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Director Joseph H. Lewis never broke out into big-time features, but his genre work in the 1940s and 50s has attracted renewed interest. Film noir fans know very well that his Gun Crazy and The Big Combo are the equal of anything being turned out in the Hollywood style. As with Jacques Tourneur, most any Joseph H. Lewis film one encounters is going to be a superior show: My Name is Julia Ross, The Undercover Man, Cry of the Hunted.
Lewis's technical dexterity impressed his Hollywood peers, who couldn't figure how he could manage such expressive scenes within his low budgets. 1949's Gun Crazy had producers wondering how he pulled off camera dolly shots inside a moving car -- scenes usually accomplished with artificial rear projection. MGM contracted for the director's services on A Lady Without Passport as a noir showcase for their star Hedy Lamarr. Lewis was apparently eager to make good: the film's very first image is another complex trucking shot from the interior of a moving car, and the last sequence takes place in a mist-shrouded swamp, just like Gun Crazy.
Lawrence Taylor's story, adapted and written for the screen by Cyril Hume and Howard Dimsdale, begins in New York City. A pedestrian run over in the street has half of a thousand dollar bill in his pocket. That mystery raises enough curiosity to dispatch special agent Peter Karczag (John Hodiak) to Havana, to locate the operator of a racket that smuggles illegal aliens for high prices. He turns out to be the sinister Palinov (George Macready of Gilda), who flies illegals into the Southwestern states by the planeload, both criminals and those in too much of a hurry to go through the 3-year immigration process.
Using the alias Joseph Gombush, Peter convinces Palinov that he's an impatient Hungarian refugee. He also falls for another of Palinov's prospective clients, Marianne Loress (Hedy Lamarr). The beautiful Ms. Loress has been a stateless person ever since her release from a Nazi concentration camp, and it has taken her five years to get this close to the fabled paradise in the USA. When Peter's cover is blown, Palinov is able to convince Marianne that he's just a cop interested in a quick arrest. Fearful of a raid, the smuggler takes a spot on his last plane-load. But Peter is able to contact his partner in the States, INS Chief Frank Westlake (James Craig), and the search is on for a small aircraft carrying eight desperate people.
Like Anthony Mann's Border Incident, A Lady Without Passport dramatizes the work of America's Federal Immigration Police. Maintaining the image of official bureaus is as important as the drama, with the result that the INS agents are seen to be tireless Sherlocks stemming the flood of desperate people into the U.S.. These illegals are seen to include fairly normal people as well as undesirables. Italian actor Renzo Cesana (Rossellini's Stromboli, Cy Endfield's Try and Get Me!) plays a deported gangster. But there's really no serious examination of the plight of "people without a country" using whatever means necessary to enter the Promised Land of America. We instead get the drop-dead beautiful Hedy Lamarr. Made up and immaculately dressed (as she's notably dispossessed at one point, where does that wardrobe come from?) Marianne Lorress has difficulty fitting into the realistic scenery -- we keep expecting people to walk into walls, stumble over their words, etc., in her presence. When she tries to work as a cigarette girl, Loress puts on a vampish nightclub costume that surely reminded viewers of her previous hit film Samson and Delilah. The obviously healthy and vibrant Ms. Loress shows her concentration camp tattoo, a move that may or may not be in bad taste: surely very few real survivors of the holocaust are sexy sirens, and this representation could easily trivialize the issue.
Faced with this odd combination of realism and glamour, director Lewis ladles on the mysterioso effects. Paul Vogel's expressive cinematography benefits from Lewis's arresting but economical compositions. In one street scene Peter spends almost a minute observing a dancer in a club. He just stands there staring at the dancer, but the shot never grows dull.
Lewis also manages impressive atmospherics for the Cuban scenes, for the most part free of Latin clichés. Actor John Hodiak is seen in real Havana locations, and Ms. Lamarr is doubled in some shots; the match with scenes filmed on the MGM lot is quite good. People on the street look like they might be real Cubans. The only time the illusion breaks down is when a street vendor (Nacho Gallindo) throws a tantrum: his accent is 100% Mexican. Cuban cooperation for the location scenes would seem to influence the film's depiction of Havana police officials -- they're consistently thorough and honest.
All of the actors are good, and Ms. Lamarr gives every indication of being able to carry scenes without the glamour strait-jacket that MGM fitted her for. As indicated by the tag line on the poster: "How long can she remain The Lady Without Passport?", the movie cheats audience expectations. Anybody familiar with Casablanca would expect a penniless refugee like Marianne Loress to consider compromising her virtue to claw her way to freedom. But even the nasty smuggler Palinov (sounds like a dirty Russian to me!) makes a straight monetary deal with her. Director Lewis keeps the suspense boiling until the very end, as the smugglers run out of fuel over the Everglades, and Peter and Frank enter by swamp boat to make the arrest and rescue Marianne. The final scenes, presumably filmed on MGM's old Tarzan jungle sets, are foggy, boggy and very expressive.
Among the cast is famed Blacklistee actor and writer Nedrick Young as a thug, and actor Steven Hill as a New York detective. Richard Crane is the gabby Navy pilot who tracks the smuggler's airplane into the swamp.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of A Lady Without Passport is an excellent encoding of a perfect B&W transfer of this atmospheric thriller. The atmospheric shots of Havana were taken on some of the same locations used for John Huston's We Were Strangers and Carol Reed's Our Man in Havana.
An original trailer is included, that touts Hedy Lamarr's earlier role as DeMille's Delilah.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Lady Without Passport rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.