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Boris Karloff and Erich von Stroheim -- think of one name and the other immediately pops into your head, right?
Film fans interested in Boris Karloff's somewhat old-fashioned, intrigue-challenged spy thriller British Intelligence (1940) might be perplexed to find that it's actually the third film adaptation of a play by one of the writers of D.W. Griffith's Way Down East. Rupert Julian directed a silent version in 1926, and Warners production chief Darryl F. Zanuck dusted it off just four years later for this early talkie. Three Faces East is by today's standards a creaky espionage tale that presents us with the shocking idea that an undercover spy might actually be spying for the people he's pretending to be spying against. This double-agent setup can't have been a novel twist even in Victorian times, good storytelling and acting can make almost any notion work.
Early talkies naturally adapted stage plays, which were generally limited to a few sets and therefore made all the technical issues with recording sync sound easier to manage. Three Faces East could have been filmed on a single sound stage, with a couple of German settings tucked into the corners and a generic English country house set the main focus of action. Warners guaranteed the film's continuing interest through its choice of leading players. The star is Constance Bennett, a classy silent beauty making a smooth transition to sound. Far down on the cast list but taking the second spot in advertising is our old friend Erich von Stroheim. Surprise of surprise, he plays a suspicious household servant of Teutonic origin. It's the same part covered by Boris Karloff ten years later, hence the perfect stump-the-chumps trivia question.
The play takes a very literal approach to the world of espionage. During WW1 the English have become aware of a security leak -- too many Naval secrets are being funneled straight to the Kaiser's intelligence corps. Surveillance has become so tight that the Germans must recruit their top female agent "Z-1", presently masquerading as a British Army nurse (Constance Bennett) to travel undercover to England, to help their top agent Schiller Blecher smuggle vital Admiralty secrets from the home of Sea Lord Sir Winston Chamberlain (William Holden). Calling herself Frances Hawtree, army nurse, Z-1 assumes brings the news of the death of Chamberlain's son, and announces that she was his fianceé. The distraught Lady Catherine Chamberlain (Charlotte Walker) insists that Frances visit for a few days. Z-1 successfully contacts Chamberlain's ultra-formal butler Valdar (Erich von Stroheim), using a word recognition code that includes the phrase "three faces East". She wants to talk to the master spy Blecher, but Valdar forbids it-- Z-1's job is to break into the house safe each night, to purloin Chamberlain's daily delivery of Admiralty dispatches. All goes well until Chamberlain's son Captain Arthur (Anthony Bushell), returns from the Front. Arthur knows that something is very wrong with "Frances's" story about being his brother's sweetheart, but he says nothing.
Ask me if Three Faces East creaks as only a stage-bound early talkie can creak, and the answer is Yes. Director Roy Del Ruth seems to have little control over some of the performances. William Holden (the other William Holden) is natural as the father, husband, and unreliable security risk Sea Lord. By his side is Charlotte Walker, who swoons in grand gestures and despairs about her lost son with the exaggerated histrionics of an earlier era.
We can forgive the naïve details in the plot. The Admiralty sends its most important secrets to a private residence every afternoon. They're so brief that Sir Chamberlain can read them as if they were a telegram. Instead of destroying them, he stashes them in a small safe in an unlocked room. The ominously surnamed Valdar sounds very, very German, yet all are assured that he's above suspicion. Yet nobody thinks this setup might be the security leak.
Constance Bennett's Frances sneaks into the study to open the safe, which leads to a couple of suspenseful cat & mouse scenes when a suspicious British security executive convinced that he's hearing things downstairs. More interesting is Valdar's odd behavior around Frances / Z-1. Valdar at first pretends not to know the recognition code, just to see if Z-1 will blow her cover right then and there. He then takes her revolver, and makes a number of romantic overtures. She wants to meet Blecher in person, which Valdar forbids. He instead provides cover when she sneaks downstairs to raid the safe. Is Valdar really an English agent setting a trap for Z-1? Is Capt. Arthur not revealing Frances's duplicity because he's fallen in love with her, or does he have some other reason? Or is he just there so Ms. Bennett will have someone to kiss at the fade-out?
The movie works out some of these questions rather neatly but leaves others hanging. For a moment we wonder if Captain Arthur knows that Frances couldn't be his brother's girlfriend, because the brother was gay. Nothing in this movie is that complicated. The British seem content with putting their most important military secrets in a house with shifty "foreigners" and a mystery woman that simply shows up at the door one afternoon. Well, considering the woes of today's intelligence services, maybe this isn't so outrageous after all.
Ms. Bennett would hit her stride in another year in several popular comedies; she's very pretty here but not much more than that. Erich von Stroheim is the performer with the most modern style - he's always seems on top of the material, adding more layers of interest to his line readings and gestures. Valdar's amorous attentions toward Frances are on the slimy side, making us think that von Stroheim tweaked his part to his own liking. Fuel for the actor-director's personal, uh, themes will note the moment where he opens Frances's suitcase and lovingly examines her underwear (!!). Just the same, Valdar is the film's only truly interesting character, and provides most of the mystery and intrigue. Von Stroheim's performance is what makes the movie memorable.
Handsome young lead Anthony Bushell certainly had an interesting career. Playing mostly handsome boyfriends in the '30s, he fought with distinction in WW2. Later on he played quite a few military roles, notably in the TV serial Quatermass and the Pit and the epic A Night to Remember. A lifelong friend and associate of Laurence Olivier, Bushell reportedly took over behind the camera when Olivier acted and directed at the same time. Bushell became a director too -- Hammer fans will know him from his Christopher Lee thriller The Terror of the Tongs.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Three Faces East is a serviceable restoration of one of the older talkies in their vaults. The aged image looks rather good, if a little grainy. I don't know if the audio came from optical elements or a Vitaphone disc, but the dialogue is clear and the surface noise is minimal. I assume that by 1930 nobody was sticking microphones in flower arrangements and lamps any more, but we can still hear evidence of technical limitations in sound editing and effects work.
Now I'll have to actually see Karloff in British Agent to see how that adaptation measures up. But I think it's unlikely that the Karloff movie has a scene in which he lovingly admires some actress's fancy silk panties.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Three Faces East rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.