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William A. Wellman
Edward G. Robinson,
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I saw this movie in the early 1990s, at a screening given by William K Everson at the New School for Social Research in New York City. I usually took detailed notes during all of Mr Everson's screenings, but this time there was a disturbance in the auditorium (no, not my fault, you clever clots) and I didn't keep my notes. I can barely remember the film, which is not a point in its favour.
The action takes place during the Great War in the home of the First Lord of the Admiralty, who has the unfortunate name Sir Winston Chamberlain. (Any relation to Neville Churchill?) His butler Valdar is played by Erich von Stroheim, so it's no spoiler to report that Valdar is a spy for the Kaiser. He does everything but click his heels and wear a monocle.
Into this cosy inglenook comes Frances Hawtree ... played by Constance Bennett, who has never impressed me (except in her off-screen work on behalf of U.S. servicemen). We find out very quickly that Frances is a counterspy. She keeps reporting to Mr Yates of the Secret Service, who addresses her by her code number 'Z-1'. Which reminds me...
Most of the characters in this film are meant to be British, but the (mostly) American actors have the sense not to attempt British accents. Still, it's annoying to hear William Courtenay as Yates addressing Bennett as 'ZEE-one'. Was nobody in this production aware that in Britain the last letter of the alphabet is pronounced 'ZED'? Since Frances Hawtree and her C.O. are allegedly British, it would make sense if they got this detail right.
The film's title is a code phrase that doesn't seem to mean anything in clear. At one point, one of the male characters needs a pretext to leave the room, so he says he has to fetch his pipe ... but the pipe is a mere sham. That's as good as this gets.
I was impressed with the performance of the character actor who played Sir Winston. He gave several good performances in the early talkie era, and he deserves to be better known. Unfortunately, his name was William Holden: the same name as the later Oscar-winning leading man. Although there was a seven-year gap between the end of the older Holden's screen career and the beginning of the younger Holden's, I've seen several references which confuse the two, crediting all of the senior Holden's films to his younger and better-known namesake. Here, the senior Holden speaks his dialogue in his own natural American accent, yet he does an impressive job of conveying a proper upper-class Englishman.
Director Roy Del Ruth also deserves to be better known, but this is not one of his better efforts. I don't remember this film very well, but the fact that I *don't* remember much of it is evidence that it wasn't very good. Even von Stroheim is subdued, for once. I'll go out on a limb and rate it 5 out of 10, largely for William Holden's fine performance.
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