Light-footed little spy flick, with just a suggestion of supernatural overtones, from
director Budd Boetticher, Jr. producer Wallace MacDonald and Columbia Pictures' "B" unit. Sony Pictures' own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) unit, the Sony Pictures Choice Collection, which caters to movie and TV fans looking for those hard-to-find cult and library titles, has released Escape in the Fog, the 1945 WWII espionage programmer from Columbia, starring Nina Foch, Otto Kruger, William Wright, Konstantin Shayne, Ivan Triesault, and Ernie Adams (and look quick for a cameo by Shelley Winters). Enthusiasts of "B" programmers, rather than Boetticher cultists, will find Escape in the Fog to their liking; it's clean but anonymous. No extras for this okay-looking full-screen transfer.
Night on the foggy San Francisco Bay Bridge, 1945. Eileen Carr (lovely Nina Foch) is stopped by a beat cop (Dick Jensen) who advises her to go home ("You never can tell what will come out of the fog," he gravely intones). Sure enough, he's right; a taxi pulls up, and out spill three men, two of whom are about to spike the third. Eileen screams...and awakes in her room at the Ye Rustic Dell Inn in Northern California, where fellow guest, Barry Malcolm (William Wright), standing anxiously at the foot of her bed. Eileen dreamed the murder, but what's truly unsettling is that Barry was the victim in the dream―a man she has never before met. Enjoying breakfast together later that morning, the two find out about each other: Barry has been doing "a little psychological warfare" work he can't talk about, and Eileen, an honorably discharged Navy nurse, is recently out of the hospital after "cracking up a little" when her medico ship was sunk underneath her. A casual invitation from Barry to travel with him to San Francisco is met with an equally agreeable "yes" from Eileen, and they're off...however, sinister forces are aware of Barry's true vocation―espionage agent―and head Nazi operator in Frisco, clock repairman Schiller (Konstantin Shayne), is made aware of Barry's imminent arrival. Once Schiller learns Barry's mission, courtesy of a bug planted at Barry's control agent Paul Devon's (Otto Kruger) home, the race is on to retrieve Barry's vital papers...and for Eileen to stop her dream from becoming a terrifying reality.
There's not much you can write about Escape in the Fog...precisely because it's such a successful, mainstream example of its genre: the quick-flash 40s "B" programmer. No fat. No flourishes. Just clean, anonymous A-B-C storytelling, shot in as fast and as efficient a manner as possible, with little or no time spent of fleshing out characters or filling in plot holes. Escape in the Fog's director, Oscar Boetticher, Jr., is of course "Budd" Boetticher, Jr., who would soon make a name for himself in Hollywood directing Randolph Scott Westerns, several of which would later be recognized as important milestones in the genre. However, at this earliest point in his directing career (according to Boetticher himself), these "B" efforts were without personal distinction for the director, serving as little more than training exercises for the novice helmer. Certainly that's the way the studio "B" units were set up, anyway, regardless of whether or not Boetticher may have wanted to aesthetically express himself. Within the factory-like production methods of the studios, the programmers were even more rigidly controlled in terms of budget and shooting methods; even if the producers had wanted to let the contract directors have some artistic license, there wouldn't have been time or money for complicated set-ups or experiments.
And the same goes for Escape in the Fog. Written by Aubrey Wisberg (The Horn Blows at Midnight, The Man From Planet XEscape in the Fog's biggest drawback stems from its "B" second-bill DNA: lack of adequate run-time to more fully develop the story and characters. While all of the spy shenanigans in the movie are thoroughly ordinary (with some admittedly nice touches, such as Wright's amusing danger signal when they're locked up in the clock shop: he writes "Hail Japan" on a magnifying lupe and reflects it off his lighter onto the shop window), what could have been potentially fascinating about Escape in the Fog―Foch's mental instability and her supernatural premonitions―is completely ignored. A character admitting to "cracking up" in the military, especially a woman, wasn't exactly a clichéd stereotype in these WWII-era movies, but Escape in the Fog only has Foch simply state her condition once...before it's dropped completely. Same thing with her ESP powers. I think Wright says something like, "Remarkable," when her premonition is proven correct, but that's the only comment Escape in the Fog makes on this intriguing element of the storyline, a facet of the plot that proves utterly superfluous since nothing is made of it (no one says anything about the potentially scandalous nature of unmarried Foch and Wright going to Frisco together for a week, either...). That's too bad, too, because without those oddball elements, Escape in the Fog plays like any other number of "B" programmers from those days: speedy, mildly entertaining, but wholly undistinguished.
I thought the full-screen, 1.33:1 black and white transfer for Escape in the Fog looked a bit grainy, with digital noise particularly during the fog sequences. Overall, though, the image was sharpish, with an adequate gray scale.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track was adequate, with a bit of fuzz and hiss, but acceptable for viewers used to these older titles. No subtitles or closed-captions available, however.
No extras, not even a menu: it just starts up, and loops.
Boetticher completists may look in vain for signs of their favorite director's touches in this anonymous little spy thriller. It's too bad enough time wasn't available to explore the ESP aspects of the story, as well as developing more thoroughly Foch's psychologically damaged character. A rental is best for Escape in the Fog.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.