Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Above Suspicion

I spent an enjoyable ninety minutes last evening watching a newly acquired DVD from Warner Archive, Above Suspicion [1943] based, fairly faithfully, on Helen MacInnes 1941 bestseller. The book was MacInnes' first. It and the film came out during World War II but are set mostly  in Germany and Austria in 1939 just before the beginning of the war that September.

From an online review of the book by a D. Nowak:
Above Suspicion, the novel by Scottish author Helen MacInnes, is an entertaining, light yet surprisingly incisive spy thriller about a young British couple from Oxford, Richard and Frances Myles, who are enlisted as undercover agents at the onset of World War II. (MacInnes' own husband was a don at Oxford.) ...[T]hey are hired precisely because they appear “above suspicion,” although their mission is not without risk. ....  Like their film counterparts, Richard and Frances Myles have an enchanting, loving relationship with Frances matching her husband in brains, wit, nerve and athleticism. Their romance is pure champagne. (“[Richard] felt that wave of emotion which came to him when he looked at Frances in her unguarded moments; and he had the bleak horror which always attacked him then when he thought how easy it might have been never to have met her.”) The action builds to a great cat-and-mouse chase and satisfying conclusion. This novel ranks among the best of the World War II vintage novels I’ve read.

I enjoyed both the film and original novel. The film did a great job in capturing the flavor of the novel and its characters while adding many hokey yet fun MGM touches. The book affords a more realistic window into Europe at the early stages of Nazism with its grim implications, but both versions are fast-paced and escapist with courageous, charming protagonists.
I read the book long ago and re-read it last year, but don't remember ever having seen the film. Warner Archive is an on-demand producer of DVDs that Warner apparently doubts would be commercially viable otherwise. I've ordered several from them and have yet to be disappointed with either the movies or the quality of the DVDs. They are bare-bones, film only, and not digitally re-mastered.

From an early review of the film in The New York Times:
...[I]t recounts the misadventures of a professor and his bride, to whom is given an errand for the British Secret Service just as they are departing for a honeymoon on the Continent. Arriving in Paris, they are at once involved in a shadowy search and just as shadowy threats that follow them. The maid in the hotel is a vaguely disturbing creature, a phrase about roses brings them a guide-book with a mysterious message in code, a torn page from a Liszt concerto provides a clue to the assasin of a German bully, a collection of chessmen leads on to the ultimate goal. And after threading through a labyrinth of clues and hints a trap is sprung, and the chase comes into the open with cars roaring down the road toward the Italian frontier.

It is all carried off very deftly, thanks to the cagey direction of Richard Thorpe and to a neatly constructed script. From the very beginning, the director has managed to create and to sustain the suspense of an innocent young couple entering a world where no one is to be trusted and where friend and foe are apt to act alike. Once or twice he makes the audience his confidant a little too quickly, but for the most part he keeps a sure hand on the progress of the plot. All the actors do well. Fred MacMurray carries off his role with the quiet ease of a long-experienced actor, and Joan Crawford, after a couple of pretentious roles, is a very convincing heroine. The late Conrad Veidt must have enjoyed this sabbatical from his portraits of thin-lipped villainy; here he plays a sort of underground Robin Hood who bobs up in various guises just when the professor needs him most. Basil Rathbone, Reginald Owen, Johanna Hofer and others do admirably in lesser roles. Among them, they have made a sound and completely entertaining thriller. [T.S., N.Y. Times. August 6, 1943]
Above Suspicion, Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes