The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

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This review is my second contribution to the Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Classic Spies, hosted by Movies, Silently from June 1-3. See the complete list of films and participants here.

The Counterfeit Traitor, as you may have guessed, is one of my favorite 1960s spy movies.

Most classic spy films focus on a single, critical piece of information – or a one-time, action-packed assignment. There are exceptions: Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, or George Smiley hunting the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But really, most movie spies are after MacGuffins. TV spies’ work is, by nature, episodic; movie spies generally have a mission to get in, get the information, and get out – as fast as possible. Occasionally, we catch up to embedded spies just as they’re escaping (or trying to). It’s less common to find a spy on a long-term, ongoing espionage assignment.

The Counterfeit Traitor‘s premise is loosely based on the story of Eric Erickson, a real WWII spy.

William Holden’s voice-over lays out the facts. The year: 1942. Eric Erickson is a Swedish oil executive (American by birth, now a Swedish citizen). He’s just been placed on a U.S. blacklist and disowned by his brother for – according to Erickson – no reason at all. A “Nazi collaborator,” the papers say. All he’s doing is trading oil with Germany! Sweden is neutral; he’s a businessman. Germany needs barrels of oil; Erickson likes barrels of money. Simple.

Simple, that is, until he meets a British intelligence agent (Collins, played by Hugh Griffith). Collins explains that he can arrange to remove Erickson from the blacklist after the war (a necessity if Erickson wants to keep his business a going concern), provided he serves as a spy. Erickson is ideally situated to discover critical information about Germany’s oil production, and pass it on to Allied Bomber Command. With his hand forced, Erickson agrees. In short order, he’ll also be compelled to turn visibly, actively pro-Nazi – publicly insulting his Jewish best friend, and even losing his wife in the process. He can’t tell anyone. And all for a cause he couldn’t care less about.

As much as it’s an exciting spy story (with a harrowing escape), The Counterfeit Traitor is also about the awakening of a collaborator’s conscience, and a tragic love story. It raises questions about moral responsibility, and doesn’t necessarily answer them. It’s a thrilling, gripping, bittersweet roller coaster of a tale.


 

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There’s too much here to summarize properly, and honestly, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers.  (Although I do share a few important ones, so be warned.) This is one you’ll want to watch. Instead, let me share some of the reasons and scenes that make it one of my favorites. There are lots of things to enjoy in this movie.

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How to pull off a “Secret Mission” in 1942

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This post is my contribution to the Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Classic Spies, hosted by Movies, Silently from June 1-3. See the complete list of films and participants here.

Have you ever wondered how to pull off a successful spy mission? Perhaps you’re planning a trip back to occupied France, and you need a few pointers before you turn the dial on the ol’ time machine. Never fear; the British show you how to do it all in Secret Mission.

  • Introduce your crack espionage team. You’ll want a handsome commanding officer (Hugh Williams); a Free French fighter and cook (James Mason); Michael Wilding as a private who…well, we’ll get to him later; and a trusted right-hand man (Roland Culver). This is a good cast; keep them. You’ll need them to carry the script.

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  • Always remember that it makes total sense to send a team of commandos across the English Channel (at great risk to both boats and men) to poke around an unfamiliar locale for info on troop movements, bombing targets, and all that sort of thing. Putting local citizens in jeopardy to procure papers, shelter, and transportation while sheltering the Brits is par for the course. Setting up a local intelligence network and sending communiques via less risky methods is for wimps.
  • It is a moral requirement that at least one member of your party (preferably the handsome officer; it’s best not to assign the cook or the lowly private to this role) fall head over heels in love with a local beauty. Corollary: there must be a local beauty, preferably living in the same house where you’ll be holed up for the week. Here, her name is Michele, played by Carla Lehmann; she’s Raoul’s (James Mason’s) sister.
  • Maintain a blissful disregard for actual languages and/or accents used by various nationalities. Have James Mason attempt a French accent.
  • For added personal drama, have the local beauty encourage her brother to come back to France, as it’s difficult running the family farm alone. And then urge him frantically to stay out of sight, because the Germans might see him. (Um…)
  • Being holed up in a house is boring for the audience. Allow your spies to wander the village and surrounding countryside at will. A disguise of civilian duds and downward-cast looks provides adequate concealment. The issue of not having identification papers can be addressed by dodging behind trees and under cafĂ© counters – just be quick about it!
  • Champagne merchants can go anywhere. Anywhere. Including driving directly into local German military headquarters and requesting to see the man in charge, like any good door-to-door salesmen. (If you’re looking for the origins of Hogan’s Heroes, look no further. They’ve even got the Disguise!Glasses.) Frankly, this scene is pretty funny; everyone is playing it tongue-in-cheek. (Culver: “Do you think we overdid the ‘Heils’?”)
Just a couple of friendly neighborhood champagne salesmen.

Just a couple of friendly neighborhood champagne salesmen.

  • The outrageous bluff always works. Especially if your fellow “champagne merchant” just handed the nice German officer an English cigarette.
  • It’s always embarrassing if you wind up in a situation you weren’t trained for in Hogan’s Heroes’ School of Espionage. Luckily, there is no such situation. The Germans, you see, were A+ students at Col. Klink’s Military Academy. When your champagne merchants show up, they’re immediately spotted for who they must really be: Gestapo counterintelligence agents!
  • Provide comedic relief. Cast Michael Wilding as a British private who doesn’t want to go back to St. Antoine (the village in question) because his overbearing French wife lives there, and the one perk of the war is not seeing her again. At least, I think this was comedy relief? (Seriously, this part made for a few chuckles, and no sense! But I’m told it was parodied to the hilt in ‘Allo ‘Allo!.)
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Michael Wilding. Cleverly disguised with a beret.

  • If any German soldiers are suspicious, claim to be Gestapo.
  • Hijack a German patrol vehicle blasting Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture. Turn it up full blast. Why? Because you can.
  • As a plot device, have the French love interest change her mind every five seconds: I’m so happy you’ve come! Wait, my brother’s not coming back to work on the farm? Get out, you’re going to endanger everyone! Wait, I think I’m falling in love with you. The Germans killed my brother! Now I will refuse to help you escape! Until I change my mind and rush out to save everyone at the last moment…  (More seriously, it was a nice touch to have a character who wasn’t passionately pro-Resistance from the get-go. The point gets muddied by too many whiplash mood changes, but Michele’s desire to protect her family’s home and livelihood by lying low was probably not uncommon – and understandable. She adds the necessary heart to the implausible plot.)

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  • This is 1942. Happily-ever-after endings are for after the war. A tear-jerker parting scene between the English officer and the French woman is called for – with a message that the brave citizens of occupied France are secretly fighting the good fight, while the Allies are successfully bombing the stuffing out of hidden factories.

 

And that’s how you pull off a successful Secret Mission! Congratulations; you’re ready to be a spy. Don’t forget to finish the semester at Hogan’s Heroes’ School of Espionage before you go.

Secret Mission isn’t going to land any lost classics awards, or make it onto a “10 Best WWII Spy Films” list, but it’s fluffy, Espionage Lite entertainment, with a side of fantasy and a morale boost for WWII-era audiences. In a darkened theater in 1942, following the end of the Blitz, it may have been reassuring to see that the Nazis were just a bunch of dressed-up bowling pins, ready to be knocked down by British know-how and gumption.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t also ridiculous: see above. It may have hit almost every spy/commando/resistance trope in the book as of 1942 – and probably contributed a few to the cause. As a How-To Guide for a WWII spy movie, it’s gold. You’ve got a Cafe Scene, a Walk in the Moonlight Scene, an Infiltrating Enemy HQ with a Bluff Scene, a Listening to the BBC Scene, a Tragic Death of Team Member Scene (with accompanying Patriotic Speech), a bombing, a chase, a scurry through soldier-infested woods, a paratrooper invasion(!), and Discussions with French Citizens About the Occupation.

 

And you know, despite all that, it’s actually rather fun.

Tomorrow, we’ll be taking a more serious look at a real WWII spy in George Seaton’s The Counterfeit Traitor. Meanwhile, don’t forget to stop by the Snoopathon and check out the other entries!

Trench coats for all!

Trench coats for all!

 

“The Hour Before the Dawn” (1944)

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I don’t usually go into old movies blind, but I was excited to finally watch The Hour Before the Dawn (1944), one of Paramount’s elusive archive that has never been released on DVD.  All I knew was that Veronica Lake was in it, that she played a German spy or sympathizer, and that the title sounded appropriately dramatic.  Full of eager anticipation at watching one of Lake’s more obscure movies, and one with WWII espionage elements at that, I settled in for a good watch.

The fact that nobody in recent memory had reviewed it as “a lost classic” or “a real gem in the rough” should have been a tip-off that it wasn’t on anybody’s must-watch list…

The first thing that strikes the unsuspecting viewer, as the titles roll, is this.

Franchot tone & Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake and…Franchot Tone?!

Okay, then.  Unlikelier pairings have been successful: Fredric March and Veronica Lake, anyone?  Besides, I like Lake and tolerate Tone.  Hmm…credits, credits, more names…ooh, Miklos Rozsa score…

The second thing that strikes the viewer (after the Miklos Rozsa credit), is the director: Frank Tuttle.  Three years earlier, Tuttle had directed Lake in This Gun For Hire, a tersely plotted, bona fide noir classic, and incredibly stylish to boot.  We also note, in passing, that the movie is based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham.  Well, not exactly “in passing.”  We pan in on a giant leather-bound book, with “W. Somerset Maugham” in gilt letters.

This is your tip-off that the action-packed, thrilling spy story promised by the poster is going to have a distinctly literary flair.  Because it’s Maugham, however, it’s not a tip-off that the film is going to plod along at the pace of a cracked quill pen on vellum – to wildly mix a metaphor.  But mixing metaphors is okay, because The Hour Before the Dawn isn’t sure what it’s supposed to be, either.
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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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