Monday, February 9, 2009

Background to Danger (USA, 1943)

Of all the Peter Lorre/Sydney Greenstreet films, this is undoubtedly one of the worst, if not the worst of them all. But then, much like in the indefinitely better Casablanca (1942/trailer) and The Maltese Falcon (1941/trailer) — and unlike the later films Three Strangers (1946/trailer) and The Verdict (1946) — this film is much less a movie tailored towards the two character actors than it is simply another film in which they both appear. (In fact, Brenda Marshall, just a few years from more or less ending her career to become the volatile but beautiful appendage at the side of William Holden, is listed in the credits before both Greenstreet and Lorre. Odd, since her part is completely superfluous and she does little but stand around and look pretty.)
The true star of the film is George Raft, and like in most of his films he is hardly a magnetic personality and delivers a forgettable performance. Background to Danger could be taken as a good example of Raft’s legendary inability to choose decent scripts — amongst other classics he turned down were High Sierra (1941/trailer) and the previously mentioned The Maltese Falcon — but, in truth, he was embroiled in a fight with Warner’s at the time and was seldom offered the “good guy” roles he so wanted. This, his last film for the company before he bought himself out of the contract, was probably the best they wanted to offer him.
Director Raoul Walsch, an experienced man whose career went back to being an assistant director to D.W. Griffith in the racist masterpiece The Birth of A Nation (1915/trailer) and includes such classics as White Heat (1949/trailer), High Sierra and They Drive By Night (1940/trailer) does a fluid, competent directorial job, but excepting one exciting car chase, the movie remains a snooze.
Background to Danger is based on Eric Ambler’s novel Uncommon Danger, one of many novels by the author to be filmed — many of which became exciting and entertaining gems, including Jean Negulesco’s The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), Roy Ward Baker’s first film The October Man (1947), 1964’s Topkapi (trailer) and Journey Into Fear (1942), one of the many films developed by Orson Welles and then taken away and finished by someone else (in this case Norman Foster). Assumedly Ambler was capable of writing a good tale, but if there was good in his novel it didn’t carry over to the silver screen.
Theoretically Background to Danger is a spy thriller, but more than anything else it is simply a dud “evil-Nazis” flick. Set mostly in Turkey, the movie tells the tale of a variety of spies, both Russian and American, out to get a hold of some fake documents before the Nazis do that supposedly reveal Russia’s plans to invade "neutral" Turkey. Colonel Robinson (Sydney Greenstreet) wants the plans published so as to instigate an international scandal and gain popular support in Turkey for Germany’s marching into the land for its own protection. Ana Remzi Baronvitch (Osa Massen), the currier of the documents gives them to businessman Joe Barton (George Raft) on a train when she realises that she is being followed, but before he can return them she is killed and he is pegged as the murderer. Soon after it is revealed that Joe too is actually a spy, and after losing the documents he teams up with Hassan (Turhen Bey) to track them down again and stop their publication. Nikolai Zaleshoff (Lorre) and his sister Tamara (Marshall) keep popping up unexpectedly, but until Nikolai’s death Joe is doubtful of their integrity. Of course, all’s well that ends well and Joe not only succeeds at stopping Robinson but gets the girl as well. Hardly an exciting story, but that is still no excuse for how bad the movie is.
Plot holes abound, the acting is almost universally uninvolving and the story development idiotic. If Joe is a spy, why does he bother even to try to bring back the documents to Ana? If the documents are fake, why doesn’t Robinson simply cook up some new ones instead of spending so much energy to get the original fakes? Why is Ana killed in the first place? How can Joe jump from a train and run for miles and still have shiny shoes? And, most of all, who cares.

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