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Imagine a Japanese diplomat solemnly intoning to his young secret agent that
their country's honor depended on being able to protect American warships
and troop ships as they traversed the Pacific. Not exactly what most of
conjure up when we remember relations in that part of the world between our
But in 1917 Japan and the U.S. were on the same side, fighting the Central Powers. In "The Secret Game" the U.S. is planning a master stroke attack against Germany and Austria-Hungary through Russia and our ships will cross the Pacific to Vladivostok. No such plan was ever envisaged but its the center of the plot here.
Young Sessue Hayakawa, born to a military family in Japan, is Nara-Nara, the secret agent. How anyone came up with that idiotic name is lost to history. Hayakawa, masquerading as a curios dealer in, essentially, cheap trinkets, is out to uncover a German spy ring.
An evil man runs the spy operation but his chief agent is lovely Kitty Little, played by the very busy and beautiful silent film actress Florence Vidor (she didn't make it to success in the talkies). Kitty is to seduce, Platonically of course, MAJ John Northfield, acted by Jack Holt. Surprise: they actually fall in love.
How can so lovely a woman be in the service of our evil foes? Don't worry-she sees the light and comes to her comely senses.
Hayakawa is effective as a man with strong morals and deep conviction whose usually impeccable behavior lapses through an all-too-common human failing. He redeems himself melodramatically.
Particularly interesting is that a black character is portrayed without any racial denigration and Hayakawa himself is emblematically Japanese without any crude stereotyping. Hayakawa, by the way, devoted much time during World War I to raising money for bonds in the U.S. He had a long career. Ironically his most remembered role for which he was Oscar-nominated was as the Japanese World War II prisoner-of-war camp commander in "The Bridge Over the River Kwai."
This is a small gem from the glory days of the silents. Very worth seeing.
This is a static but watchable story of beautiful German spy Florence
Vidor, caught between clueless Jack Holt and wily Sessue Hayakawa. The
men are trying to protect information about a convoy in the Pacific
where a new German submarine force is rampaging -- remember, this is
World War One, and the Japanese were on our side -- and Vidor is trying
to find out about it, while fighting her feelings as Jack Holt keeps
proposing to her. Mr. Holt, in the tradition of all heroes, is a bit
musclebound between the ears, while Hayakawa's intelligence shines
Despite the motionlessness of the camera, well composed shots and skilled actors keep this one moving along. Charles Ogle is a bit over the top of Vidor's ruthless doctor/spymaster, but in a movie like this, some one has to be.
This is a solid spy drama with a good amount of action and intrigue,
and it is also interesting for its perspectives, specifically in the
way that it depicts its characters. The story takes place in the middle
of the First World War, then still in progress, and wartime concerns
drive the plot and much else in the movie.
Although there are several important characters, Sessue Hayakawa (looking very young) has probably the largest role, and is in many respects the central character. He plays a Japanese secret agent who is attempting to stop German agents from getting hold of a vitally important troop transport order. He does not know which of the others is really an enemy spy, and meanwhile the Kaiser's agents are moving ahead with their own plans, so things quickly get complicated.
The ways that the different nationalities are portrayed is impossible to miss. The American characters are well-meaning but quite naive, unable to see some rather obvious signs of danger. Perhaps this was intended as a deliberate exhortation for the movie's viewers to be on the lookout for spy activity.
The German characters are depicted as cold-hearted, determined brutes, while Hayakawa and the other Japanese characters (Japan being an ally of the USA in the First World War) are generally portrayed as intelligent, perceptive, and resourceful. This is particularly interesting in comparison with the virulent anti-Japanese propaganda that was so common during the Second World War. Clearly, all of these portrayals are driven by the needs of the moment more than anything else.
Florence Vidor has the other interesting role, as an idealistic German spy who soon becomes tormented by mixed feelings over her activities. Vidor is always engaging, and she makes her character's struggles believable. The rest of the cast is solid if unspectacular.
The production as a whole seems good enough. The surviving print has suffered a lot of damage over the years, but with Charles Rosher as the cinematographer, it probably looked pretty good at one time. Overall, it's worth seeing both for the story and as a window into the feelings and perspectives of its time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'The Secret Game' is an espionage drama, and it's rather a good one
despite a few ludicrous touches. Although the Japanese-born actor
Sessue Hayakawa sometimes played other nationalities, here he's very
much a Son of the Emperor. During the Great War (in which this film
takes place), Japan were on the same side as the United States,
opposing Germany. Hayakawa's character undertakes a mission to help the
American forces, with the very honour of Japan at stake.
Refreshingly, Hayakawa (who didn't write his own scripts) plays a realistic Japanese here, rather than a caricature. Oddly, though, his character is lumbered with the ridiculous name Nara-Nara, which isn't Japanese. Couldn't Hayakawa have supplied a dinkum Japanese name for the scriptwriter to use? Nara-Nara's assistant, also Japanese, speaks his dialogue (via the title cards) in Charlie Chan syntax, with references to the Japanese having slanted eyes. There's a brief scene between Hayakawa and a servile Negro porter. Elsewhere, we briefly see a black woman looking distinctly uncomfortable in a maid's uniform while she attends several white ladies. (But at least the children's gang who play at soldiers outside Jack Holt's window are racially integrated.)
The intertitles make it very clear where the spies are. The leader is Smith, really named Schmidt. Charles Ogle is excellent in this role: Ogle was physically better suited to playing villains rather than sympathetic characters. Smith's henchman is played by Raymond Hatton, whose character is identified as 'Mrs Harris' because he likes to disguise himself as Smith's female housekeeper. In a dodgy wig, with no cheekbones and no breasts in his female disguise, Raymond Hatton looks about as feminine as Rondo Hatton. Couldn't the Germans find a genuine female spy? Hatton spends much of his screen time in this film wearing male garb, yet his character (presumably a German) seems to have no name other than 'Mrs Harris'.
When talking pictures feature a male character in female disguise, the cross-dresser almost invariably has a line of dialogue (while uncrossing his dressing) about how it 'sure feels good' to get back into male clothes ... so we won't get the wrong idea about him. In this silent film, we get a visual equivalent: as 'Mrs Harris', Raymond Hatton pulls off his wig and women's shoes, and hitches up his skirts to reveal trousers underneath. He puts on his much larger male shoes, and THEN he conspicuously sighs in contentment. But Hatton isn't going anywhere: if those female shoes are so uncomfortable, then surely it makes more sense for Hatton to relax with NO shoes on, rather than donning male shoes.
Apparently the Germans have got a female spy after all: Florence Vidor, looking prettier as usual, as a German spy with the cover name Kitty Litter, I mean Kitty Little. A title card tells us that she's a German 'with a deeply concealed hyphen in her name'. She easily infiltrates the staff of U.S. Army officer Northfield (Jack Holt), who oddly leases office space in a civilian building.
This film's strong points occur in the procedural sequences of the Germans spying on Northfield, and Hayakawa counterspying on the Germans. At its best moments, 'The Secret Game' reminded me of Fritz Lang's vastly superior film 'Spies'. Sadly, those best moments are far between. Holt's character is supposedly a regular golfer ... but when Jack Holt hoists an iron in one shot, his swing is so inept I could tell he was a stranger to the links.
SPOILERS COMING. Although Florence Vidor's costume in one sequence is lumbered with an enormous belt buckle, I was surprised by how pretty she looked in this movie. So it was no surprise for me when she changed sides and joined the American cause. She and Holt fall in love. Hatton (in male clothes) kills Hayakawa, but not before the latter accomplishes his mission and saves the American convoy. A bit earlier, at the film's climax, Hayakawa manhandles Vidor with a startling amount of viciousness. Even though he's meant to be a goodie and she's meant to be a baddie (she hasn't reformed yet), this sequence astonished me. Perhaps audiences in 1917 accepted it because Nara-Nara (Hayakawa's role) was an Oriental and therefore supposedly less civilised than a white man; I wonder if these film-makers would have depicted a white protagonist manhandling a woman so thoroughly.
Since this isn't a supernatural story, I was intrigued by the presence of two 'ghost' shots. As Holt addresses his ball on the golf course, a double-exposure of Vidor materialises beside him ... informing the audience that he's falling in love with her. After Nara-Nara is killed, a transparent version of Hayakawa appears as his spirit. Throughout the film, Hayakawa has worn western clothes (with Japanese and American flag pins in his lapel), but now his spirit wears Japanese ceremonial garb and clutches a samurai sword. Hayakawa's final sequence (as a spirit) is touching, and very much sympathetic to Japanese culture. I was annoyed that this poignant sequence was spoilt by an anticlimactic romantic fade-out for Holt and Vidor.
Cecil B DeMille (capital D, one-word surname) and William C de Mille (lower-case D, two-word surname) were brothers who didn't get along, so they seldom collaborated. 'The Secret Game' is a rare instance of both brothers appearing in the credits of the same film (although in different title cards), allowing audiences to see that they punctuated their names differently. Despite its many oddities and flaws, there are several excellent scenes in 'The Secret Game', and I'll rate this one 7 out of 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a very early American film starring Japanese film star, Sessue
Hayakawa. He plays a Japanese counter-spy who is trying to determine
who in the US military is sending secrets to the Germans. As you may
know, Japan was actually pro-Allied in WWI and this film reflects
this--showing the Japanese as good people and pro-USA! The secrets are
coming out of a small office and the Japanese don't know if the spy is
the American officer in charge or his staff. It turns out that one of
the spies is a secretary whose brother is a German soldier and the
other is the trusted doctor who is a 100% evil guy working to aid the
Kaiser. The American officer seems oblivious that secrets concerning a
convoy are being leaked out of his office.
So far in the film, I would have given the movie a score of perhaps 9. It was an excellent pro-America propaganda piece and was very effectively written for the time period it was made. However, at the very end, the movie gets pretty schmaltzy and stupid. Out of nowhere, the good and loyal Japanese counter-spy decides to let the secretary go if she agrees to marry him and go back to Japan with him--even though this would be dishonorable and downright silly. And, the secretary, previously a die-hard supporter of the Germans, suddenly changes her mind when she gets a coded letter from her brother announcing that German and the Kaiser suck--like that would really have happened. At this point, all semblance of a plot totally falls apart to insipid melodrama and the film comes to a confusing and impossible to believe ending. However, based on the first portion of the film and the entire plot concept, this is still an important film historically and is well worth seeing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Secret Game" is often a modestly entertaining feature, but it
suffers serious flaws, especially its sudden melodramatic turn for the
worse during the climax. Additionally, as fellow commenter F Gwynplaine
MacIntyre said, it seems odd that the military would lease space in a
civilian building. It allows a shop owner from next door to waltz into
a military office attended only by a janitor and for a wiretap through
the wall. Why Raymond Hatton dresses as a woman doesn't make sense, and
he's not very convincing, either. Before the ending, however, it's
interesting to watch the spy games, as Sessue Hayakawa's character
searches for clues and eavesdrops on German spies during WWI, and
Florence Vidor's character struggles with her feelings of conspiring
for her motherland. Before the denouement, the film managed to be
pro-American without being offensively anti-German and included a
decent portrayal of the Japanese.
The finale has Vidor's character switch national identities and for no apparent reason other than this stated switch and her beauty is allowed to go free; in fact, the military officer lies to cover up the fact that she conspired against American and Japanese war plans. The military officer, played by Jack Holt, also becomes the hero after seeming to have been dull background for most of the picture. I also don't understand why he didn't immediately investigate why Hayakawa's character was bugging his office after he discovered that fact. Hayakawa's character is turned from detective hero to attempted rapist as he offers to cover up for Vidor's character in exchange for her going to Japan with him; yet, after the immorality of this action is pointed out to him, he decides to essentially commit suicide, although, perhaps, the filmmakers meant it to be more of a self-sacrifice. These awful melodramas, it seems, must end with either a poor person or non-Caucasian dying in some self-sacrifice. In the end, how are we supposed to buy Vidor and Holt's characters saluting patrioticallythey're both accessories to treason against the US. Ridiculous.
(Note: The print has some deterioration.)
Secret Game, The (1917)
** 1/2 (out of 4)
Entertaining WW1 propaganda about a Japanese secret service agent (Sessue Hayakawa) who is trying to track down a German (Charles Ogle) who is pretending to be an American and sending back info to his home country. The agent soon finds a young woman (Florence Vidor) who is unknowingly friends with the spy and needs her to help bring him down. This film runs a very quick 67-minutes and I think you'll enjoy the film a lot more if your DVD player shuts down after one hour. The reason I say this is that we've got a fairly good spy flick when out of no where it turns into some over-the-top melodrama that includes a few twists in the story that are downright silly, stupid and rather insulting if you really think about it. Even for 1917 I'm not sure why the screenwriters felt they needed to throw these twists in at the end but they don't work and they really hurt what the film had going for it. I think some more flaws include how stupid the majority of the Americans are in this film even when it's obvious what the bad guys are doing. I'm guessing you could argue this was DeMille's way of telling people to keep their eyes open and not disregard the obvious but the film doesn't play it like this. I think the best thing the film has going for it is the very impressive cast with Hayakawa leading the way. During this period he was without question one of the most popular stars out there thanks in large part to films like Cecil B. DeMille's THE CHEAT but once again he turns in a very strong performance even if his character is the main one effected by the ending. Vidor also does a nice job as the American girl not knowing how much danger she's in and we have Jack Holt adding some fun as another agent. Raymond Hatton has a brief role and Ogle, best remembered today for his 1910 FRANKENSTEIN, is effective as well. The "other" DeMille does a pretty good job with his direction but the screenplay really messes things up for everyone. The brother Cecil served as "Director General" but it's a shame he didn't do something with the ending.
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