Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Tuesday Review: British Intelligence (1940)
In which there are more Germans in Great Britain than Englanders…
Double, triple and even quadruple agents abound in British Intelligence, a propagandistic potboiler chronicling the secret war of spies and intelligence officers going on in London during World War I. Margaret Lindsay plays Helen Von Lorbeer, a German spy sent to the house of a prominent official, posing as a refugee of the internment camps. While there, she meets Boris Karloff’s Valdar, the kindly French butler who also just happens to be a German spy. The two of them work together to sabotage the Allies at every turn, albeit cautiously - because neither is sure the other is being totally straight-forward in where their true allegiances lay.
The sole saving grace of the film is Karloff himself, who’s constantly changing his performance to shift the turns of the plot and his character. He goes from simple-mindled butler to menacing German spy to debonair British agent at the drop of a hat, changing his posture and vocal mannerisms all the while - and since he's Boris Karloff, he also gets a menacing scar make-up. The rest of the cast is made of solid British regulars who perform ably, but sadly the other leading role isn’t quite up to Karloff’s level: Margaret Lindsay is far too demure and pleasant to be an enemy spy, playing the role as if she were the standard love interest in any other movie.
At barely an hour, the film races by at a blistering pace, and as a result the various twists and turns come off as more than a little ridiculous (and cause more than one plot hole). But it’s all filmed with style and panache, and certainly never once becomes boring. It’s nature as a piece of propaganda makes it interesting to watch as well: in the world of British Intelligence, the enemy is everywhere - Germany has agents all over the country, and their shifting natures capture perfectly the uneasy mindset that was brewing in the early part of the twentieth century following the First World War. There is also talk of one day Germany having a hypothetical leader who will crush the world under his heels - this “leader” is mentioned several times throughout the movie by both sides, leaving little to the imagination of who he’s supposed to be.
But most interesting is the last scene - meant to be hopeful promise of victory in its day, but when viewed now seems oddly prescient. Leonard Mudie’s character muses on the nature of war, but goes on to say that it’s fought solely for the preservation of peace. He looks straight into the camera, tells us the fight will go on and on and on, and he wasn’t kidding - from Nazi Germany to Red Soviets to Islamic terrorists, the boogeyman has been ever present. After all, without an Other, how can we keep our identity of the Same?