Fritz Lang handles the direction competently and the story is as fascinating as it is confusing. Cooper is a mild-mannered physicist swept up by the OSS and sent to Switzerland to interview a Nazi refugee and find out how far the Nazis and Italians (they're in cahoots) have gotten on the atom bomb. His physicist colleague is a sweet and exhausted old lady, eager to cooperate, but she's kidnapped from the hospital because the Gestapo know what's going on.
Thereafter, the intrigue builds. The narrative becomes murky, like my chili bean soup. But that problem can be overcome by paying attention. The real problem is with some of the performances. I hate to say it, because it sounds incredible, but Gary Cooper overacts. His eyebrows go up and down like twin elevators. And -- well, I'll give one scene as an example.
On his first day in Switzerland, Cooper finds himself waiting in the hotel bar for a phone call and he begins schmoozing with an attractive fellow American, Marjorie Hoshelle. He discovers later that she's working for the Gestapo. With no adumbration he shows up at her apartment and displays fake evidence that she's been framed into looking like an American spy. No explanation is provided of how all this phony evidence was fabricated.
But that's a weakness in the writing, not the performance. Upon finding out that her amiable American cover has been blown, Hoshelle turns into a virtual caricature of a Nazi. She stands with her feet apart, her hands on her hips, her head thrown back, and with a sneer she heaps her anger and contempt on him. It's too bad she lacks a German accent. It would have sounded so good if she'd said, "In dzah end, it is VEE who vill vin dhiz vor!" Lang had some good noirs coming up, but he was asleep at the switch in scenes like this.
Still, his staging and lighting are fine. That includes the fist fight which, at one point, Cooper seems in danger of losing. He has to wallop the guy over the head with a mounted stag head, and his opponent is much older and shorter than Cooper. Usually it's the bad guy who is the first to pick up the furniture or a poker or a stuffed head in a fight. But then these Gestapo types are like wild beasts.
His elderly opponent is a demon of energy. And when his matronly wife twigs to what's going on, she grabs up a pistol, rushes into the room of the kidnapped old lady who's a righteous physicist, and shoots her four times before exiting through the window. Caught by the OSS agents outside, the old guy's wife snarls, kicks, scratches, and curses like a grizzly bear. A later fight is even more brutal. It must be said that Cooper is suave and canny, physically adept, and handy with a .45 for a simple college professor who's had no training in espionage and who probably hasn't held anything but a beebee gun since childhood.
There's another hole in the plot. Cooper lands on the Italian coast with a buddy who calls him "Al". The buddy is played by Robert Alda, who speak passable Italian. But we've never been properly introduced. In fact, we have no idea who he is. We must figure out his part in the story with no help from the script. Then Lili Palmer appears. She needs no introduction. What a beauty. Cooper seeks out another possible Italian collaborator -- Vladimir Nikolayevich Sokoloff, who was born in Moscow and followed the same path as Vladimir Nabokov in his retreat from Naziism: Russia to Berlin to Paris to America. Here, he speaks Italian, German, and English -- all with a Russian accent. But what the hell. To Hollywood he was a "foreigner". The scenes of the landing, by the way, are studio-bound but convincing -- the rocky shore line, the rain storm, the wavelets lapping at the tiny strand. It's after the landing that we see more of the dagger as well as the cloak.
The romance that develops inevitably between Cooper and Palmer is actually well done. Usually these amours only interfere with the plot, drummed up to please part of the audience. But this one is handled well by both actors. Palmer is at first brusque but it's not until later that she pathetically reveals the extent to which she's tortured herself for having slept with "fat Gestapo pigs". It's a strangely moving scene.
I won't give away the ending but she stands, glowing with hope for the future, and waving at the departing Bristol Blenheim that is whisking some passengers off to safety.
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