Zippy, often amusing (intentionally...most of the time) WWII espionage programmer. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Berlin Correspondent, the 1942 "B" actioner from Fox starring Dana Andrews, Virginia Gilmore, Mona Maris, Martin Kosleck, and a whole slew of familiar wartime faces from Hollywood's backbench: Sig Ruman, Kurt Katch Erwin Kalser, Hans Schumm, Leonard Mudie, Torben Meyer, and Henry Rowland. In and out in under 70 minutes, Berlin Correspondent does exactly what a B-programmer should do: it cleanly and efficiently tells a fast-moving, entertaining story in as few strokes as possible--not surprisingly, either, considering B-masters Bryan Foy and Eugene Forde are the producer and director here. No extras for this okay-looking fullscreen black and white transfer.
Berlin, November 1941. New York Chronicle war correspondent Bill Roberts (Dana Andrews) reads his Gestapo-approved copy over the radio air waves, where it is then decoded and re-broadcast in the Big Apple to give America and the rest of the world the real dope on the Nazis. Back in Gestapo headquarters, ice cold Captain Kurt von Rau (Martin Kosleck) is rapidly losing his patience with the various operatives who can't keep an adequate tail on slippery Roberts. von Rau knows that Roberts is responsible for getting out damaging information about the Nazis' military movements, but he simply can't figure out where Roberts' pipeline of info starts and ends. Enter pretty blond wienerschnitzel Karen Hauen (Virginia Gilmore), von Rau's fiance, whom von Rau uses to entrap Roberts. When Roberts puts the moves on Karen and invites her back to his place, she discovers his spy secret: stamps with secret messages on the back. And who do you think is providing him with those stamps? Rudolph Hauen (Erwin Kalser), Karen's father. Arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, Hauen's only hope lies with Roberts, who agrees to bust him out of an asylum where political prisoners are labeled insane and then "euthanized." When Roberts himself is hauled off to a concentration camp after America declares war on Germany, it's time for Karen to repay the favor.
I just finished a fascinating new book, Hitler's Charisma, that makes a clear case, among many other intriguing postulations, that the Allies and the German High Command already knew for certain by at least 1940 that Germany could not possibly win its world war: even before the Americans entered the fray late in 1941, it was only a matter of "when" for the fatally over-extended German military, not "if," due to the impossible logistics of Hitler's far-flung campaigns and lack of resources. However, the average American public certainly didn't know that when Berlin Correspondent was released in the fall of 1942, particularly with frequent bad news in the headlines recounting American military setbacks during our first year of involvement. So B movie programmers like Berlin Correspondent were hastily manufactured to divert, however momentarily, the nervous moviegoing public away from the reality of their situation, while reassuring them through these simplified, sometimes even humorous, escapist adventures, that the bumbling Nazis and Japanese were no match for the wise-cracking, resourceful, brave American soldiers and spies.
Written by Steve Fisher (everything from Johnny Angel and Lady in the Lake, to Have Gun, Will Travel and Kolchak: The Night Stalker) and Jack Andrews, Berlin Correspondent has more than its fair share of grimly humorous moments, from Andrews' unsuccessful censors being sent to the Russian front, to all the spy shenanigans with Andrews losing his comically inept tail. Once Andrews shows up at the asylum dressed as Sgt. Major von Brickstein to scam huffing and puffing Sig Ruman, Berlin Correspondent almost takes on the air of a Prussian comic operetta version of Hogan's Heroes, complete with disguises, goofball accents, and baggy pants (Andrews throws out a, "Heil, Hitler!" while trying to hold up his ballooning trousers). Even the final-twist ending is agreeably smartassed, when the American viewer is given the heartening (and entirely false) idea that everybody but everybody wants out of Germany--even its Luftwaffe pilots.
Overall, the tone of Berlin Correspondent is an enjoyable mix of such fanciful moments--a savvy journalist like Andrews would never expect to be allowed to walk around freely after openly flaunting his espionage activities, while that "concentration camp" looks cleaner and more spacious than the summer camp I attended--and more coarse, downbeat moments where the audience is clued into how brutal their enemy the Nazis really are (was it common knowledge back in America, this early in the game, that the Nazis really were euthanizing political prisoners under the guise of their horrendous "medical programs" to wholesale eliminate the infirmed?). Fisher and Andrews keep the frequently clever dialogue succinct and scrappy, while B-master Eugene Forde's (countless efficient, fun Bs, including quite a few memorable Charlie Chan outings for Fox) ultra-smooth, anonymous style gives way occasionally to little moments that let you know he's not on autopilot. Check out that bizarre, fetishistic shot of the two strapping Nazi guards, stripped to the waists and sweating, whipping a bound Erwin Kalser as Koslech is expressionistically lit from behind--all you need is a stacked, half-naked woman tied up in the foreground to give you a classic Argosy front cover. Top-billed Gilmore is hopeless as the Teutonic heroine (that severe lisp is quite distracting), but dapper Andrews, right on the cusp of major A-list stardom, is just right as the wise-cracking American spy, essaying that classic "smart-assed, self-assured, competent American adventurer who can handle anything" stereotype that used to dominate American pop culture. Sure it was fantasy...but it was potent, myth-shaping iconography, too, one that reached all over the world (god help us today with the oppressive number of self-doubting, self-hating, cynical, ignorant, impotent American caricatures that are routinely fostered onto ourselves and the world through our now-curdled pop culture). I miss that dream.
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.