Fairly tame WWII espionage/murder mystery. Olive Films, which gets to put out all those great old Paramount library titles, has released Captain Carey, U.S.A., the 1950 thriller from Paramount directed rather incongruously by Mitchell Leisen and starring pint-sized Alan Ladd, Wanda Hendrix, and Francis Lederer. Cramped on its few studio sets, and not particularly exciting by either spy or murder mystery movie standards, Captain Carey, U.S.A. doesn't hold up well against better-known Ladd action outings...but fans of the glacially impassive, super-smooth star will want to check this out, anyway. No extras for this only okay-looking transfer.
Orta, Italy, near Milan, in 1944...and the Nazis are coming for Captain Webster Carey (Alan Ladd). An O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services) espionage agent working with fellow operative Frank (Paul Lees) and the town's partisans, Carey is headquartered at the de Cresci castle across Orta's bay. Carey has a "special" relationship with his young Italian liaison, Giulia "Julie" de Cresci (Wanda Hendrix), with the two planning on marrying each other once the war is over. However, someone has tipped off the Jerrys about the O.S.S. headquarters and Carey, Frank, and Julie have just enough time to seal off their meeting room in the castle's hidden storage chamber (filled with valuable paintings) before the Nazis arrive, wounding Carey and killing Frank and Julie. Cut to post-war America, where jobless wanderer Carey spots one of Julie's family's paintings in an auction house window. Now Carey has a job to do: he's going to return to Orta and plug the rat who squealed to the Jerrys and got his crew and his girl zapped. Once there, however, the returning conquering hero is treated as anything but: the superstitious townspeople believe he's a harbinger of more death; former compatriots like Luigi (Frank Puglia) and his wife, Serafina (Angela Clarke) distrust his motives, and most shocking of all, a certain former girlfriend winds up having not been killed, married off, instead, to the local Barone, Rocco de Graffi (Francis Lederer).
It doesn't take much in either a WWII espionage movie or a murder mystery to please me as long as the most basic conventions of the genre are at least attempted, so on that undemanding level, the unremarkable Captain Carey, U.S.A. does manage to...pass the time. Just. Often referenced along with other noirs from that period, it's tough to see how Captain Carey, U.S.A. qualifies under any of those genre guidelines when it's really more Christie than anything else. Perhaps it's Ladd's participation here, an actor whose very physiognomy embodies some of the signposts of noir conventions―the cool, blank, mask-like cipher of a face hiding depths of equally ice-cold violence―that makes reviewers take that leap. Certainly not much else in Captain Carey, U.S.A. points towards noir. Other than his desire to avenge himself on the traitor who "killed" his girlfriend, we're never given any insight into any possible corruption of Ladd's soul here; indeed, he seems remarkably well-adjusted for a tortured agent of personal destruction against his traitorous enemies. Carey as a character is as empty as Ladd's face...only not nearly as intriguingly so. We don't see Carey's subsequent three years in the hospital, recovering from his wounds (while nursing his vengeance and broken heart). We get a vague reference to some post-war dissolution from his girlfriend who complains about his not getting a job, but we don't see him actually suffering from the effects of the war (both of these elements could have been handled easily by montage, while boosting the noir grounding).
Once back in Italy, the various recriminations and retributions that emanate from the townspeople are rooted in primal feelings of betrayal among the tribe...while Ladd seems just fine either tracking down the killer or throwing up his hands in disinterest once he learns Julie is alive. "Obsessive" Carey definitely isn't. Certainly the blind accordion player who jiggles Mona Lisa as a warning to Ladd whenever he's in trouble is a suitably noirish touch, but it's a big stretch to somehow connect up Captain Carey, U.S.A. with that overall noir aesthetic (other key elements missing include a femme fatale―I'm surprised there's no second female lead here, providing some sex appeal and treachery for Ladd, while cinematographer John F. Seitz's rather pedestrian, uninformed lighting fails the noir test, too―the most obvious qualifier for the genre).
Instead, Captain Carey, U.S.A. sits more comfortably as a spy/mystery hybrid...and a not too distinguished one, at that, quite frankly. The movie distressingly opens up when the spying is all but finished, so the espionage angle is played out before it really begins (Ladd comes back to Italy as a private citizen, not an operative). And for the rest of its running time, we get a rather prosaic murder mystery that isn't hard to figure out for anyone with even a modicum of experience watching these kinds of outings. It would be easy to blame most of Captain Carey, U.S.A.'s troubles on the choice of director here: chic, romantic screwball comedy expert Mitchell Leisen. But considering how pre-packaged Captain Carey, U.S.A. feels, with its cookie-cutter "B"-movie plotting, exposition-heavy script, and obviously stunted budget, I'm not sure what another director could have done with the slight material. Confined largely to a single set that's supposed to represent the town's plaza, Captain Carey, U.S.A. has that claustrophobic feel that might have helped ratchet-up the tension, had the director paid more attention to framing dynamics and editing rhythms―something the square-ahead Leisen seems completely disinterested in here (it is rather fun, though, seeing pocket-sized Ladd scrambling all over this set with acrobatic grace). A couple of good fistfights are about the only action in Captain Carey, U.S.A., so we have to settle for the scripting (often tedious and obvious) and the performances. Luckily, the supporting cast and Ladd are first-rate...although Hendrix is ludicrously miscast as an Italian partisan. Fans of Ladd, though, will get exactly what they're looking for here in one of his typically clipped, mysterious performances, with that weird, eerie calmness of his and that void countenance that are the perfect blank templates in which the viewers can project their own fantasies of detached competence and casual, efficient violence.
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.