Saturday, January 24, 2015

British Intelligence (1940)

British Intelligence is, rather surprisingly given the subject matter, an American production. It was made by Warner Brothers and although released in 1940 it deals with espionage in the First World War rather than the Second World War.

The British are suffering major military reverses as the result of the success of a German spy ring. In fact things are worse than they thought. If this movie is to be believed then every second person in Britain was a German spy. While the plot stretches credibility just a little in this respect it has enough twists and turns and double-crosses to keep things interesting. It also benefits from fine performances from its two leads, Boris Karloff and Margaret Lindsay.

We are introduced to Helene (Margaret Lindsay) in a British field hospital on the Western Front where she has been caring for downed airman Frank Bennett (Bruce Lester). Then we see her, with a different name, living in the household of a British Cabinet minister. She is supposedly a refugee. We are also introduced to the Cabinet minister’s butler Valdar (Boris Karloff), a Belgian refugee whose family was murdered by the Germans. Helene is not what she seems to be, and nor is Valdar. Both are spies, but for which side?

The British intelligence services are desperately trying to track down the master spy who controls the entire German spy ring. The Germans for their part are trying to pull off a coup that will win the war for them. Nobody can be trusted and everybody seems to be trying to double-cross everybody else.

While most viewers will anticipate most of the plot twists I very much doubt if any will spot them all. Just when you think that the final twist has been revealed another one crops up, and then another. Lee Katz’s screenplay is intricate but it does hold together without stretching credibility beyond the breaking point.

Director Terry Morse had an undistinguished career in B-movies and this movie suggests that he was never likely to break into A-pictures although he gets the job done with reasonable efficiency. The movie benefits from its short running time and with so much plot packed into a mere 61 minutes it’s never in danger of becoming dull.

Karloff gives a bravura performance. There’s no subtlety to it but this movie has little interest in subtlety anyway. Margaret Lindsay is extremely good as the enigmatic Helene. The supporting cast is adequate.

British Intelligence lays on the propaganda very thickly indeed. Every anti-German atrocity story cooked up by the tabloid press in the First World War, no matter how improbable, is shamelessly recycled. You need have no doubts whatsoever which side this film is on. The Germans are portrayed as crazed megalomaniacal butchers. There’s an outrageous amount of foreshadowing of the rise of the Nazi regime so that even the most obtuse viewer at the time must have got the patriotic message. In case they didn’t the film bludgeons them with a strident ending speech. But this was 1940 and such an approach was certainly understandable at that time.

There’s very little actual action but there’s effective suspense and there’s an impressive atmosphere of paranoia.

And this movie has zeppelins! Always a major bonus.

The British Elstree Hill region-free PAL DVD is pretty terrible but it’s also insanely cheap. You get what you pay for.

British Intelligence is a serviceable and entertaining spy thriller. Recommended.

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