Haghi is a criminal mastermind whose ubiquitous spy operation is always several steps ahead of the police and the government's secret service. Enter Agent 326, the daring and dashing young man, who thinks his disguise as a dirty, bearded vagrant is fooling the unknown mastermind and his minions. But Haghi is well aware of 326's existence and what he looks like. Enter Sonya, a Russian lady in Haghi's employ. Haghi wants Sonya to subvert the efforts of the government agent, but doesn't count on her falling in love with him. Meanwhile, Haghi is anxious to get his hands on a Japanese peace treaty in the possession of the cunning Doctor Masimoto, whose mistress is also in his employ. Written by
Fritz Lang, undeniably one of the greatest and most influential film-makers in all of cinema, is one of my favorites and, from his early work which remains, perhaps, his most important I only had a few of his surviving films still to catch up with. SPIONE was one of them and, now that I've watched it, I can confirm its stature as one of his very best, if relatively little-known.
The film is basically a follow-up to Lang's seminal two-part DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER (1922) and, indeed, it's Rudolph Klein-Rogge himself who originated the role of Mabuse who plays the evil crimelord here (called Haghi and who is made-up to resemble Lenin!). SPIONE follows much the same pattern of intrigue, thrills and action; however, the film's narrative structure is not straightforward but rather elliptical and, even though ostensibly dealing with the conflict which may arise were a treaty to fall into the wrong hands, several major plot points are left deliberately obscure (in fact, we never get to know what the treaty actually contains a precursor to Hitchcock's beloved "McGuffin", perhaps or what Haghi's intentions are, once he gets his hands on it!). In this respect, the social conscience so pronounced in the Mabuse diptych coming, as it did, on the heels of Germany's defeat in WWI is largely jettisoned here in favor of romance (between a female spy desired, and being blackmailed, by Haghi and the Secret Service agent who is the mastermind's nemesis), eroticism (the ensnaring of a central political figure by a vamp in Haghi's service) and technical dexterity (ensuring that SPIONE's considerable 2½-hour running-time goes by rapidly and without any longueurs, in my estimation at least, as opposed to the sluggish and rather static Mabuse). It is not inconceivable, therefore, to discern in Lang's fanciful melodrama the germ for all the spy thrillers which followed from Hitchcock to the James Bond extravaganzas and beyond.
As befits a master story-teller like Lang, particularly during this most creative phase of his career, SPIONE is virtually a catalogue of memorable scenes (interestingly enough, the supplementary photo gallery includes shots from sequences that are missing in the main feature!) chief among them a ghostly visitation, a ritual suicide, a train-wreck, a police raid on a bank and a stage performance by a clown; however as opposed to the DVD back-cover, which blatantly spells out its most clever twist in emulation of the film itself, I've refrained from giving too much away about them here
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