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During the Second World War years, Hollywood found in the European-intrigue
novels of Eric Ambler a pliable resource for converting into thrillers that
beat drums for the anti-Axis cause. So, like tanks off an assembly line,
rolled Journey into Fear (1942), Background to Danger (1943) and The Mask of
Dimitrios (1944). They benefitted from name directors respectively, Orson
Welles (at least in part), Raoul Walsh and Jean Negulesco but none of them
is particularly remarkable; they're not much more than shortish propaganda
Background to Danger reunites the sinister but winning Warner Bros. team of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, but, instead of the expected Humphrey Bogart as plucky hero, plunks George Raft down in a strange land, this time Turkey, strategically situated at the convergence of the Middle East, the Balkans and the Soviet Union. The plot involves forged maps which Nazi agent Greenstreet hopes to use to foment a panic about plans to invade Turkey by the U.S.S.R., then an Ally, hence destabilizing the region and the balance of power. But Walsh forgoes the depth that a geopolitical perspective might have lent in favor of bombs and handguns, captures and hair's-breadth escapes.
Raft's wooden affect sometimes paid off in the noir cycle (Noctune, Red Light) but here his gaudy patter only makes viewers wish for Bogart. And while Greenstreet reprises his polished, blustering heavy, Lorre gives a droll, airy performance that verges on the comic (clearly, unlike his Gargantuan partner, he didn't take to type-casting). Raft's love interest, playing Lorre's sister, is Brenda Marshall, a.k.a. Mrs. William Holden or Ardis Ankerson, by all accounts a difficult woman but, judging by Strange Impersonation and her few other movies, not a negligible presence. Turhan Bey shows up as Raft's native sidekick, à la From Russia With Love. He brings a final touch of authenticity to the back-lot Ankara and Istanbul, which Walsh, to his credit, takes care to make more vivid than just generically exotic.
It seems that most IMDb reviewers have a pretty low opinion of
"Background to Danger." Well, I admit that many of the criticisms of
this film have merit. First of all, George Raft was decidedly not near
the top of Hollywood actors. Second, there is, as many have observed,
more than a little resemblance between this film and some others, such
as "Casablanca." And I keep wondering what the film would have been
like with Bogart, Cagney, or Garfield in the lead role.
Nevertheless, this is a film I have enjoyed many times and probably will again. Some of Raft's lines probably would not have worked with Cagney or Garfield, but they are okay coming from Raft. And, of course, the supporting cast is really excellent.
All in all, I think you will enjoy this film if you don't go in expecting something on the level of "Casablanca" or even that of "Sahara," a Columbia film of the same year starring Humphrey Bogart. In short, enjoy the fast pace and the really great support from Greenstreet, Lorre, Brenda Marshall and the others.
It's now part of Hollywood lore how George Raft immeasurably aided the
career of Humphrey Bogart by turning down High Sierra, The Maltese
Falcon and Casablanca. After the last one I guess Raft thought he'd go
for a Casablanca type story and the film of Eric Ambler's Background to
Danger seemed like a good bet. If working with Sidney Greenstreet and
Peter Lorre worked for Bogey...........
Background to Danger only confirmed Raft's wisdom about trying to stick to what he could handle. Had he been in Casablanca, the film today would be a routine action adventure picture not the cinema classic it is.
According to a biography of Raft, Peter Lorre was stealing scenes all over the place and blew cigarette smoke in Raft's face causing him to lose concentration. After repeated requests to stop doing it, Raft clocked Lorre on the chin and that settled the problems they had. On the set that is, on screen Raft registers no presence at all with his fabled co-stars.
Raft is an American agent, Greenstreet a Nazi, and Brenda Marshall and Lorre are a brother and sister team of Soviet agents all looking for a forged document about false Soviet invasion plans for Turkey. The action starts in Turkey's capital of Ankara and ends up in the city of Istanbul.
Background to Danger had to be the first American made film based in Ankara. Before the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire, Ankara barely passed for an oasis. Mustapha Kemal selected it for his capital because of its central location on the Anatolian peninsula. The city grew exponentially between the wars and Turkish neutrality in World War II kept up the growth rate though the Ankara we see here is depicted on the back lot of Warner Brothers studio.
All the neutral capitals in the World War II years were good subjects for espionage films. Everyone of them could have been described like Ankara as a city of a thousand plots. Too bad a better film couldn't have been done here.
Yes, it's definitely not a work of art. It doesn't spend much time on character development. However, it moves very fast, never staying in one place for too long. Some good action sequences and scenes on a fast moving train, hotel rooms, in a German headquarters, etc. make this a fun film. The acting is not at all bad despite what you may have read elsewhere. Of course, Sidney Greenstreet plays his usual pompous rearend character that seems to be his one and only characterization but, he pulls it off well, causing the audience to dislike him appropriately. Peter Lorre obviously had fun with his role and George Raft was much better than I expected. Turhan Bey did a great job and his character was very welcomed indeed. All in all, if the viewers don't expect this movie to be the second coming of Casablanca and just sit back and watch the action, they will be rewarded with approximately 80 minutes of a suspenseful and fun movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It hurts to give any film with Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre less
than "5" on a scale of "1" to "10", but BACKGROUND TO DANGER (despite
their presence) is not a good World War II espionage piece. It may be
the weakest movie ever made from an Eric Ambler novel.
Between 1938 and 1945 Ambler wrote five spy or international crime novels that (with his contemporary, and master, Graham Greene) reshaped the whole genre. Ambler's books were CAUSE FOR ALARM, BACKGROUND TO DANGER, JOUNRNEY INTO FEAR, THE MASK OF DEMETRIOS, and EPITAPH FOR A SPY. The greatest of these was the last that he wrote - THE MASK OF DEMETRIOS (also called A COFFIN FOR DEMETRIOS) which Greenstreet, Lorre, and Zachary Scott turned into one of the best portraits of a totally amoral criminal in cinema. Orson Welles helped direct (and supported Joseph Cotton in) JOURNEY INTO FEAR. I'm not sure by I believe that EPITAPH FOR A SPY (set in France in 1938) and CAUSE FOR ALARM (dealing with economic rivalries between somewhat allied axis countries) were not made into films. Someone may correct me on that.
CAUSE FOR ALARM introduced a Communist Russian agent and his sister to Ambler's readers. Tamara and Nicolai Zarashoff are (when not pursuing espionage for their government in Moscow) bickering all the time. Ambler liked to humanize his characters (such as his masterpiece, Arthur Abdul Simpson, in THE LIGHT OF DAY / "TOPKAPI"), so his villain Demetrios Talat turns out to be a determined social climber, using his talents for evil in THE MASK OF DEMETRIOS to assist a bank, the Eurasian Credit Trust, on which he ends up a director. The Zarashoffs and their unwitting ally in CAUSE FOR ALARM manage to cause a brief split in the interests of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in early 1939. One would have known this when reading BACKGROUND TO DANGER a few years later, when they reappeared.
When talking about the film FIVE FINGERS I gave the background of Turkish neutrality in World War II. Ambler tackled this in the novels BACKGROUND TO DANGER and JOUNRNEY INTO FEAR, pointing out that Turkey's police and army were scrupulously looking out to protect that neutrality (Col. Haki, who helps tell the introductory part of the story of Demetrios in THE MASK OF DEMETRIOS - played by Kurt Katch there - reappears as Orson Welles, protecting American engineer Joseph Cotton in JOURNEY INTO FEAR: to make sure Cotton finishes his job in arming Turkish naval craft). In BACKGROUND TO DANGER, Ambler (correctly) shows that German agents were more likely to try to push Turkey into the Axis camp by underhanded means. The villain is the ambiguously named Col. Robinson (Greenstreet, of course) sent to contact those anti-British Turkish nationalists who would join the Germans. The problem is that the novel demonstrated Ambler's tricks with Robinson in a way the film didn't. Robinson is German, and speaks with a German accent (in fact one of the characters says that he could not possibly be English!). Greenstreet had one of the finest English speaking voices in film.
The Zolashoffs are here again (in the novel bickering again) but here working with the American played by George Raft. But in the novel, Raft's American is very naive - and they are educating this new ally in the "background to danger" to Turkish neutrality very quickly. This is not the story as W. R. Burnett made it in his screenplay, making Raft's character an American agent (which he wasn't). I can only guess that he did this to make the no nonsense Raft more believable - who could imagine Raft as a chump?
It doesn't work - the novel is constructed for the Raft character to gradually realize the dangers of the Nazis and their allies, and the fact that (dubious as it is to us) the Communist agents were a better bet for allies. Instead the story makes Raft's character become a typical World War II propaganda hero - he can handle these Nazis with a blindfold on!
There are some nice moments (due to Sidney and Peter). Greenstreet in particular has two nice ones that come to mind: when he notes his favorite set up (a Strauss waltz on a gramophone and a dead body on the floor), and later when his plans have all collapsed, and he is informed he must return to Berlin (his quick look of horror at hearing what will be his death sentence is done very well). But such moments are few and far between. The rest of this film sinks those few moments one recalls with fondness.
International intrigue in hot spot Ankara, Turkey, during World War II is the center of this secret agent tail. Nasty Nazi Dr. Robinson (Sydney Greenstreet) plots to use lies in the press to push Turkey to ally itself with Germany against Russia. American Joe Barton (George Raft) is posing as a businessman when he falls into possession of falsified documents the Germans want printed in a sympathizing newspaper. Barton is soon mixed up with the Zaleshoffs (Peter Lorre and Brenda Marshall), a brother and sister claiming to be Russian spies who are after the same documents. Barton has trouble believing anyone, because they all attack him at various times and at least one of them is a cold-blooded killer. The plot had potential, but director Raoul Walsh did not seem to know quite what to do with a story of this nature and there is a complete lack of real emotion in the proceedings. He also seemed to be saddled with a low budget (the miniature train is painfully obvious). His three male stars all but play caricatures of themselves. Raft is all buttoned up and monosyllabic, Greenstreet is almost a cartoon, and Lorre chews the scenery and comes out best. Yet it is still a pretty good movie (if you can withstand being yelled out for the first five minutes and the overcooked musical scoring.) There is a great aura of suspicion over everyone, which leaves you guessing at everyone's connection with everyone else. There is also a great car chase, noir cinematography from Tony Gaudio that caresses Raft's closeups fondly, and some good visual bits that will make you smile.
Despite the breathtaking pace of the film and an excellently filmed car
chase, BACKGROUND TO DANGER is a disappointment in many respects.
Simply put, the story is too confusing and ridiculous for the film to
gain any credibility. Even a great castand Brenda Marshall's pretty
facecan't save this film!
BACKGROUND TO DANGER has the usual fast-paced direction by Raoul Walsh (WHITE HEAT, DESPERATE JOURNEY), terrific editing and black-and-white cinematography, and fine actors that include the likes of Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Steven Geray. But George Raft will go down in history as one of the dullest leading men I've ever seen. The production values, as with so many Warner Bros. films of the era, are quite good. However, the story is an utter mess and makes little sense. Yet there are a lot of action scenes throughout the film and the action is the best part about the film.
Worth watching for the car chase alone, but since there are only a few good things about this film, it's pointless for me to continue.
I liked this film although there were certainly many better for the
time. It is the usual war time movie without being too much like the
How can you go wrong watching Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre together? Greenstreet is simply magnetic, and I was stunned to find out he debuted in films with Casablanca only a year before.
I kept thinking during the movie how much better it would have been with someone else besides Raft in the title role, he is pretty wooden. I am not sure where his performance ranks with his other roles. I hope they were better but doubt that they were. I don't watch many of them normally.
Brenda Marshall provides window dressing mostly and the ending smacks of a cheap knockoff attempt, but the rest wasn't too bad.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Interesting, intriguing plot here with Nazi Germany trying to provoke
trouble between the Soviet Union and Turkey. In other words, they're
hoping that Turkey would enter the war on the side of the Axis Powers.
As always, Sydney Greenstreet is up to his old, evil ways in trying to bring this horror about. The interesting thing about the movie is how the newspapers can add to the plot. All you need is a paper to be sympathetic to a movement and there is trouble.
It's a bit confusing, but eventually cleared up who Peter Lorre and Brenda Marshall represent in the film. Marshall has an awkward veneer here. She prances around the rooms and is very cold here. This is even true when her supposed brother and aide, Lorre, takes a bullet to the chest.
This film seems to be an inept attempt to recapture the magic of Casablanca (it even features the ending scene of the plane taking off) and fails despite having Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. The story deals with a Nazi plot to stir up trouble in neutral Turkey and it doesn't work. George Raft is miscast and just doesn't pull it off. It is ironic that he turned down the lead role in Casablanca and movie fans should be grateful.Recommended only for movie buffs and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet fans.
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