Thursday, September 22, 2016

Secret Mission (1942)

Secret Mission is a 1942 British wartime spy thriller. It features a good cast but it has a few problems.

A team of British agents is landed on the coast of occupied France. Another British agent had been sent earlier but nothing has been heard of him since.

The team comprises Major Garnett (Hugh Williams), Captain Red Gowan (Roland Culver), Private Nobby Clark (Michael Wilding) and a Free French officer, Raoul de Carnot (James Mason doing a very exaggerated French accent).

Eventually the British spies talk their way into the German command headquarters and get lots of photographs of maps showing German troop dispositions. Meanwhile domestic dramas are starting to arise. The village chosen for the operation was chosen because both Raoul and Nobby Clark used to live there. Raoul’s sister Michèle (Carla Lehmann) and Nobby’s wife Lulu (Betty Warren) still live there. And they don’t want their menfolk to go back to England.

Of course they must go back and do their duty and stuff upper lips are called for and all that sort of thing.

The major problem with this film is the lack of any sense of urgency or drama. The secret mission seems very vague and doesn’t seem to be overly dangerous, and we can’t help wondering if it was really important enough to justify landing a whole team of spies.

There’s a lot of time devoted to the domestic dramas and to the romantic sub-plot and also to comic relief. Too much time in fact and the movie drags quite a bit. When the action sequences do come they’re not terribly exciting.

Director Harold French just doesn’t manage to generate any real feeling of suspense or excitement.

As the release date would suggest this is very much a propaganda film. The British spies are all terribly brave and noble. The Germans are either cruel sadists or fools. Mostly they’re portrayed as fools. Amusingly their most sadistic action is to have an armoured car driving through the village playing Wagner very loudly through a loudspeaker. The French are all very brave and very patriotic and are united by a passionate desire for freedom.

There is one interesting element though and that’s Michèle de Carnot’s equivocal
attitude towards the British spies. She says that since France has signed an armistice with Germany the activities of the Resistance are quite illegal (and she has a point) and are causing needless suffering to the civilian population. In fact she’d prefer the British spies to leave at once. On the other hand she is devoted to Raoul, she does dislike the German occupation and she has taken a shine to Major Garnett. Throughout the movie she wavers between her disapproval of spies and her attraction to the handsome English spy.

The acting is at best adequate. This was one of James Mason’s early roles before he found stardom. I imagine that in later life he must have been horribly embarrassed by his cartoonish performance in this movie. Hugh Williams lacks the charisma needed for his role as the principal hero. Michael Wilding is there mainly for comic relief purposes which he performs well enough. Carla Lehmann as Michèle has by far the most interesting role and she plays it pretty well.

This is a movie that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a thriller or a comic romp. It doesn’t completely succeed in either objective. The pacing is poor and the screenplay is vague and meandering. The end result is a thriller that falls rather flat. Maybe the idea was to raise morale by portraying the Germans as a bunch of incompetent oafs.

On the plus side the German secret headquarters is fairly spectacular and the ancient armoured car that blasts Wagner at the unfortunate French population is quite amusing.

This movie is available on DVD in Region 2 and Region 4 - I’m not sure of the situation in Region 1. The Region 4 DVD is barebones and the transfer is not particularly great.

Secret Mission has some mildly amusing moments but on the whole it’s dull and stodgy and unfortunately lacking in excitement or tension. I can’t recommend this one.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like this is the same kind of WWII propaganda film as "Cottage to Let" (also with Wilding as comic relief) but not as successful.