WWII Film Guide: Espionage - The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, September 26, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Espionage


 *This post is part of a film guide on World War II. Click here for the main page
*For more context on the process behind this guide, click here for an introduction

Introduction: Who doesn't love a good spy story? While the Cold War and James Bond have largely defined the spy genre, the Second World War saw its fair share of espionage stories. The spy films of WWII tend to shy away from the more bombastic action of war films for somewhat more basic stories of subterfuge that emphasize drama and tension over visceral thrills. Perhaps this is because many of the best WWII spy films were early British productions - which tended to focus on "procedures" and "details" than action and romance. The earliest spy films I viewed for this category were pretty uneven and came from Alfred Hitchcock. The first gem comes in 1943 from Billy Wilder's adaptation of a stage play in 1943's Five Graves to Cairo. From there the 1950 and 60's saw some solid entries, but the category would essentially go dark until 1992's really bad Shining Through was released. In the shadow of 1998's Saving Private Ryan's spotlight on WWII, the 2000's saw a small re-emergence of films with mixed results. 

In order to get you to the thing most of you came for, "What's the best in this genre? I've put my recommendations for you below. Following that, if you'd like to learn more about the 15 films in this section, then you can find each film in this category organized by release date (oldest to newest) with a brief commentary, a link to its IMDB page, and my grade.

Recommendations
The Top Shelf: Best in this category belongs to...
  • The Five Fingers (1952): One of the joys of doing this film guide is discovering classic films that have been largely forgotten. While it's a joy to share my love for films like Saving Private Ryan or the mini-series Band of Brothers it's not like they are suffering from a lack of popularity or press. This is why I'm happy to share the most underrated and forgotten spy gem I've come across - 1952's The Five Fingers. Set in Ankara, Turkey this espionage story takes place from 1943-1944 and is based on a real-life story of one of the most effective spies of the entire war. This is a nuts and bolts, "I've got secret information to sell" spywork and this film is an excellent education in the basics of the running a spy. I think the master spy writer Le Carre would have loved this story - with its attention to detail, real life parallels, and final existential irony. 

The Deep Dive: For those wanting a broader and richer journey...
  • Five Graves to Cairo (1943): Start with 1943's Five Graves to Cairo. It won't take long to recognize that this was adapted from a play, but you'll relish the geographical constraints (it all takes place in a hotel), witty dialogue, and clockwork plot. 
  • The Man Who Never Was (1956): From there you can enjoy 1956's dramatization of real-life WWII Operation Mincemeat in The Man Who Never Was. I love that this film cares to share every step of this operation in detail, respecting that the viewer doesn't need love stories or extraneous action shoehorned into it. Watch this film to learn of a fairly successful British deception to trick Hitler on the location of the southern invasion.
  • Circle of Deception (1960): 1960's Circle of Deception explores the inherent immorality in spying. Like The Man Who Never Was, the British are looking to give the Germans misinformation and in this case they give their spy the wrong information (unknowingly to the spy) on the D-Day landings knowing he would be captured, tortured, and give up the info. It's twisted stuff.
  • The Imitation Game (2014): Finally, the recent The Imitation Game does a good job showing the technological espionage the British carried out at Bletchley park and the moral quandaries that came with their work. 


    Individual Film Commentary (Oldest to Newest)
    • A+ = All-time Classic
    • A   = Excellent Film
    • A-  = Excellent Film, but some minor faults
    • B+ = Very Good film
    • B   = Good Film
    • B-  = Good Film, but some key faults
    • C+ = Average with some redeeming qualities, but major faults
    • C   = Mediocre Film
    • C-  = Poor Film
    • D+ = Bad Film
    • I don't usually rate anything lower
    1. Foreign Correspondent (1940) IMDB
    - It's 1939 and World War II has not kicked off yet. The world wonders, will there be war or will there be peace? To help read the tea leaves, the New York Globe sends John Jones, played by Joel McCrea, to London as a foreign correspondent, hence the title. Jones attends a peace conference in London and then heads to Amsterdam for another. The film really gets going in a superlative sequence that sees dignitaries entering the conference hotel in the rain when one of the central peace figures, Van Meer, is murdered. Jones chases the murderer to the countryside and finds him in particular a windmill where he happens upon a wider conspiracy. I won't say more about the plot except that it includes a ring of spies and individuals looking to bring one side or another into a general war.

    This film is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a director with whom I've a love/hate relationship. Hitchcock certainly has some great films, but just as often he produces boring, plodding, and repetitive features. This films ends up somewhere in the middle. After a great first act and the inciting incident of the assassination, the film gets bogged down in too many inconsequential sequences. First, the central love story that doesn't make much sense, second an attempt on Jones' life by an assassin that just never quite clicks the way it should, and the final strike is Jones' general passivity and naivete. As the plot unfolds and conspiracy becomes clear, Jones continues to not suspect obvious foul players and is generally just carried along by others making decisions. It's a strange decision that neuters the character. Thankfully, the climax of the film is strong and worth finishing the film for. Ultimately, this is another middling Hitchcock film with a couple great set pieces surrounded by rather mediocre and plodding drama. GRADE: C+

    2. Saboteur (1942) IMDB
    - One of the great fears during wartime is the sabotage of essential industries behind the front lines. America feared Japanese and German sympathizers would take out vital power, water, and transportation hubs causing disruption and panic. This panic is one of the causes for the shameful Japanese internment. In Saboteur, Hitchcock mixes this fear with his usual "wrong man" storyline. In this case, after a local plant is sabotaged the wrong man is blamed and the main characters travel across the country to escape the authorities and find the real saboteur. Despite the famous "Statue of Liberty" ending (that I got to recreate in one of the original Universal Studios Florida attractions in the 90's!), this is a pretty static and boring affair. Hitchcock would go on to do much better with this formula in future movies (think 1956''s The Man Who Knew Too Much or 1959's North by Northwest). GRADE: C-

    3. Five Graves to Cairo (1943) IMDB
    - The near dead British Corporal John J Bramble opens the film walking through the desert after his tank division was beaten in Tobruk. Bramble happens upon a small desert town in Egypt between Tobruk and Alexandria. Suffering from heat stroke, Bramble stumbles into the town's hotel. The Egyptian owner Farid wants to help him, but the French maid Mouche wants to let him die so the incoming Germans won't suspect them of being friendly to the British. The German high command roll into town, occupy the hotel, and through a series of happenstance, the British Corporal is taken for the waiter from the hotel who had died in a bombing the day before. It turns out, through some clever writing and luck, that the waiter so happened to be a German spy known to the high command, who include Field Marshal Rommel. This means the Germans think the hotel waiter is their spy, but in reality he is now a British double agent. With Rommel in the hotel is the secret to the German planned advance on Cairo - a secret rolled up into the title "Five Graves to Cairo". Will Bramble discover the secret, learn the German plans, and escape to the British without being discovered or getting any innocent civilians killed? That's as much as I'll say. It's intelligent, well-written, and engaging. As long as you accept the central conceit of the story, this plays out well and engages until the end. GRADE: B+

    4. Decision Before Dawn (1951) IMDB
    The field of espionage is loaded with "darned if you do, darned if you don't" propositions. One of the difficult and ethically tricky questions that confronted the American armed forces as they approached Germany was whether or not they would use and trust German soldiers willing to spy for them. On one hand, the more information and intelligence you get, the sooner you can end the war and save more American lives. On the other hand, to obtain that information you are likely employing people who are your enemy, could have committed atrocities, and might be feeding you false information as a double agent. When American intelligence hears a German general wants to surrender his troops, the Americans send out two German agents to meet the general and scout for a powerful Panzer division in the area.

    Most of the film follows Oscar Werner's German agent as he goes behind enemy lines and ambles from town to town looking for intelligence and bouncing between inconveniences. The feeling of being behind the lines as Germany is being bombed and in chaos is really well done here. Filming on location and some excellent art direction has helped the film tremendously. What doesn't help the film is the leisurely pace that the mission unfolds on and the fact it feels listless (even if it isn't) and ponderous until the final act which does pick up. This is one of those where the production is worth the view, but the story lets it down. GRADE: C 

    5. 5 Fingers (1952) IMDB
    - This is the most underrated and forgotten spy gem I've come across. I'd venture to say it's a better spy film than any spy film Hitchcock ever made. Set in Ankara, Turkey this espionage story takes place from 1943-1944. The plot gets kick-started when a valet to the British ambassador to neutral Turkey arrives at night to the home of a German foreign officer named Moyzisch (a real life individual whom wrote the book this film is based on) looking to sell photographs of the top secret documents that pass the British ambassador's desk. The Germans begin a back and forth where they want to trust the information, but also not get duped in case the valet is a British double agent. They dub the spy "Cicero" for his high class and sophistication. If this all sounds familiar, it is because it is based on the real life "Cicero Affair", but has been embellished and adapted in a way that makes it both an essentially true recounting of the affair, but also a comprehensive spy story that hits on the themes of the dangers, rewards, and folly of espionage. This film came out a full 11 years before any Bond film and thank goodness it's not obsessed with making it more action oriented or broad for the audience. This is a nuts and bolts, "I've got secret information to sell" spywork and this film is an excellent education in the basics of the running a spy. I think Le Carre would have loved this story, but I can't find any comments he's made on it. 

    Two examples that I think highlight the inherent tradeoffs of the spy game that get emphasized so perfectly here: Since the documents that Cicero are passing to the Germans are of such top secret nature and of such high quality, they struggle to believe it's genuine. In other words, because it's so genuine, that's good reason to doubt it is genuine!  Additional circumstances lead the Germans to question whether or not he is a British agent. Even to this day, it is hotly debated among intelligence historians whether or not "Cicero" was really a British double agent or not. A second example is that Cicero was paid off in forged bank notes - a different secret German operation that you can see play out in the film The Counterfeiters. Just when Cicero believes he has gotten away with everything, fulfilled his dream, and sits down to a meal to enjoy it, everything falls out from under him. It's a classic moment.

    The 5 Fingers is well written, directed, and acted. The writing bears out meticulous work on the details with little moments of surprising knowledge, like inside jokes about German Foreign Secretary von Ribbentrop and a keen understanding of class resentments and trappings in British society. It also bears out in some surprisingly suspenseful sequences, including a wonderful scene where through a series of escalating events, Cicero is finally revealed by the simple diligence of a cleaning lady. James Mason, who plays Cicero, does a grand job here - I think more iconic than his Rommel performances. The final act features some nice twists and turns but it is always clear and easy to follow - you really don't know how it is going to turn out. This might not be a high octane spy film, but it's likely one of the most insightful and educational about what real spy work looked like in World War II than any other film in the category. GRADE: A-

    6. The Man Who Never Was (1956) IMDB
    - A British film adaptation of a novel based on a real-life quirky World War II espionage plot titled Operation Mincemeat. The goal of the operation is to try and convince the Germans that the main thrust of the Allied southern invasion would come in Greece and not in Sicily. Put in charge of the operation is Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu, played by Clifton Webb. Eventually Montagu hits on the idea of taking a dead body, making them seem like they were an important assistant carrying important documents on a plane that went down in the Atlantic. The body would then was ashore, with documents implicating an invasion of Greece, likely fall into German hands and hopefully become a successful deception.

    This is one of those "nuts and bolts" espionage films that eschews action and sensationalism for a grounded portrayal of real life intelligence subterfuge. There's a scene where Montagu and his assistant arrive in an underground morgue and begin to dress the body with item after item intended to sell the story. It's largely shot in one take and the decision to have the Germans bombing overhead during the sequence makes for a brilliant juxtaposition. It's fantastic stuff. Once the body is launched and found by authorities, we get to see a wonderful cat and mouse game of classic espionage - the Germans trying to validate the dead man's life and verify the documents and the British trying to make the whole game stick. While the final act cat and mouse stuff is largely all fictional, it is really the perfect dramatization cherry on top on what is a truly fascinating real life espionage operation. In order to view this film I had to buy a used copy from a thrift store in England and have it shipped over - it was worth it. GRADE: B+ 

    7. Circle of Deception (1960) IMDB
    It's 1944 and the German gestapo have just arrested a spy network in Northern France. The British were must about to drop a spy into the zone, but with the network exposed whoever they send will most certainly be picked up by the gestapo and made to talk. The British spy captain has an idea, what if they still sent someone, but they sent him with false information about the D-day landings. Once he talked, the Germans would think they'd stumbled on to great news when they really stumbled onto misinformation. There's only one snag in the plan, the British authorities would have to deliberately mislead their spy and essentially sacrifice him without him knowing. It's for a good cause though...would you do it?

    I love a good ethical dilemma and placing it within the confines of a spy film is extra gravy for me.  The agent picked for this tragic job is a man named Paul Raine - a confident man whose parents have passed and has little to tie him down. In charge of vetting Raine's quality is an assistant to Captain Rawlson, Lucy Bowen. As she vets him, knowing his fool's job, she falls in love with him. The British send him in and he's eventually picked up by the gestapo. They torture him and he holds out for a long time until his poison pill doesn't work. In a nice twist, the local French resistance bust into the gestapo prison and break out the prisoners, including Raine. It's never said explicitly if this was Captain Rawlson's plan all along. 

    A great premise, executed fairly well, but it is a bit by the numbers since once the plan is laid out everything kinda happens as expected until the final ten minutes. This is the kind of non-sensational spy stuff that feels ultra-realistic and grounded. It's a dirty business that weighs on all those who take part. It's about as close to a dedicated World War II Le Carre story as we've ever gotten. GRADE: B

    8. Operation Crossbow (1965) IMDB
    - A fictional account of the real life British WWII operation to gain intelligence on and subvert the German V1 and V2 rocket programs. The film largely opens with a procedural method, showing the German rocket preparations and the nuts and bolts of the intelligence operations of the British to locate and destroy the rocket bases. This stuff is all pretty good. Unfortunately, the British come across a base that is largely underground and will demand the use of on the ground spies. A group of three, including George Peppard the lead actor the rest of the way out, are drafted, parachuted behind enemy lines, and will attempt to infiltrate the German underground facility and get the intelligence back to Britain.

    Unfortunately, the smooth and methodical progression of the story is interrupted by complications with the stolen identities the spies used - including a 15-20 minute digression where the wife of the deceased cover figure shows up. It grinds the story to a halt and worse, this particular detour feels superfluous and written in just to get a larger female role in the film (a common issue with WWII films). There's a secondary mishap including a double agent and the German police that comes off much better. Once the rocket facility is infiltrated, the movie picks up a bit but I'd say it never fully recovers. The promise of the first act is met with mixed results in the second and a third act that becomes more Bond like than the rest of the film that tries to be grounded. GRADE: C+

    9. Triple Cross (1966) IMDB
    - Hot off directing the first three successful James Bond films, Terence Young directed this World War II spy film based on the real life story of double agent Eddie Chapman. Chapman was a British bank robber who was eventually arrested and imprisoned on the island of Jersey. The Germans took over the island in the war and Chapman offers himself to them to serve as a spy against Britain. Caught between the German and the British, Chapman offers his services to the British as well, this time as a double agent. This amoral, playing both sides, nature led to the codename "zig zag". Christopher Plummer plays Chapman as suave, high-class, determined, and willing to say and do anything to stay alive and free. As romantic and adventurous as this plot sounds, this film has a way of making it all seem rather boring and unsubstantial to be honest. It's decently plot heavy, but it all feels like run-up to something that never really happens. I don't think this is from a desire to keep it "real and grounded," rather, it seems they have struggled to really identify and dramatize Chapman's worth as a spy. What exactly did he do for the British? What great information or misinformation did he supply? It isn't until the last few minutes where it feels like something substantial happens, but by then it's all over. Interesting, with a Bond-esque performance from Plummer here, but ultimately this is pretty forgettable stuff. GRADE: C

    10. Shining Through (1992) IMDB
    - The first major World War II espionage film in nearly thirty years, Shining Through was adapted from a novel into a prestige romance/drama for the Oscars. Starring Michael Douglas and a hugely miscast Melanie Griffith. Douglas is a colonel and spymaster while Griffith, who was his intelligent and plucky secretary, turns out to be a good choice as an agent in Berlin. Griffith, who in America claimed to be a good cook and understand Berlin, screws up horrendously. Despite help from a fellow spy, she can't handle a message exchange, can't cook as a way to get in a key household, and is generally befuddled and bewildered it seems. Additionally her accent/voice stretches the audience's disbelief every time she opens her mouth.

    Griffith eventually lands on her feet as the domestic helper/nannie of a major Reich officer, played by Liam Neeson. When she begins looking for her Jewish relatives hiding out, rather than hoping she is able to rescue them, I couldn't help but just hope she didn't screw things up. The film takes goes through some eventual plot twists, but none of it ever really clicks. Douglas and Griffith don't have great chemistry, Griffith single handedly sinks the film, and the story itself never quite engages despite the prestige level production values. GRADE: D+ 

    11. Charlotte Gray (2001) IMDB
    - Young Charlotte is in London during the war and after getting connected with soldiers and others in the war effort wants to do something courageous and make a difference. Given her background of living in Paris and speaking fluent French, Charlotte becomes a spy for the British. She is trained, given a new identity, and parachuted behind enemy lines to be a courier. She quickly makes her contacts and gets involved in courier work, sabotage, and the protection of a couple of Jewish boys. There's some good traditional cynical (you can't trust anyone) spy moments here and a nice wearied and regretful Michael Gambon performance who becomes a nice scene stealer. However, beyond the beautiful cinematography and production values, this is pretty standard stuff for this kind of story. There's a feeling that somewhere along the way the film, which is a spy story, forgets to be a spy story and turns into something else entirely. It kinda becomes a mess. It's a shame since the novel the film is based on, is loosely on a real person who is one of the most exciting, adventurous, and interesting stories of the whole war. GRADE: C

    12. The Imitation Game (2014) IMDB
    -Dropping special operation teams behind enemy lines, running spy rings, and supporting resistance movements all had a great effect on shortening the war. However, many historians believe the operation that shortened the war the most is the deciphering efforts headed by a team of scientists at Bletchley Park in England. Codenamed Ultra, the program was determined to intercept and decipher as much Axis intelligence as possible. One of the best ways Germany kept their transmissions coded was through a machine called the enigma. It was extremely difficult to break. Breaking the enigma machine was the job of a team headed by Mathematician Alan Turing, played here by Benedict Cumberbatch in a performance not that dissimilar from his Sherlock Holmes. 

    Turing is quirky, obstinate, but also a genius. He is determined to break the enigma using a machine, the first of its kind - though it will be expensive and require overcoming many obstacles. There are also several subplots here: Turing's homosexuality, his wife, and a Russian mole. It all does come together pretty well to tell a focused story about what happened with the Ultra program and how essential Turing was in it. This stuff is all handsomely produced and well considered. However, there's a framing device of a police investigation later in Turing's life that feels like it belongs in a different movie with a different focus. GRADE: B

    13. Allied (2016) IMDB
    - Brad Pitt and Marion Cottillard play Allied undercover agents (or are they double agents?) in this Robert Zemeckis directed World War II spy film. They first meet in Casablanca on a job where they must play husband and wife who infiltrate the Nazi embassy and murder the ambassador. I have to admit, there's something romantic and nostalgic (perhaps because of my love for the film Casablanca? - in fact, there's a lot of Casablanca homages in this film) I find about this opening setup. It establishes the characters well and gives us a dashing/romantic first act story. Unfortunately, the movie never gets better than the promise of the first act. The two spies fall in love, marry, and settle in London. This is tough to believe since Cottillard exhibits incredible skills in the opening act - infiltrates embassies, speaks multiple languages, seems to have a history of operations, and can handle pressure and guns. It's never quite explained why Cottillard gives it all up for the domestic life exactly. Once the big twist of the film happens, the story bogs down a bit and never quite feels as satisfying as it should. It's a passable spy film with high production values and good performances. GRADE: B-

    14. The Catcher Was a Spy (2018) IMDB
    - This isn't a good film, but it was a pretty easy and enjoyable view nonetheless. Paul Rudd plays...well...the affable Paul Rudd (as he does in pretty much every role)...but he plays the titular catcher Moe Berg. Berg played many years for the Red Sox. He was an intellectual and had a knack for picking up languages - he spoke 7 fluently. After the war kicked off, Berg was recruited to join the newly formed OSS and became connected to the real life Operation Alsos - a mission to determine if Germany was developing or had developing a nuclear bomb. This role turned Berg and other scientists and army men in a kind of detective squad hunting down scientist associates and questioning them. The top dog on their list is Werner Heisenberg - the head of the German fission program. The final act of the film revolves around Berg setting up a lecture and meeting with Heisenberg to determine if they were close to building a bomb, if he was, then Berg would kill Heisenberg. There's issues with Berg's characterizations (including a somewhat random subplot about Berg being homosexual), but it's an easy to film to watch as they float between one historical person after another and tell a pretty straight forward and basic true story. GRADE: C+

    15. A Call to Spy (2020) IMDB
    - France has fallen to Hitler and Britain seems to stand alone against the Nazi threat. Like British army results in North France before Dunkirk, early Special Operation Executive spies were unprepared and unsuccessful. To compete, the British decide to draw on female spies, despite the "ungentlemanly" nature of doing so. The opening act of the film sees Vera Atkins, a high ranking female in the SOE, recruiting and training female spies. The female spy who takes the central role in the film is Virginia Hall, an American who lost the lower half of her leg (now wearing a fake wooden one) and wants to matter in the war effort. 

    She is stationed in Lyons wear she finds early success. What follows are a series of events and stories depict the development of spy networks across France. Frankly, the sequences are all kind of pedestrian for this genre. It's workmanlike, mostly unremarkable, and generally lacking some kind of distinctive story goal. Eventually, a Nazi heavy is revealed in Klaus Barbie that gives the film a personified central villain. Unfortunately, he's played so broad and one note that it does shift the tone of the film quite a bit. There's a decent thread about a double agent rolling up and exposing agents, but the film telegraphs who it is far too early for it to be much of a surprise when it happens. Unfortunately, once the heavy appears, the film turns incredibly passive and a bit to reflective for its own good. There are some interesting things they are doing here, but it never amounts to more than just a decent history dramatization. GRADE: C+


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