Dec 12, 2008

Movie Review: Foreign Agent (1942)

Some propaganda movies, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur, rise above their intended function and manage to be great movies in their own right. Not so Foreign Agent. This wartime relic is only worth watching as a time capsule of America in 1942. As a time capsule, it’s mildly interesting, but somewhat unpleasant. As a spy movie, about all it has going for it is it’s mercifully short 59-minute running time. The movie’s goal is to remind Americans not to blab about troop movements or defense matters, and to be suspicious of foreigners, because spies are everywhere. In an effort to have its cake and eat it too, it also contains a brief scene where a Russian immigrant proves himself to typify American values better than a someone who claims to be a pure American ("Were your ancestors Indians?" the Russian taunts), but in fact turns out to be a Nazi sympathizer. But such socially conscious touches are negated by the rather appalling casual racism and even more appalling casual advocation of genocide! The leading lady is a nightclub singer, and in one of the songs we’re forced to endure her performing, "It’s Taps For the Japs, Buddy," she sings, "that sneaky race is gonna diminish/’cause what they’ve begun we’re prepared to finish!" Ouch! It’s hardly surprising, but it is disappointing to be reminded of the rather extreme intolerance America is capable of in the face of adversity. (To be fair, though, Pear Harbor was one hell of an adversity!) As long as you’re not the sensitive type, though, that song is also the movie’s biggest laugh for a modern viewer.

Mind you, I certainly don’t require a movie to be politically correct in order to enjoy it; I don’t think any admitted fan of the Eurospy genre could! But Foreign Agent’s lack of political correctness is nothing compared to its lack of any sort of quality. I don’t require a movie to have a high budget to enjoy it either (again, Eurospy fan here!), but I’ve seen plenty of other B movies with even less money manage to create a lot more entertainment than this cheap, passionless quickie. (The director, William Beaudine, was notorious for seemingly shooting everything in just one take, no matter how badly it turned out. Apparently it wasn't true, but you can certainly see how he earned that reputation!)

The movie opens with the murder of a Hollywood lighting technician. Apparently he was working on a new kind of spotlight filter which would make American spotlights impossible to pinpoint and target for enemy bombers. A well-organized coalition of German and Japanese spies and traitorous American Nazi sympathizers is behind the murder, but they don’t find what they’re looking for.

On the Hollywood lot where the technician worked, we meet his daughter, Mitzi (the attractive Gale Storm, whose unremarkable performance still manages to tower above anyone else’s in this film), a struggling actress who really doesn’t seem all that shaken up by her father’s death. We also meet her square-jawed love interest, Jimmy (John Shelton), who’s found a way out of his draft exemption so that he can join up. When we meet him, Jimmy’s already in uniform–but only because he’s an extra in a navy picture. "Why do they give all the American military movies to foreign directors?" he whines. The plot wallows in their weak love story for a tad too long (mainly as an excuse for Mitzi to perform a few interminable musical numbers in her night job as a lounge singer) before returning to the titular foreign agents, who are busy plotting to create as much havoc as possible when the Japanese bomb Los Angeles. (It is interesting to get an understanding of the palpable fear at the time that such a bombing was inevitable, but that’s thanks to reading between the lines and not the movie’s script.) They marvel at how America’s stupid laws to protect its own citizens will enable them to get away with it: "Ve couldn’t have written ze laws better ourselves!"

When Jimmy goes to the recruiting office, instead of posting him overseas, they explain that there are a lot of ways he can help his country right here at home. They assign him to help out crusading radio man Bob Davis, who’s been speaking out against prominent Nazi sympathizers. Jimmy goes to his office and somehow gets lured into the worst screen punch-up this side of The Terror of Tiny Town–only to be laughed at by Bob Davis. Turns out Bob Davis isn’t just a patriot; he’s also an asshole! And he staged this fight to test Jimmy’s scrappiness. And the audience’s patience, as it clearly pads the movie.

Jimmy never gets to use his fists against the enemy, though. Instead we spend way too much time with a pair of really, really awful comic relief characters–Mitzi’s obnoxious actress roommate (named "Joan Collins," interestingly enough!) and her dumb lug of a fiancé. Every time something resembling a plot starts to creep up, we cut back to these two oafs arguing like they’re in a sitcom. Or to a shameless propaganda insert, like a mopey starlet at a bar complaining that her boyfriend just shipped off for Australia, leading the bartender to point at a poster that warns against loose lips: "Somebody blabbed!" it states, with a picture of a dead man’s hand.

Jimmy and Mitzi play around with one of Bob Davis’s recording machines, speaking in terrible German accents (typical actors!), and decide they’d be good in Nazi movies. "Everybody’s making them these days!" Then they think again, and decide they don’t want money badly enough to play Nazis! Of course, their phony German accents prove authentic enough to fool the bad guys into thinking their boss is planning to double-cross them at the end, saving the day. (They’re just lucky the Nazi spymaster in the movie speaks with the same sort of phony baloney German accent they employ!)

The idea of spies operating on Hollywood studio lots is a good one (though I’m sure it was employed as a cost-saving device so they wouldn’t have to build any sets), but it doesn’t pay off here. The only other reason to watch Foreign Agent is from a historical perspective, as that time capsule I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, even the historically-minded will be bored to tears by a poorly thought-out story, bad acting and shoddy production values. And at the end of the rather lengthy hour, most spy fans will realize they could have just watched an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or The Avengers instead and regret their decision. I did come away having learned an important lesson, though: not every rare spy movie is worth seeking out!

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