A lady entomologist channels her inner secret agent when sent on a dangerous mission to an Eastern European country in this lighthearted British spy-fi thriller from 1950, written by author Eric Ambler. 6/10
Highly Dangerous. 1950, UK. Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Written by Eric Ambler, based on his own novel. Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Dane Clark, Marius Goring, Naunton Wayne, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Eugene Deckers. Produced by Anthony Darnborough & Earl St. John. IMDb: 5.9/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Entomologist Frances Gray (Margaret Lockwood) is called in by the British government, in the shape of a Mr. Hedgerley (Naunton Wayne) to travel as a spy to an unnamed European country in order to investigate claims that scientists there are preparing biological warfare with some new discovery regarding fruit flies. While reluctant at first, she is inspired by her favourite radio show about super-spy Frank Conway, and a nudge from the clever Hedgerley, who gives her a new passport with the name “Francis Conway”. She is given the backstory of an employee of a travel agency who is visiting the unnamed country in order to explore its potential for tourism. Off she goes, and we catch up with her on the last leg of her trip, en route by train to the authoritarian Eastern European country, where she has the bad luck of sharing a compartment with the chief of the country’s state police, Commandant Anton Razinski (Marius Goring). Razinski immediately sees through this civilian without spy training, and has “Miss Conway” followed as she checks into her hotel. Things go from bad to worse, when her contact Alf (Eugene Deckers) is killed and she is arrested and interrogated. Her saving grace is that she manages to get word out to an American Reuters journalist she briefly meets at a restaurant, Bill Casey (Dane Clarke), who contacts the British consulate. But not before Razinski has her injected with truth serum. Unfortunately for him, the serum does not so much make her tell the truth, but rather triggers her Frank Conway fantasies.
The next day, Gray is released to the British consul (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and Casey, but is informed she has one day to leave the country. A befuddled Bill meets her, now in full “Frances Conway” mode, and reluctantly agrees to assist her in her mad plan to break into the heavily guarded “bug factory” in the middle of a pine forest. Now follows an exciting nightly break-in sequence, where the two amateur spies manage to drug their tail, distract the soldiers with a forest fire, bypass the alarm-wired fence and steal a sample of bugs, which they plan to smuggle out of the country. However, they trip up and must escape a small army of soldiers through the forest and somehow smuggle themselves out of the country by train, even though they know all trains will be searched …
This film was recommended to me as “one that got away” Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster. And it is also included in my newly purchased book Variety’s Complete Science Fiction Reviews. It is, as Mark pointed out, borderline SF, just like the object of my previous review, Fly by Night (1942), which is probably why it has gone unnoticed by me. In order to find the origins of the film, we need to ho back to 1938 and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Lady Vanishes, about a clever playgirl who starts unraveling a mystery aboard a train, where an elderly lady seems to have vanished into thin air. The movie, made just before Hitchcock relocated to Hollywood, starred Margaret Lockwood in the central role, and while already a seasoned actress, this was the film that made her an international star. Carol Reed followed up with a good imitation in 1940, Night Train to Munich, another international smash hit starring Lockwood, once again with a train journey as a central element. In 1940 Lockwood also reinvented herself as a femme fatale in another Carol Reed production, The Stars Look Down, and her saucy reputation carried her through films like The Man in Grey (1943), The Wicked Lady (1945) and Bedelia (1946).
Lockwood made most of her popular films in the late thirties and early forties for British Gainsborough Pictures, which in 1946 came under management of J. Arthur Rank, with whom Lockwood wrote a six-year contract of two films a year. However, in 1947 she went on strike, due to being offered only terrible scripts. What few films she did agree to make were box-office disappointments. In 1949, when Rank shut down Gainsborough Pictures, she returned to her original home, the stage, and when Highly Dangerous premiered in December 1950, Lockwood had not been seen in a film for 18 months. Meant as a comeback movie for Lockwood, the film deliberately seems to draw parallels to The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich — a lighthearted mystery drama with Lockwood at its centre as the clever girl, and with train rides in an authoritarian country as central set pieces.
Highly Dangerous was produced by Anthony Darnborough and Earl St. John for Two Cities Films, another company under the Rank Organisation, and St. John approached famous thriller writer Eric Ambler to put together a story for the script. Although never explicitly stated in the credits (nor have I seen it mentioned in any later texts on the movie), the story he delivered is actually based on his debut novel The Dark Frontier from 1936. The Dark Frontier concerns a defected Nazi scientist in the small fictional country of Ixania in the Balkans, who is rumoured to hold the secrets of building an atom bomb. A British arms manufacturer enlists the services of an English physicist, “Henry Barstow”, who is supposed to find out if the atom bomb plans are real, and offer to buy them for the British firm. However, in reality “Barstow” is the super-spy Conway Carruthers, who realises the atom bomb plans are a menace to humanity and plans on destroying them. In Ixania, he attracts the interest of an American journalist William “Bill” Casey, who becomes his sidekick. Well, you see where this is going. Switch the gender of the hero and the atom bomb for fruit flies, and you’ve got Highly Dangerous. However, one improvement over the book is the way that Ambler doesn’t turn his female protagonist into a spy, but rather lets her remain an actual entomologist who secretly dreams of living the life of a secret agent, and whose own intelligence and courage kicks into high gear when the truth serum brings out her inner “Frances Conway”. The novel also makes Carruthers the leader of a peasant revolt against its tyrannical despots, a plot line that is abandoned in the film, but which is alluded to in one scene in particular, when Frances and Bill hide in plain sight by dressing up as downtrodden peasants, realising Razinski and his ilk can’t tell one peasant from the other. Ambler has retained the name of the scientist, Kassen, and that of the American journalist Bill Casey, but switches the first and last names of the hero, probably thinking “Conway” more palatable to American tastes than “Carruthers”. In the script, Frank Conway, the radio show spy, has a sidekick called Rusty. Ambler probably based the “fictional fictional characters” on the hugely popular British radio show Dick Barton — Special Agent (1946-1951). It featured a Doc Savage-inspired super-agent with a sidekick called Snowy White.
After a dynamic start, the film is a bit slow to get going, and parts of Miss Gray waiting for one or the other contact in the first third of the movie could have been trimmed down. The script is also quite hazy on what exactly happens to Gray when she is overdosed with truth serum. I get the impression that she somehow develops a split personality based on her Frank Conway fantasies, or but the dialogue is quite unclear on what is going on, as Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings puts it, there’s a sort of “free-floating vagueness” about these scenes that could have been better explained. Otherwise, there are many things I like about the script. Frances Gray is a well-written character, and I think this is the first pre-1960 film I have seen in which the fact that a central character is both a woman and a scientist is never brought up as an anomaly. To be sure, this was much less prevalent in British films than in US ditto, where female scientists were constantly described as cold and unfeminine — the clash of women’s liberation with the rise of “fifties family values” forcing through an uneasy truce whereby women could be scientists, but should not be, lest they lost a part of what “made them women”. But as stated, this film has none of this reactionary nonsense. I also like that the script doesn’t try to portray Lockwood as younger than her actual age of 34. She’s no spring chicken, and as explained in the beginning of the movie, she is something of second mother to her nephew, and has all but given up on finding a husband. Dane Clark, playing her romantic interest, was also 38 at the time the movie came out. It’s a film about a grown-up, independent, intelligent and courageous woman, and it doesn’t really make any fuss about the fact that the hero is a woman. Dane Clarke gets a couple of hero moments in the movie, and once he’s finally warmed up to the fact that they are going through with the spy business, we see an unusually equal partnership on screen. Now, nothing really happens in the film that is out of the ordinary in a spy thriller like this, plot-wise, and it follows a fairly standard spy-fi plot arc. The gender switch and the change of atom bomb for insects does make it stand out, but other than that, there’s really nothing special about the story. The dialogue is better than usual in a film of this sort, though, clearly showcasing the talented Ambler’s knack for witticisms.
Ambler may have been instrumental in assigning Roy Ward Baker as director of the Highly Dangerous. Baker had worked himself up the ladder in the British film industry since the mid-thirties, and was actually assistant director on The Lady Vanishes. During WWII, he served under Ambler, who insisted that he be given his first big break as a director on the Ambler-written The October Man (1947). Baker’s direction doesn’t stand out in any way, but the movie is competently made and well shot, even if it has something of a low-budget feel to it. A quirk I hav noticed in many UK films of the era is the practice of shooting relatively simple and straightforward outside shots against rear-screen projection. Often these are expositional dialogue scenes with no more than two or three people talking. I can imagine this was a nifty time and money saving device. Instead of spending several days setting up location shots with crew and cast on payroll, with the risk of bad weather, you could send a cameraman out by himself to pre-shoot background slates and then film all scenes with the actors in a day against a screen. In this case, this is not really a complaint, as the rear screen projection in Highly Dangerous is unusually good. Reginald Wyer’s photography is, like Baker’s direction, workmanlike but good. The film toys a bit with noir, but is for the most part shot in a realistic fashion. Baker occasionally employs interesting angles and makes good use of frog perspective, but to the point that it seems a stylistic choice, but rather in a way that serves the storytelling — sometimes to make visual reveals, other times to establish power dynamics. Razinski is regularly shot from below to establish his power, while Miss Gray is shot from above in the scene where she is “tortured” with studio lights to point out her helplessness.
Richard Addinsell’s score is conventional, but effective, highlighting key moments in the film without being intrusive.
As per usual in British films, the acting is good. One can assume Margaret Lockwood was happy to do the role, as she agreed to it, and she carries the movie well without exerting herself all too much. I was a bit sceptical of Dane Clark when he first turned up, probably because he was obviously the suave American replacement for Miss Gray’s initial contact Alf, who was killed off. I suppose I was a bit miffed, as I had been looking forward to seeing the lanky, world-weary Alf, played by the superb Eugene Deckers, play against the still rather uptight Miss Gray throughout the movie, and felt robbed of that pleasure as he was replaced by the well-groomed Yank. Now, I actually don’t think I’ve seen Dane Clark in anything before, but both he and his character grew on me as the film proceeded, and not only did the character turn out to be a surprisingly pleasant character, but Clark also turned out to be a very likable actor. While I’m not sure there’s much chemistry between him and Lockwood, they play off each other reasonably well. But he best performances in the film are reserved for the supporting players. Marius Goring as the sinister Razinski receives much love from modern critics, and he sure hams his way through the film, chewing both decor and fittings as he bumbles about, but I found his portrayal almost too broad, from the over-obvious false moustache to his five sizes too large jacket and faux-Slavic accent. The best turns in the movie, however, come from actors in smaller roles; Naunton Wayne as Mr. Hedgerley, the superb Wilfrid Hyde-White as the British consul and the afore-mentioned Eugene Deckers.
The movie does a fairly good job at giving a vague sense of a South European police state. There something fleetingly Balkan over the atmosphere, but kind of mixed with an East Europe vibe. Much of the film is spoken in some sort of made-up Slavic language, and I get the feeling it’s all complete gibberish, as if Ambler just wrote down random sounds that sounded sort of like Russian. It’s lazy writing, but as the film takes place in a made-up country, I suppose it’s okay to have people speak a made-up language.
Highly Dangerous was distributed in the US as Time Running Out, but Variety’s UK correspondent reviewed it under its original title. The film seems to have gotten mixed-to-bad reviews at the time. Variety wrote: “there is little that is new in this espionage thriller”, however critic Myro praised the acting, and noted that “Roy Baker has directed with technical skill while lensing is sensitive”. Writing mainly for exhibitors, Myro noted that most of the humour would fail to register overseas. Maclean’s Magazine’s Clyde Gilmour stated: “This is not, I am afraid, one of the best of the British suspense thrillers, although it has some splendid acting in the supporting roles and one hilarious scene.” British magazine Focus was less kind, calling it “a too devitalised and dehydrated film about the penetration and escape from a police state to do anything else but disappoint”.
The film has a somewhat better reputation today, even if it is an obscurity: with less than 600 votes on IMDb, it is given a 5.9/10 audience rating, and does not register enough reviews on Rotten Tomatoes for a critic consensus. David Parkinson at Radio Times gives Highly Dangerous 3/5 stars: “Eric Ambler’s playful script is the main reason for watching this lively espionage adventure, although there’s also some wonderful character acting from Wilfrid Hyde White and Michael Hordern. Margaret Lockwood is particularly sprightly as an entomologist caught up in intrigue behind the Iron Curtain by reporter Dane Clark. Director Roy Ward Baker imparts the same jaunty mix of thrills and comedy that he brought to such hit TV shows as The Avengers, but he doesn’t always succeed in persuading American actor Clark (making his British screen debut) to drop the Hollywood pizzazz and play down the material.” On the other hand, TV Guide calls it a “lame little British espionage thriller.
Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster, who pointed me to this movie, quite understandably misses its origins in Eric Ambler’s first novel, but as he is well read, he notes that it “feels more like the novels he wrote before the war than the ones he’s best remembered for, like A Coffin for Demetrius and Journey into Fear. In fact the film itself reminds me more of one of those comic British thrillers they seemed to specialize in back in the Thirties and Forties.” Derek Winnert gives the picture 3/5 stars, calling Highly Dangerous an “exciting, cheeky little comedy action thriller […] directed at a smart pace by Roy Ward Baker, who encourages larky performances from his cast of welcome faces”. John Grant at Noirish is very positive, calling the movie “a seminal piece of UK cinema that deserves so much more attention than so far it’s gotten”.
I wouldn’t go as far as calling it “seminal”, but I found it a fun little film with a somewhat derivative script that doesn’t quite take advantage of its possibilities. Like Dave Sindelar, I found that the movie often painted itself in a corner and then rushed on, hoping no-one would see the wet footprints. The premise itself is on shaky ground, as Laura at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings points out, “It struck me as rather preposterous that an untrained civilian like Frances would be sent alone on such a dangerous mission, rather than having experienced agents obtain the bugs and smuggle them out of the country to be studied in safety”. Because, that’s what ultimately happens — Miss Gray’s microscope is seized by the state police, so she can’t analyse the bugs in the country, and needs to smuggle them to Britain. This could have been done, for example, by Alf — there was no need for an entomologist to go the country at all. But in the beginning of the film, it is stressed that Gray needs to go there and analyse the critters on the spot. Why is never explained, but if we are being generous, one could perhaps imagine that the British government saw it as too hard and risky to try and smuggle them out of the country. But this is not the only plot contrivance. The film is filled with odd turns of events that seem cooked up only for certain meetings to happen and certain plot plot twists to be made possible. For example: why can’t Alf explain the plan to Frances when they meet alone in her hotel room the night she arrives? He seems perfectly satisfied no-one is listening in. Instead, he tells her to first go to a café and later to some old ruins in the morning — to meet him. When he is killed, he doesn’t show up at the café, and this is how Frances teams up with Bill. But if Alf was going to meet her at the café, then why tell her to go to the ruins after? And if he wasn’t going to meet her at the café, then why was she supposed to go there at all? Especially as Alf, as the spy he was, would have known it was a place favoured by Razinski — giving the police chief a perfect chance to follow Frances to their meeting place.
These are minor grievances, but they do add to the impression that the script was fairly quickly cooked up, and make the film difficult to take seriously as a thriller. And that’s somewhat problematic, as the mild comedy isn’t enough to carry the film on its own. But if not overly funny, it is a pretty fun film, if you can refrain from analysing it too deeply.
Eric Ambler was already a popular spy thriller author by 1950, best known for his novels The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) and Journey into Fear (1940). He had also written a number of screenplays, mainly based on books by other authors, which had been quite successful at the box office. It is interesting to note that his early, pre-WWII novels reflected Ambler’s sympathetic attitude towards the Soviet Union, seeing communism as the main force balancing out the rising fascism in Germany. The book that Highly Dangerous is based on, The Dark Frontier, is just as much a spy thriller as it is a story about a peasant revolt against the corrupt and tyrannical aristocracy of the country. However, like many European socialists and sympathisers, Ambler was shocked by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany in 1939, after which he became disillusioned with the Soviet Union. So for his 1950 screenplay, he completely removed this part of the story. Neither does Krasinksy feel like a representative of the nobility, but in his ill-fitting suit and vulgar moustache, he has the air of a propped-up peasant himself. Another change from the novel, less political, is the removal of the super-spy — or rather, his expatriation into the realm of fiction. After his debut novel, Ambler dropped the super-spy trope, and in most of his subsequent novels, the heroes were civilians drawn into the spy plots. In Uncommon Danger (1937) the protagonist is a journalist, in Epitaph for a Spy (1938) a teacher, in Cause for Alarm (1938) and engineer (like Ambler himself) and in The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) an author.
Ambler took an eleven-year hiatus from writing novels with the outbreak of WWII. During the war he made films for the British army, and after it he divided his times during the fifties between writing screenplays and books. His screenplays often had either a spy or a maritime theme, and were mostly based on the works of other authors. Best known of his screenplays are probably those for The Cruel Sea (1953), for which he was Oscar nominated, and A Night to Remember (1958) about the sinking of the Titanic. In 1960 he created the American detective TV show Checkmate, although he didn’t actually write any of the episodes. He wrote his last novel in 1981. As is often pointed out, Ambler in 1958 married Alfred Hitchcock’s former longtime secretary, later associate and screenwriter, Joan Harrison. Harrison collaborated closely on many of Hitchcock’s films, and contributed to the screenplays of, for example, Rebecca (1940) and Foreign Correspondent (1940). In 1944 she became one of only three female major movie producers in Hollywood, and produced half a dozen movies, including Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944) and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945). In the mid-fifties she segued into TV, where she worked as producer on several shows, including close to 200 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Director Roy Ward Baker got his international breakthrough with the naval drama Morning Departure the same year as Highly Dangerous came out, which led to a short stint at Fox in Hollywood. His best remembered films from his three years in the US are the noirs Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) and Inferno (1953), the first one starring Marilyn Monroe, and the second in 3D. Returning to the UK, Baker directed half a dozen movies during the remainder of the fifties, including the Ambler-written Titanic film. He seems to have taken a hiatus in 1958, and returned to films in 1961 with an odd mix of pictures: a western, a race relation drama and a naval war film. Perhaps out of a lack of opportunities in cinema, he started working in TV in the early sixties, specialising in spy and detective shows, to which he brought solid movie competence and energy — he is perhaps best known for his work on the shows The Avengers and The Saint — the precursor to the James Bond movies, and the series that made Roger Moore a star. One way or the other, his reputation for making solid films on little money led him to the British horror scene, starting with the acclaimed third Quatermass installation Quatermass and the Pit in 1967, for Hammer. Continuing with the horror hothouse studio, he directed Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers (1970), a reluctant Christopher Lee in Scars of Dracula (1970), as well as Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde in 1971. He then switched to Hammer’s even smaller and more outrageous rival, Amicus, for the horror anthologies Asylum (1972) and The Vault of Horror (1973), as well as the terribly titled And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973) with Peter Cushing and Herbert Lom. He returned once again to Hammer for the cult classic The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), co-directed with Cheh Chang in Hong Kong. He made yet another horror comedy anthology in 1981, The Monster Club, with such horror luminaries as Vincent Price, John Carradine, Britt Ekland, Barbara Kellerman, Donald Pleasence and Patrick Magee. Outside of his horror/SF output, Baker also directed the Hammer space movie Moon Zero Two in 1969.
To modern viewers, the name Margaret Lockwood might not say much, but during the 30’s and early 40’s she was one of Britain’s biggest movie stars. She did a short stint in Hollywood in the late 30’s, where she made two movies, but returned to the UK in 1939. According to a 1980 BBC interview, the reason for her swift return was not that she would have had a bad experience in Hollywood, but simply that there were clear signs that the war was reaching the British isles, and she feared that the borders would be closed if she did not return soon. Nevertheless, she never again attempted a career in the USA, as opposed to many of her co-stars like Michael Redgrave or James Mason.
There has been much speculation over Lockwood’s fall from grace in the movie business. Unlike many other former stars whose careers took a nose dive, there seems to be no specific reason for her change in fortune in the late 40’s. There was no scandal, she didn’t have problems with alcohol or drugs and she remained healthy. There was no husband that kept her from acting, neither did she leave the business to have kids (her daughter Julia, also an actress, was born during the height of Margaret’s fame). While she was picky about her roles, she doesn’t seem to have been a particularly difficult actress to work with. Stephen Vagg at FilmInk writes that it seems to have been a combination of factors that led to Lockwood’s downfall as a movie star. First and foremost, while working off her seven-year contract at the Rank organisation, she was given a number of bad films. After the war, the key players at Gainsborough scattered, and while the historical melodramas she continued to make were in the same vein as her earlier hits, they simply didn’t hold up to quality of the former movies. She also turned down a few films that became major hits, including The Browning Version (1951), which could have been a major comeback. Instead it became Michael Redgrave’s international breakthrough. The quality of the films Lockwood made reflected on her name, and soon she became regarded as box-office poison. She did have a critical success in 1955 with Cast a Dark Shadow, for which she was BAFTA nominated, but her name was all but hidden in the PR material, and the film failed to find its audience. However, Lockwood thrived on stage, and Agatha Christine even wrote a play, Spider’s Web, specifically for her (symptomatically, she did not reprise her role in the 1960 film version). But her sometimes long breaks from film during which she focused on stage work didn’t help her movie career either. Vann also lists a number of other factors that contributed to her fading celluloid star: the fact that post-WWII she never worked with any of the great British directors, that she never again played opposite the really big movie stars and that she misjudged her comedic talent. According to Vann, she shouldn’t have fought her typecasting as villain, and she should have given Hollywood another go. On the other hand, the 1980 BBC interview doesn’t give any impression that Lockwood would have been dissatisfied with her career as such — there she sits, at 64, still headlining a major stage production, with a long and highly successful career behind her both in film and on stage.
Highly Dangerous. 1950, UK. Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Written by Eric Ambler, based on his own novel The Dark Frontier. Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Dane Clark, Marius Goring, Naunton Wayne, Wilfried Hyde-White, Eugene Deckers, Olaf Pooley, Gladys Henson, Paul Hardtmuth. Music: Richard Addinsell. Cinematography: Reginald H. Wyer. Editing: Alfred Roome. Art direction: Alex Vetchinsky. Makeup artist: W.T. Partleton. Produced by Anthony Darnborough & Earl St. John for Two Cities Films.