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Look at that dream cast! Why haven't I heard of this movie before? Warners' The Conspirators (1944) is a core Nazi resistance movie of the kind made just before the U.S. entered the war. By late 1944 America knew that victory was coming, sooner than later. Realizing that audiences no longer required hopeful messages, studios were already rushing their backlog of "we will overcome"- themed movies out the door.
The story begins with a whirlwind of Nazi targets being blown up in Holland. Anti-Nazi saboteur Vincent Van Der Lyn, aka "The Flying Dutchman" (Paul Henried) is now so notorious that he's ordered to London, by way of Lisbon. The German thugs seem to know about the Lisbon resistance group's plans in advance, and are killing their operatives on the street. Local underground leader Ricardo Quintanilla (Sydney Greenstreet) needs help to prep Jennings (Monte Blue), Vincent's replacement for the Holland assignment, and also for Vincent to help uncover a double agent in their midst. While dodging the opposition Vincent runs into Irene (Hedy Lamarr), a mystery woman who also seems to be on the run from trouble. He pursues her to a casino and takes her on a ride to the country. Vincent doesn't understand why Irene refuses to be truthful with him -- until he learns that she's the wife of Hugo Von Mohr (Victor Francen), a Nazi embassy official. To make matters worse, Vincent is suddenly placed under arrest, framed for the murder of Jennings. Irene protests her innocence, but how can Vincent trust her?
Maybe Warners didn't have in mind a lukewarm retread of Casablanca, but that's more or less what The Conspirators adds up to. Add a pack of speaking roles and obscure the main story line with a number of digressions, and you're there. This time Paul Henried's noble freedom fighter is the center of attention. As Lisbon is a neutral city, opposing agents rub shoulders all the time. In place of Claude Rains' corrupt Vichy official we have Captain Pereira (the excellent Joseph Calleia), an ethical Portuguese police inspector. A gold coin used by the resistance spies takes the place of Casablanca's letters of transit. It seems natural that Henreid will 'liberate' the scintillating Hedy Lamarr from her husband, and perhaps take her with him to freedom in England. The intrigues climax with a crucial showdown at a roulette wheel, with our virtuous 'conspirators' and the Nazis all present. The German dignitaries bring along a pair of assassins primed to kill Vincent; Captain Pereira's cops are after him as well.
The Conspirators has all the elements of a fun spy caper. Spies and counterspies gather in swank nightclubs, play coy games and hatch schemes over cocktails. Henried cuts a dashing figure at all times. No matter what happens he manages a clean shirt and pressed suit. Surely the most photogenic survivor of Dachau, Ms. Lamarr strolls about in fashions classier than what can be found in New York City. The production is quite elaborate and must utilize every standing set on the Warners' lot.
Director Negulesco works hard to give scenes the kind of cascading, tightly wound efficiency associated with Michael Curtiz's work. Artist and designer Negulesco got pushed out of a couple of good assignments before doing well with his first signed picture, The Mask of Dimitrios. But this picture is overwritten. We see just enough of too many characters to wonder why they haven't been given more to do. Quintanilla's four operatives require full introductions; none take a major role in the action. One of them is the great Peter Lorre; he makes the most of wonderful bits of business but ends up shortchanged. There are chases in the streets and a tricky prison escape. One scuffle at an I.D. checkpoint is played almost identically to a scene in Casablanca. But it all seems so... familiar.
In the 1940s Hedy Lamarr was considered an untouchable dream woman, a vision too lofty for use in pin-up photos. MGM built up her glamour reputation even as rumors of her earlier Czech erotic film Ecstasy continued to circulate. Lamarr's job in most of her star vehicles was to simply be gorgeous, although gazing at her face was all many audiences needed to be thoroughly entertained. In The Conspirators her most interesting scenes are her entrances. The script doesn't allow the mysterious Irene to do much more than alternately entice Vincent, and then warn him away. True, they make an extremely good-looking couple. 1
Paul Henreid's Vincent bumps up against forty character actors, many of them superfluous. Vladimir Sokoloff's elderly Portuguese fisherman listens patiently to Vincent's speech about getting vengeance for Nazi crimes. Carol Thurston's peasant girl is given several priveliged moments to moon after Vincent, which come to nothing. Eduardo Ciannelli's brief stint as a high-ranking policeman could have been dropped. The capable Steven Geray and Kurt Katch are sinister Germans, but the script throws in at least five more cultured Embassy lizards, all with bits of dialogue. Then there's the entire staff of the Lisbon prison and Vincent's sad little cellmate. Look fast and you'll see Christine Gordon (a notable film zombie), Anthony Caruso, Edward Van Sloan, George Macready, Aurora Miranda (of Phantom Lady), Neyle Morrow (a Sam Fuller stock player), Jay Novello, Frank Reicher, Philip Van Zandt and Doris Lloyd. If there weren't a script indicating all these characters, we'd suspect that Negulesco packed his picture with his actor friends. What it really means is that The Conspirators doesn't devote enough time to its core cast: Henreid & Lamarr, Greenstreet & Lorre, Victor Francen & Joseph Calleia.
The WAC promotes The Conspirators as a Film Noir, when it adheres closely to the contours of morale propaganda involving our wartime allies. Neutral Portugal may have favored Hitler (as did Franco's Spain) or it may have also been partial to the English and American influences. Our State Department surely saw to it that the picture didn't toy with Portuguese pride. (spoilers) As the film begins with Vincent Van Der Lyn an easily recognized celebrity saboteur, we wonder why the Germans in Lisbon don't rush to have him murdered from the outset. It likewise seems totally wrong when Vincent once again returns to undercover work. But that's what dauntless resistance heroes do.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Conspirators is a crisp transfer of a film element in need of a thorough scrubbing. The picture is sharp and the contrast is good, but light speckling on the titles gives way to a number of patches where the volume of white dots begins to resemble a snowstorm. Max Steiner's middling musical score is well represented, and Aurora MIranda's "Fado" song adds an expressive musical touch. The WAC's original trailer gives the movie the old-fashioned hard sell, touting Lamarr as a powerful lure in a suspenseful romantic drama.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Conspirators rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.