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CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY(director: Anatole Litvak; screenwriters: Milton Krims/John Wexley/based on articles by Leon G. Turrou; cinematographer: Sol Polito; editor: Owen Marks; music: Max Stiener; cast: Edward G. Robinson (Ed Renard), Francis Lederer (Schneider), George Sanders (Schlager), Paul Lukas (Dr. Kassell), Henry O’Neill (Attorney Kellogg), Dorothy Tree (Hilda Keinhauer), Sig Ruman (Krogman), James Stephenson (British Military Intelligence Agent), Grace Stafford (Mrs. Helen Schneider), Celia Sibelius (Mrs. Lisa Kassel), Joe Sawyer (Werner Renz), John Deering (Narrator), Ely Malyon (Mrs. Mary McLaughlin), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Max Helldorf), Wolfgang Zilzer (Westphal, draftsman), Lionel Royce (Hintze, Gestapo Agent), Henry Victor (Hans Wildebrandt, Gestapo Agent), Willy Kaufman (Greutzwald); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Lord; Warner Bros.; 1939)
“Daring for its day.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This straightforward, hard-hitting and timely anti-Nazi propaganda film from Warner Bros. was released just as Germany invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia and six months before the official beginning of World War II. It’s based on an actual spy ring case that took place a year before, and is taken from the magazine articles written by FBI agent Leon G. Turrou. He was one of the agents working on the case and he was dismissed by the FBI because the trial was still in progress while he delivered his articles, which caused a conflict of interest. In the movie the prosecution of the espionage ring is seen as a great triumph (four spies are convicted), but in reality it was a botched effort as most of the spies escaped to Germany as the prosecution made a series of blunders and only three spies were arrested. Leftist writer John Wexley’s fingerprints are all over the screenplay in a good way. Anatole Litvak (“Mayerling”/ “Anastasia”/”The Snake Pit”) directs with great conviction in a semi-documentary style (using actual newsreel footage that were from the day’s headlines) and though it’s a real flag waver, it retains a certain power due to the significant historical circumstances of its trying to wake up the sleeping American public to the dangers of Nazism that were possible even in America. It warns that the espionage is related to the German government recruiting the German-American Bunds to do its dirty work to sabotage America and its democratic ideals. Daring for its day, even causing studio head Jack Warner to receive death threats. Glaringly it omits the Nazi’s fervor of anti-Semitism, but aside from that lapse it served a useful purpose by getting a lot of the facts right about the espionage ring uncovered and recognizing the danger of these spies if the country was unprepared to go after them. Unfortunately it didn’t do a good box office, as the American public was not ready for another war at the time and though the movie was the usual well-executed Warner Bros. film of this expos√© type it never caught their interest. Warner’s could nevertheless be proud that they made the first anti-Nazi film produced by a major studio.

It takes about 45 minutes to set-up the plot and establish the leading characters until the film’s star Edward G. Robinson is introduced as a top FBI agent named Ed Renard, who ends up toppling the ring with his dogged investigation after acting on a tip by British intelligence who arrest a Mrs. McLaughlin in Scotland for manning the central place for the Nazi ring to post its mail. The German spies include Francis Lederer (a loose cannon egotistical loser who volunteers to be a spy for money and when caught gives away the whole operation even though he’s a small cog in the ring), George Sanders (arrogant cold-blooded Nazi leader on the German ocean liner S. S. Bismarck who heads the spy network in America), Paul Lukas (a sleazy adulterous medical doctor who gives at Bund meetings in the Yorkville section of Manhattan rabble-rousing speeches to inspire all Germans to be loyal to Hitler and for Germans to take control of America through sabotage), and Sig Ruman (a Nazi government official who works to get the spies back to the fatherland); while Henry O’Neill is the U.S. Attorney who prosecutes the four small-time spies accused who were captured: Dorothy Tree (the beauty parlor worker on the ship who is the lover of Sanders), Joe Sawyer (the moronic army friend of Lederer), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (a minor fifth columnist) and Lederer.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”