey (Hassan), Willard Robertson (McNamara), Steven Geray (Raeder), Pedro de Cordoba (Old Turk), Kurt Katch (Mailler), Georges Metaxa (L.V. Bastaki), Frank Reicher (Rudick – the Assasin), Daniel Ocko (Igor Rashenko), Curt Furburg (Franz Von Papen); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jerry Wald; Warner Bros.; 1943)

“Lightweight espionage tale.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Raoul Walsh (“High Sierra”/”They Died With Their Boots On”/”Battle Cry”) helms this fast-moving slam-bang lightweight espionage tale that relies more on brawn than brains, and tries to follow the same romantic adventurous arc as the recent smash hit Casablanca (1942) but fails miserably at that aim. It’s incredibly stiff and poorly plotted with hugh holes but because of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in character as their usual colorful selves, it might just be good enough as entertaining hokum. Its glaring weakness is George Raft cast in a Bogie type of role and unable to be anything more than his usual wooden self. It’s based on the 1937 novel Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler and written by W.R. Burnett. The book’s plot is updated to 1942 and concerns Germany’s villainous efforts to find a reason to convince the strategically located neutral Turkey to side with the Nazis.

It opens with a bomb nearly killing Hitler’s treacherous ambassador in Ankara, Turkey, Von Papen. This turns out to be a botched scheme worked out by German agents to plant the bomb and blame the Soviets, thereby creating an “incident” which would make it appear that Russia is hostile to the Turks and thereby convincing them to side with the Germans. The German agent that failed is recalled to Berlin. In the meantime no-nonsense American espionage agent Joe Barton (George Raft), posing as a salesman for heavy equipment, meets on a train to Ankara from Aleppo the frightened Russian Ana Remzi (Osa Massen). She says an informer is following her and waxes poetic about America, and then gets Joe to carry her securities across the border and to Ankara since he’s an American and won’t be searched. In his hotel room, Joe finds maps of a planned Russian invasion in the envelope and not securities. Joe then takes a taxi to Ana’s dumpy hotel on the other side of town and finds she’s been assassinated by the informer and may possibly be a double-agent. Russian agent Nikolai Zaloshoff (Peter Lorre) and his sister Tamara Zaleshoff (Brenda Marshall) also arrive but are too late to find the photographs on Ana. When the Germans, posing as Turkish police, arrive at Joe’s hotel room, he manages to hide the valued maps. The German agents bring him to their boss, an agent provocateur from Berlin working for the Nazis, Colonel Robinson (Sydney Greenstreet), who orders Joe tortured by his goons unless he gives up the maps. But Nikolai arrives in the nick of time to rescue Joe.

How Joe handles Colonel Robinson and his Nazi heavies is all done in a routine action film way, that induces many unnecessary melodramatics from the talented supporting cast who realized quite early on that they were in a second-rate potboiler and resorted to hammy acting. They probably did so in order to save themselves from the danger of becoming superfluous characters relegated to the background, as an unconvincing fedora wearing Raft is in every scene as he slugs his way through Turkey and into the heart of Marshall.