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Saturday, November 5, 2011

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939)

One of the first straight-ahead anti-Nazi pics, CONFESSIONS is so cleverly pieced together & excitingly paced, you hardly notice how thin this episodic FBI procedural actually is. The first act is all Germans & German-Americans plotting, spying, beer drinking, sneaking in on the S.S. Bismarck & congregating at the local German-American Bund. Finally, the F.B.I. comes into the frame when Edward G. Robinson shows up in the fourth reel, something of a late-entry record for a top-billed star. But Eddie’s always worth the wait, and with his paradoxically calm/staccato professorial manner, he teases out the conspiracy, picking off suspects and playing them against each other. No rough stuff from a country that’s still officially neutral, Eddie finesses confessions out of them. On paper, it doesn’t sound like much, but Anatole Litvak helms with an energy level that moves too fast to feel didactic as we go on a Stateside tour of pro-Nazi rallies for kids; a political riot in a NYC rathskellar & watch Gestapo enforcers operating in midtown. And the film is loaded with clever visual touches like the crisscrossing waiters who the camera follows from one conspirator to another or the florid expository montages (probably from Don Siegel) with swastika ‘wipes’ and just about every ‘optical printer’ trick in the book. The courtroom scenes are a bit of an anticlimax, Henry O’Neill is an underwhelming prosecutor, and the film loses dramatic density when George Sanders’s conflicted Nazi agent goes missing. But Francis Lederer is just right as a thickheaded, overconfident immigrant who buys the Nazi propaganda Paul Lukas spews out in the style of Hitler playing an East-Side Manhattan beer garden.

DOUBLE-BILL: Warners made a comic variant in ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT/’42. It’s pretty lame stuff, even with Bogie, Conrad Veidt & Peter Lorre in the cast. But the change in tone from the jittery pre-Pearl Harbor days to the laughing-in-the-dark atmosphere of early war losses is fascinating.

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