Parody or Thriller? Ambler’s “Highly Dangerous” (1950)

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Highly Dangerous (1950) is an entertaining amateur-turned-spy British espionage adventure film, elevated by the presence of Margaret Lockwood and several skilled character actors.  Lockwood plays Dr. Frances Gray, a renowned entomologist [translation: bug scientist] who’s about to begin a long-awaited holiday when the British government requests her services as a spy.  A tiny (fictional) European country is rumored to be experimenting with insects as vectors for biological warfare, and Britain needs an entomologist to confirm its suspicions by identifying samples from a top-secret research facility.  Initially, Dr. Gray refuses, figuring that there are plenty of scientists but few vacation days…

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Appearing in a small role as intelligence officer Mr. Hedgerley is Naunton Wayne.  What ho!  It’s Caldicott, one of the bumbling Englishmen from The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich!  Still 100% British, but playing a serious character role this time.  I love the scene in which he figures out the most effective way to convince (or manipulate?) Lockwood’s character into serving as a spy.  Driving him to the train station as a courtesy, she interrupts his conversation by turning on the radio: it’s time for that thrilling serial, “Frank Conway, Secret Agent!”

Dr. Gray professes to be listening for her nephew’s sake, but her behavior betrays her: her expression turns from irritated boredom to discreetly rapt excitement, as the car’s speedometer creeps up and down in tune with the story arc.  Mr. Hedgerley observes, smiles, settles back and waits.  Now armed with the insight he needs, Mr. Hedgerley casts a few “Oh, pity you can’t help us save the world, maybe we can find someone else for this critical mission” crumbs upon the waters as he gets out to catch his train.

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Before you know it, Dr. Gray is off to a tiny fictional European country (think Ruritania, which actually gets name-dropped later), incognito as a travel agency’s location scout.  In a whimsical touch, Mr. Hedgerley has given her a new passport under the name of Frances Conway.

Dr. Gray is a shockingly incompetent secret agent – she’s an amateur, after all.  But she’s not really to blame when things go wrong: the omnipresent chief of police (Marius Goring) seems to have figured out what she’s up to from the moment she enters the country.

She’s sitting in a restaurant pondering her next move, when she meets foreign correspondent Bill Casey (Dane Clark), a man in search of a story.  The two make an effort to investigate, but are thwarted again – and this time, Dr. Gray is arrested, drugged with a truth serum, and released, after being warned to leave the country within 24 hours.

Just when you think Dr. Gray’s been stymied before she’s had a chance to begin, she suddenly looks Bill Casey straight in the eye, and begins explaining how they’re going to accomplish their mission – regulations, police, and protected military installations be darned.  Casey splutters protests; he can’t believe she’s suggesting these ideas.  Has she lost her mind?

As a matter of fact, she’s swapped it.  (Remember that truth serum?)  As Dr. Gray, she was merely brave.  Now, she’s brave, and she thinks she’s the impervious heroine of a radio serial.  That’s right: Frances Conway, secret agent!

Real spies dress well. Dr. Gray chooses an all-white ensemble and smashing hat. Source

While I was watching, as “Frances Conway” laid out her daring (and insane) plan, Bill Casey started responding like the perfect sidekick, and they both proceeded to rush madly into said plan, a few little gears in my head suddenly clicked into place.  The plot had suddenly turned familiar; who was that screenwriter again?  Eric Ambler.  Oh.  Of course.

Eric Ambler was a writer of espionage stories – classics such as Background to Danger, The Mask of Dimitrios, and Journey Into Fear.  He also wrote and adapted screenplays, among them The October Man, Brief Encounter, A Night to Remember, and…Highly Dangerous.

Ambler, in his very first novel The Dark Frontier (1936), used this same premise and ran with it.  (Ran away with it, possibly, but had fun nonetheless.)  Highly Dangerous uses it as a short-term plot device, but Dark Frontier carries it through seventeen chapters.  A physicist under strain receives a shock, gets in a car accident, and emerges from his blackout as Conway Carruthers, international adventurer.  (Ambler even re-used the names.)  There’s a reporter named Casey who finds himself playing the trusted sidekick/right-hand man (the Dane Clark role in Dangerous).  There’s a mysterious laboratory in the woods, a small Eastern European country with an identical capitol (Zovgorod), and even several scenes are approached in similar ways.  It’s not a carbon copy, but it’s got the same handwriting.

Moreover, Ambler intended The Dark Frontier to be a parody of the spy thriller genre.  With that in mind, Highly Dangerous suddenly looks a lot less like a B-level spy story, and more like a deliberate spoof.  Those implausible twists and gaping plot holes start to make sense…

Clark & Lockwood.  Source: Silver Sirens

Clark & Lockwood. Source: Silver Sirens

Back to the movie.  Dr. Gray – er, Agent Frances Conway – takes charge, with one baffled-but-loyal Casey in tow.  Before she’s through, there will be dodging of police shadows, a daring nighttime raid, and thrilling attempts to evade capture – all played according to the Radio Serial Secret Agent Handbook.  Casey even gets a new moniker: Dr. Gray keeps calling him “Rusty,” after Frank Conway’s fictional sidekick.

Casey:  Honey, this is not your job.
Gray:    Who else is going to do it?  No, the next move’s ours. We’ve got to move quickly, Rusty.
Casey:  The name’s Bill.
Gray:    I know it is.
Casey:  And stop talking like the Lone Ranger!

Lockwood’s portrayal of the fearless Frances Conway is one of the best parts – brief, but fun.  (I’d watch a “real” Frances Conway movie!)  She doesn’t overplay it with either wackiness or coldness, as another actress might have been tempted to, and Dr. Gray’s “real” self is a no-nonsense, straightforward scientist who’s still pleasantly likeable.

Dane Clark isn’t an actor I’m familiar with, but he’s well-suited to his sidekick/romantic interest role here, and he and Lockwood make a good team.  Marius Goring is appropriately slimy and dangerous as the police chief; Wilfrid Hyde-White is memorable as the ever-diplomatic British consul.

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A funny scene involving sugar reminds the viewer that even in 1950, Britain still struggled with food rationing.  While the US had dropped all forms of rationing shortly after WWII, UK rationing of food extended through 1954, a whopping nine years after the war ended.  (Rationing was reduced in stages, with petrol rationing abolished in 1950, sugar in 1953, and meat in 1954.)


Both movie and book are interesting hybrids: not entirely succeeding at being either fully-fledged espionage stories or brilliant parody, but still quite entertaining on both levels.  The Dark Frontier is a somewhat mediocre hybrid, although it milks the humor of the situation in a way that Dangerous isn’t able to: for instance, when “Conway Carruthers” decides to seek out his “old friend,” a Parisian police inspector.

Highly Dangerous was marketed as a genuine adventure story, and it may have handicapped itself by not tipping its hand to the viewer early on.  It proceeds exactly the way a B movie would be expected to, so when the twist comes, it’s not readily apparent.  On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter – this is a movie that requires a willing suspension of disbelief and a dollop of good humor, and it’s just as good on a second viewing to spot the pokes at genre convention that you missed the first time.

Summary:  Watch Highly Dangerous as the gently spoofing thriller it’s intended to be, and you’ll have fun. :)

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“Highly Dangerous” (1950) – Margaret Lockwood, Dane Clark, Marius Goring, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Naunton Wayne.  Director: Roy Ward Baker.


The movie has been reviewed elsewhere by Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings – where I first read about it – and In So Many Words.

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