Cloak And Dagger (1946)

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CLOAK AND DAGGER, an engaging, slickly handled 1946 thriller directed by Fritz Lang, was one of a spate of post-war espionage movies, dealing with the behind-German lines exploits of the Office of Strategic Services, the O.S.S. that would become the C.I.A.

Earning $5,500,000, this taut entry came in 54th of the years releases, competing against Alan Ladd’s O.S.S. , as well as Notorious and The Stranger, which saw government agents tracking down Nazis in Brazil and Connecticut.  Beside Lang’s vaunted style as director, this had a solid script and a fine performance from Gary Cooper, whose popularity was running strong.  Cooper had a big hit also showing, Saratoga Trunk, reteaming him with Ingrid Bergman. Here, playing a physicist recruited for spy work, he’s matched up with 32-year-old German emigre Lilli Palmer, in what seems a conscious attempt to strike Gary/Ingrid (or ‘Robert/Maria’) type sparks ala For Whom The Bell Tolls.

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The deadly serious, dark-toned mission-creeping here doesn’t hit the romantic-tragic heights of the 1943 Hemingway epic, but the two stars mesh well.  If you accept the barely-trained Cooper being able to feint with German and Italians in occupied Europe, then enjoy that Palmer is both beautiful and feisty, and that the script makes a decent 106-minute case showing the emotional cost role-playing exacts from secret agents as well as their physical danger (your job involves possibly being tortured before you’re executed, so think over how much you like really like briefcases and room service).

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It’s Cooper’s best acting of the fifteen pictures he made between ‘Tolls‘ in ’43 and 1952, when he took an Oscar for High Noon.  The thoughtful screenplay, as nix-nuke as it is anti-Nazi, gives him some good dialog bemoaning the misuse of funds for A-bomb research instead of disease cures and has other scenes with frightened scientists expressing fear over what they are harnessing: the plot has Cooper trying to smuggle Nazi-captive physicists out of Switzerland and Italy to make sure Hitler doesn’t beat us to the knockout mushroom punch. While inserting a refreshing and surprising plea for sanity, writers Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr. also make sure Palmer assures Coop, after he messily dispatches a Fascist thug: “Look, it’s just like killing a mad dog. Except with a dog you can feel sorry: it’s not his fault that he’s sick.”

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That vicious fight, between Cooper and Marc Lawrence, is easily the nastiest movie bout of the 1940s, and must have made audiences gasp with its eye-gouging, stomping, finger-cracking and karate chops to the throat–it’s not Marquis of Queensbury nonsense. Lang stages the desperate, quiet mayhem in a stairwell, with a merry Italian folk song wafting in from the street. *

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Lang’s original ending, an assault on a German atom-cracking facility in a cave, was scrapped, partially because it had been shown by the time of release that the Reich had no such elaborate setup, and due to an ethical public relations fallout-battle being waged in light of Hiroshima & Nagasaki.  That second reason holds more heavy water because in the jettisoned final reel the Maltz-Lardner script had Cooper proclaim: “Peace?  There’s no peace. This is the Year One of the Atomic Age and God help us if we think we can keep this secret from the world, and keep it for ourselves. God have mercy on us if we really thought we could keep science a secret–or even wanted to.  God have mercy on us if we think we can wage other wars without destroying ourselves.  And God have mercy on us if we haven’t the sense to keep the World at peace.”  Such pinko-tinged blasphemy had to go, with Warner Brothers caving before the even more ruthless mandarins at the State Department and Pentagon, who had ideas how the mangled map was going to be re-ordered for profit margins. Hot red blood having been shed, cold blue blood moved in. **

Max Steiner’s music score has his recognizable stamp, Sol Polito worked the effective black & white lensing. Supporting cast: Robert Alda (Alan’s dad), Vladimir Sokoloff ***,  Marjorie Hoshelle (a wicked American Nazi femme fatale), J. Edward Bromberg, Ludwig Stossel, Helene Thimig, Dan Seymour, Robert Coote, James Flavin and Lex Barker.

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Marjorie Hoshelle, bad girl

* Cooper’s character was based on E.Michael Burke, a Naval officer who worked behind the lines for the O.S.S. in Sicily, winning the Navy Cross and Silver Star.  After the war, he did more lurking for the C.I.A., then became Executive Director of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and later President of the New York Yankees, the New York Knicks, the New York Rangers and Madison Square Garden.  A few karate chops went a long way.

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Lilli

** Writers Maltz and Lardner, and supporting players Bromberg and Lawrence were soon blacklisted, so the question-atomic-wisdom pieces of this screenplay clearly carried more weight with Red-baiters than their kill-Nazis-like-curs speech.  Bromberg’s ostracism (he was ‘named’ by director Edward Dmytryk) contributed to his fatal heart attack at 48.  Delivering a 1951 eulogy for him, actress Lee Grant promptly found herself targeted by the H.U.A.C., and when she refused to name her own husband, her career was killed for a decade.  The husband, playwright Arnold Manoff, had also been fingered by Dmytryk, who had been one of “The Hollywood Ten”, with Maltz and Lardner.  When the ten were serving time in prison (for Contempt of Congress—what else would you hold for Congress but contempt?), Dmytryk folded and gave up 26 people to persecution.  He went back to work.

*** Born under the rule of Czar Alexander III, venerable Russian transplant Vladimir Sokoloff, 56 in this film, estimated that he played 35 nationalities in his career, which tops even such busy chameleons as Anthony Quinn and  J. Carrol Naish.  His two best remembered roles: ‘Anselmo’ in For Whom The Bell Tolls’ and ‘The Old Man’ in The Magnificent Seven.  He had one of his larger parts in this spy saga, and handled the emotional plight of his compromised scientist with his trademark dignity and passion. He died in 1962, after his last bit, as an aged but unbowed Cossack (back home at last) in Taras Bulba.

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Vladimir Sokoloff:  1889-1962

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