Straightforward, well-done Cold War espionage suspenser. Hard-core movie lovers know that the studios' M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) services initiated by Warner Bros.' successful Archive Collection have been an absolute boon to those looking for difficult-to-find library and cult titles not considered commercially viable for mass-market disc printing. So along with Warners, Sony's Columbia vaults and M-G-M, Twentieth Century-Fox joins the M.O.D. market with their Cinema Archives line―and a most welcome addition it is. I've reviewed several of their introductory titles last week (Way of a Gaucho, Suez, Claudia, The Foxes of Harrow); last up is Diplomatic Courier, the 1952 Fox spy flick based on a Peter Cheyney pulp opus, directed by stalwart Henry Hathaway, and starring handsome (and bored) Tyrone Power, Patricia Neal, Stephen McNally, Hildegard Neff, Karl Malden, Lee Marvin (and Charles Bronson in a unbilled bit). With some semi-documentary grounding and evocative European second unit work, Diplomatic Courier has an classic, post-Hitchcock, pre-Bondian squareness about it that's quite pleasant in counterpoint to today's insanely hyperbolic, frenzied spy shenanigans. No extras for this good-looking black and white transfer.
United States Department of State Foreign Service diplomatic courier Mike Kells (Tyrone Power) has a reputation for never losing a package, so he's tapped for an urgent, top-secret mission to transport a vital document coming out from behind the Iron Curtain. Mike is to meet old Army buddy Sam Carew (James Millican) in Bucharest, Romania and secure the document prior to arriving in the American zone. When Sam silently refuses repeated attempts by Mike to make contact and initiate the switch aboard their train, Mike knows something is very wrong, a feeling confirmed when Mike sees Sam's lifeless body thrown from the sleeper car. Contacting U.S. Army Colonel Mark Cagle (Stephen McNally), Mike is asked by Cagle to make contact with the mysterious blonde, Janine Betki (Hildegarde Neff), whose adjoining compartment Mike had observed Sam visiting. Mike is a courier, not an intelligence agent, but he accepts the assignment to avenge his friend's death, unaware that Cagle and right-hand M.P. Sergeant Ernie Guelvada (Karl Malden), are using Kells as bait to determine if the Soviets have Sam's secret document. Mike, arriving in Trieste, Italy, on the border of socialist Yugoslavia―a hotbed of Cold War espionage hijinks―soon finds himself in dangerous waters with the likes of Rasumny Platov (Stefan Schnabel), Chief of the Soviet Secret Police in Europe, rich, horny widow Joan Ross (Patricia Neal), and double-dealing Janine.
"Peter Cheyney" isn't a name you hear too often anymore when readers and reviewers discuss 20th-century espionage literature, but Cheyney in his day (especially during and after WWII) was as big as James Bond creator Ian Fleming became (whom I always suspected of taking more than a peek at Cheyney's work), selling millions of copies of his spy novels featuring characters Lemmy Caution (ripped off by Jean-Luc Godard for his sci-fi noir Alphaville), Slim Callaghan, and Ernest Guelvada of the so-called Dark series of novels, of which Diplomatic Courier's inspiration, Sinister Errand, is a part. I haven't read Sinister Errand, so I can't say how faithful Diplomatic Courier is to it...although one can guess, when we see Cheyney's cultured, double-dealing agent/assassin Ernest Guelvada morphed here into minor character Sgt. Ernie Guelvada: straight-shooting, enthusiastic American Military Police sidekick to Mike Kells. As for Diplomatic Courier's setting, 1952 audiences were no doubt familiar with the reputation Trieste had as "ground zero" for the start of the Cold War, but admittedly, today's viewers might have some blank spots navigating the importance of Power and company shuttling back and forth on trains between Italian "American and British zones" and Yugoslavia's "Iron Curtain" in a fashion those viewers probably only think off when watching Cold War spy movies set in Berlin's once-divided zones.
Diplomatic Courier's script by pro Casey Robinson (classics like Captain Blood, Dark Victory, Now, Voyager, Kings Row, Saratoga Trunk, While the City Sleeps) and Liam O'Brien (Chain Lightning, Young at Heart, The Great Imposter) doesn't really tap into that pulpy, hard-boiled, tough-guy atmosphere that Cheyney so evocatively created, but it does create a nice hybrid of semi-documentary grittiness and old-style Hitchcockian espionage suspense that's attractively contrasted. Director Henry Hathaway (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel, Niagara, North to Alaska, True Grit), who had just successful directed Ty Power in the swashbuckler, The Black Rose, had recently scored some sizeable critical and commercial hits with semi-documentary-styled thrillers The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine, Kiss of Death, and Call Northside 777, so you can feel that influence once again in Diplomatic Courier, particularly during its opening scenes at the State Department, where the process of receiving and decoding messages is highlighted with realistic sets and technical paraphernalia (Hathaway even goes so far as to make Power's airplane interior look believably cramped, as opposed to the football field-sized spaces that were routinely depicted in movies at that time). Add to that first-rate second-unit location shooting in Europe, expertly mixed with doubles and rear-projection to make you think Ty Power and company were actually over there, and Diplomatic Courier feels relatively realistic in time and place.
Contrasted with that harsh, black and white verisimilitude (courtesy of ace cinematographer and frequent Hathaway collaborator, Lucien Ballard), Diplomatic Courier has a nicely observed Hitchcockian flavor to its proceedings, as well, including a meaningless McGuffin (the dispatch everyone is killing over), a cool, enigmatic blonde who's willing to play both sides to ensure her own survival, and intrigue aboard a train (which could be Christie, really, as much as Hitchcock). This is all genre-induced convention, but it's played in an understated, tense, pre-Bondian tenor that's decidedly "classical" in terms of the expectations. This is the old world of shadowy European espionage where the only gadgets are a maybe a gun and your brains, where your opponent knows you know who he is, and where combatants openly watch each other in a nervy daylight game of cat and mouse, waiting for a slip to make their move. Action is relegated to fistfights and car chases, and romance is secondary (if not third) to the mission at hand. Politics are predictably pro-U.S.A. (as they should be in a Cold War spy flick), but interestingly, Neff isn't castigated for her willingness to deal either with the Americans or the Russians in exchange for her life: she's a survivor of WWII Nazi occupation, coupled with her desire above all else to be free and live in America, so any perceived disloyalty to the "right" side is understood and forgiven.
As for Diplomatic Courier's cast (or more accurately, Diplomatic Courier's scripted characters)...you can't really say Malden and Neal have much to do here; it's probably the movie's most significant drawback. Malden, who had won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire by the time Diplomatic Courier came out, does his best to inject some life into his cardboard character, but it's a losing proposition. The same goes for the talented Neal, who puts on some kind of weird variation of her southern accent while doing her level best to entice a frankly uninterested Power (their chemistry together seems strained). Neff probably walks off with the acting honors here, creating a believably conflicted victim who'll do anything to be free from the oppressive yoke of communism. As for Ty Power, it was no secret that by this point, he was increasingly contemptuous of the action/adventure/swashbuckling assignments he received from Fox and Zanuck, so the legitimate stage proved his artistic salvation, and would increasingly do so even as he maintained a limited presence on the big screen. As such, he looks...rather glum here, most of the time. He's professional, as always; he's not insulting the audience by giving less than a convincing turn. However, you can just tell he's not truly engaged by the material; he's just going through the motions. Luckily, Diplomatic Courier is strong enough in its other elements to overcome Power's somewhat detached turn.
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.