Monday, November 15, 2010


When I posted about DEAD MAN'S EYES a week ago, I mentioned how hard it was to watch these films without recalling what I had read about it or had seen in the multiple times that I had viewed the movies before. Well, ENEMY AGENT is one of twelve SHOCK! films that I have never seen before or ever read anything about, so I didn't have that problem--- what I saw the other night was entirely fresh and new, presumably as it had been for many SHOCK! watchers in 1957-58.

Though difficult to discern in this screen-cap, stock footage of the burning zeppelin Hindenburg can be seen in a montage beneath the superimposed newspaper front page and the word "SPY"

A wave of sabotage and the murder of an aircraft engineer tips off the FBI that there’s a spy ring at work in Los Angeles. The spies’ latest operation involves efforts to obtain plans for the high-precision Wallis bombsight being designed at Fulton Aircraft for the new B-17 Flying Fortress ("so accurate that a plane can drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from five miles up," the ringleader tells us). As the G-men's investigation put the Fulton engineers under scrutiny, the spy, Lester Taylor (Jack Arnold), frames Jimmy Saunders (Richard Cromwell) in order to divert attention away from himself. Jimmy is hauled in by the FBI for interrogation and later released, but the taint of suspicion is enough to get Jimmy fired and blackballed from finding employment in the aircraft industry. As he descends into a spiral of drunkenness and frustration, the steakhouse hostess who he thought was his girl, Irene Hunter (Helen Vinson), dumps him for Taylor, leaving puppy-doggish good-girl waitress Peggy (Marjorie Reynolds) to take care of bitter Jimmy.

Jimmy is grilled by the Feds

The spymaster Dr. Arnold and his two hoods

The mastermind of the unnamed enemy nation's spy cell, suave Dr. Jeffrey Arnold (Philip Dorn, who adopts a north-central European accent here to evoke Nazi Germany for 1940 cinema-goers and the USSR for those watching it on TV in 1957), sets up a plan to murder Jimmy; Jimmy is becoming a nuisance in his attempts to clear his name and he must be killed. But before that can happen, Jimmy stumbles onto evidence that Taylor is the spy in Fulton Aircraft. Meanwhile, Jimmy's gold-digging ex-girlfriend Irene tries blackmailing both Taylor (for $5000) and Arnold (for $10,000, with an option to join the spies).

By the end of the hour, there’s (what I am guessing is supposed to be) a surprise ending (though the TV description below gives it away) as it is revealed that FBI was just as deceitful and manipulative of Jimmy as Arnold’s organization was. But Jimmy is not upset about that --- he says that he understands why the G-men ruined his life by smearing him with espionage charges, driving him to alcoholism, manipulating his love life, and getting him subjected to a few good beat-downs. And besides, they give Jimmy some money, he gets his old job back with a week’s vacation and a couple plane tickets, and he scores another chance at romance, so it’s all good, I guess.

Listing for KRON- Channel 4, San Francisco, October 25, 1958

Once I got over the simple giddiness of seeing a SHOCK! title that I knew nothing about, I was left with a straight-forward and perfectly serviceable B-movie espionage melodrama. ENEMY AGENT is completely indistinguishable from the dozen or so similar films that you’ve seen on TCM early on weekday mornings. There’s nothing vaguely fantastique here, not even a hint of dark murder-mystery chills; technically or stylistically, there isn't anything unusual or quirky by director Lew Landers (RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE and dozens of other movie and television shows), just thoroughly competent by-the-numbers movie-making (some of the two-fisted action sequences reminded me of similar flat and economical fight scenes in dull serials that I have seen). ENEMY AGENT is not a bad movie ---it is just a pedestrian action flick. (An April 22, 1940 review in the New York Times disagrees, saying that “ENEMY AGENT is considerably more entertaining than the average melodrama of this sort. First, the story is told with dispatch; second, and even more important, it has one of the strangest denouements that you are likely to see in a long time--- a scene so ludicrously funny that it alone is almost worth the price of admission.” I can’t say that I was as amused as that reviewer, but it was definitely unlike anything I had ever seen before.)

According to the television broadcast listings from 1957 to 1962 that I searched, ENEMY AGENT was shown quite frequently on TV, but primarily in non-"Shock Theatre"-style showcases: mid-morning, late afternoon, and early evening were all time-slots where the movie turned up. From my research sample, it would appear that program directors exercised their prerogative in broadcasting any SHOCK! title in any way that they chose, and that many decided that ENEMY AGENT was not enough of a horror or mystery movie to make the cut. And as I said, this is just an action picture that would have incensed anyone (who had tuned in to, say, KRON's "Nightmare" in the wee hours of Saturday morning) hoping for a monster show.

Sheboygan (WI) Press, July 16, 1940. In the 1940 first-run theater listings that I saw for ENEMY AGENT, it was paired with crime programmers like Fox's GIRL IN 313 and Columbia's BABIES FOR SALE; one exception is the listing that I have reproduced here. THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES will show up in the Son of SHOCK! package from Screen Gems in 1958.

Why did the people at Screen Gems include such obviously non-horror movies in SHOCK! when most of their promotional hullabaloo emphasized Universal's monsters? With 550-600 titles at their disposable and a seller's market for movies on television, why did they choose something as un-shocking as ENEMY AGENT to be part of the package? Equally interesting to me is how some other non-horror titles that were included in SHOCK! have come to be regarded as part of the Universal horrors canon when others (like ENEMY AGENT) have not and have all but completely disappeared from view. I'll be offering some ideas about this in future posts as we move through this viewing project.

Next: "See Lon Chaney [sic] --- the screen's sensational master of menace --- as the monster who would not die on Shock's feature film THE MUMMY'S TOMB... You won't want to miss seeing Kharis, the sacred living mummy that terrorized a town. Be sure to tune in."


Mirek said...

I'm sure I've never seen this film, so your review was most welcome. Yeah, monster kids must have been bewildered, if not outright weepy, whenever this film showed up in Shock programming.

kochillt said...

ENEMY AGENT never appeared on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER, and I surely would have passed on it as a monster viewing urchin. Even with its inclusion in the SHOCK! package, this film, and the other non horror titles, are today perhaps more obscure than ever before, though I've found them all. Hitchcock often made good use of this plot, an innocent man trying to clear himself, but it's safe to call this espionage spy picture routine, if still enjoyable. I could only appreciate its status as a SHOCK! entry as a mature adult, if I dare try to classify myself as such! Horror fans will find Robert Armstrong and Milburn Stone on hand, but that's about it.