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ESPIONAGE AGENT (director: Lloyd Bacon; screenwriters: from the story Career Man by Robert Buckner/Frank Donahue/Warren B. Duff/Michael Fessier; cinematographer: Charles Rosher Sr.; editor: Ralph Dawson; music: Adolph Deutsch; cast: Joel McCrea (Barry Corvall), Brenda Marshall (Miss Brenda Ballard), Jeffrey Lynn (Lowell Warrington), George Bancroft (Dudley ‘Dud’/’Donald’ Garrett), James Stephenson (Dr. Anton Rader), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Corvall), Martin Kosleck (Karl ‘Müller’ Mullen), Howard Hickman (Forbes), Stanley Ridges (Hamilton Peyton), Paul Strawn (Rudolph Anders); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; executive producer: Hal B. Wallis; Warner Brothers; 1939)
“A taut pre-WWII spy film from Warner Brothers directed by Lloyd Bacon.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A taut pre-WWII spy film from Warner Brothers directed by Lloyd Bacon. One of the few pre-war films to actually make the Germans the dreaded enemy. It’s based on the story Career Man by Robert Buckner and penned by Frank Donahue, Warren B. Duff and Michael Fessier. Supposedly it was based on a true story. It was released just after the Nazi invasion of Poland. The film plays as a patriotic message for the Americans to wake up to the dangers of the Nazis and their espionage activities and urges America to have in place a counter-espionage service.

In 1939 Barry Corvall (Joel McCrea) is a young career diplomat stationed in Tangiers; he’s the son of a recently deceased US diplomat. When Americans are stranded in Morocco because of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Barry and fellow consul diplomat Lowell Warrington (Jeffrey Lynn) help them find another country to travel to. Brenda Ballard (Brenda Marshall) meets with Germans she knew in Europe and tells them of how her American passport was taken away because she was trapped in Spain during the outbreak of the Civil War and says she’ll do anything to get a passport; they arrange for a forged passport if she’ll agree to spy for them. A soaking wet Brenda comes in out of the rain and faints in the consul office. Barry consoles her and finds out she’s a waif. He falls madly in love and brings her by boat back to the States. He asks her to marry, but she refuses. Barry brings her to meet his aristocratic mother (Nana Bryant) and she warns him that he knows little about her and that he should be concerned about what marrying her will do to his career. Nevertheless the impulsive Barry marries her and is then stationed in Paris. While there Brenda is contacted by German spy Karl Muller and ordered to get industrial mobilization plans through her husband. She confesses to Barry about how she was forced to be a spy and about her forged passport, and Barry tells everything to the consul but is forced to resign his post while Muller goes free. This gets Barry’s dander up and he aims to work on his own to get the laws changed to go after saboteurs and also to get some G-men on the job. With his own money Barry plans to go to Europe and smoke out the spy network. Barry tells consul boss, an old family friend, Don Garrett his plans and is given the okay but told to expect no help or confirmation from the consul of what he’s doing. In Geneva, Barry through his wife’s contact with a spy (Rudolph Anders) has master spy Dr. Rader (James Stephenson) agree to use her for an assignment to bring back the keys to a code after she convinces them her irate husband is willing to do it for the money. Barry snoops on Rader when he meets with his organization and overhears their plans. Barry informs Lowell, who has been appointed undersecretary at the Geneva embassy, and Garrett about the spy’s intentions but can’t do anything without confiscating the code papers the spies were given in the trap set for them. While Barry informs Lowell about this, a German agent working as the porter eavesdrops. When Brenda goes to Rader and tells him that her hubby fooled her and was all the time working for the consul, Rader pretends to believe her and makes her travel with him by train to Germany. But Barry charters a plane and heroically rescues his wife in the train by knocking out Rader with his gun and takes back the code as proof of their espionage activities. When safely back in the States, Congress passes anti-espionage legislation. He’s congratulated in private by the consul and his mother, but can’t receive public recognition or be called back to service.

This anti-isolationist dramatization seems sketchy in its spy details but gets over because of McCrea’s sincere performance. The results are not bad for such an overtly propagandist venture.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”