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Lee J. Cobb
In WW1,German intelligence sends a team of saboteurs and a female spy to Scotland to kill Lord Kitchener.Also,German intelligence sends another team of spies to Allied headquarters in Belgium to steal the secret Allied defense plans.German female spy, known as Fraulein Doktor, is tasked with stealing the new mustard gas formula from its French female inventor.The German army plans to use the new French mustard gas on the battlefield during the upcoming German offensive against the Allied armies. Written by
An unusual WW1 movie that lives up to its cult reputation
Barely distributed back in 1969 and promptly vanishing without trace it never even made it to video let alone DVD Alberto Lattuada's Fraulein Doktor is a surprisingly effective adult spy thriller set in the First World War. As befits a film set in the war that industrialised mass carnage it occupies a field of combat where no-one has a moral centre as Kenneth More's British Intelligence officer tries to set untrustworthy German turncoat James Booth against his former masters to track down Suzy Kendall's morphine addicted spy who, having already wormed out the secret of a horrific new poison gas from its lesbian former perfumier creator Capucine, has now set her sights on assassinating Lord Kitchener. Kendall, More and his German counterpart Nigel Green justify their ruthlessness with their patriotism as they play increasingly dirty, even killing their own when expedient, yet there's an undercurrent of awareness that they're held in as much contempt by the people who use their peculiar talents as by their enemies.
It's a fairly lavish production that, while it's more a cynical thriller than an anti-war film, still manages to score a few pertinent points in that direction, whether it's Booth noting that the war has made the bottle of champagne he orders rare because the vines have been destroyed and the ground poisoned so there will never be another vintage or a justly celebrated horrific gas attack sequence that begins with an almost documentary realism and ends with nightmarish images of German cavalry, horse and riders alike wearing gasmasks, swarming over No Man's Land like the four hundred horsemen of the Apocalypse. As a thriller it's never particularly tense, but it is involving and pays attention to many of the details and preparation, whether it's rehearsing a robbery in a skeletal framework representing a military headquarters or testing a poison. While the film never really gets that close to Kendall's character, aside from the Capucine episode it scrupulously avoids turning her into a conventional Mata Hari figure, presenting her instead as an extremely intelligent, resourceful and most of all proactive agent who uses her brains more than her body to outwit men. The ending is a bit problematic with a brief burst of out of character melodrama, but it quickly reverts to its more convincingly cynical worldview in the closing moments.
Dubbed by the voice of a thousand Bond girls, Nikki Van der Zyl, Suzy Kendall is at her best whenever morphine enters the picture in what is a surprisingly thinly drawn role considering she's the centrepiece of the film, never really coming into her own until her final moments when she really earns her close-up. Booth doesn't quite pull off his cynical opportunist working a blasé path around the two sides schemes while remaining only loyal to himself, but he's not quite so miscast that he throws the film off balance. Surprisingly neither does the very unconvincing model work or some very dodgy Scottish accents in the dubbing, though they're more than made up for by convincing production design, good photography and one of (for the most part) Ennio Morricone's more dissonant scores.
It's not a great movie, but it's certainly an often very good and unusual one that lives up to its cult following and deserves to be more widely seen indeed, it's surprising that a label like Blue Underground or Olive Films hasn't picked up the rights long ago. At present the only way to see it is by streaming via Netflix in the US or via a dodgy copy on Youtube that slips out of synch in the last third of the film.
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