A quirky little espionage caper produced in 1941 before the United States’ entry into World War II, Tim Whelan’s International Lady might be a tad short on thrills, but its top-notch cast deals playfully with the material at hand and makes it more entertaining than it has any right to be.
The Production: 3/5
A quirky little espionage caper produced in 1941 before the United States’ entry into World War II, Tim Whelan’s International Lady might be a tad short on thrills in the early going, but its top-notch cast deals playfully with the material at hand and makes it more entertaining than it has any right to be. ClassicFlix has done a sterling job upgrading this long forgotten independent movie for 21st century eyes.
On the trail of Axis undercover agents on the continent and operating out of the United States, FBI agent Tim Hanley (George Brent) and Scotland Yard detective Reggie Oliver (Basil Rathbone) find themselves joining forces to discover how the Nazis are able to know the whereabouts of American planes on their way to England to aid in the war effort and then manage to sabotage them so expertly. Suspicion has fallen on Norwegian concert singer Carla Nillson (Ilona Massey), but exactly how the vivacious and talented soprano figures into the spy operations becomes the mission of both Hanley and Oliver, at first attempting to operate separately and then realizing that they work better as a team. Complicating things are the growing feelings that Hanley and Nillson begin having for one another, each knowing that their involvement on opposing sides can’t bode well for the success of a romantic entanglement.
The screenplay by Howard Estabrook based on an original story by E. Lloyd Sheldon and Jack DeWitt has a decent espionage plot which allows the Nazis to enjoy a series of successful sabotages before the Allies begin to put their heads together to decipher their enemy’s elaborate code (hidden among the melody and accompanying harmonies of the songs Ms. Nillson sings on the radio). Almost 2/3 of the film unspools before “our side” begins to make headway on that code which leads them to the final showdown with the Nazis led with cunning bravado by George Zucco (who hides in plain sight as the butler Webster through much of the movie). That faceoff at an abandoned granary offers the most fun in the movie as separately Hanley and Oliver manage to waylay individual villains in the dark and around corners out of sight of the Nazis. There’s also a threateningly massive fan and a grain storage vat just primed for suffocation that Oliver must contend with. Though the suspense is often more verbal than visceral, director Tim Whelan does set up a couple of stunningly framed shots that draw our attention: all of the shenanigans around that climactic granary sequence and especially during one of Nillson’s concerts where we see the room of beautifully appointed furniture and handsomely outfitted audience listening in rapt silence as Basil Rathbone’s Oliver (in a disguise of his own) mounts the stairs to a second floor landing all captured in one glorious shot (noted Oscar-winning cinematographer Hal Mohr easily deserving his reputation).
George Brent offers his usual solid if slightly low-key performance as FBI agent Tim Hanley though he manages in the early going to convincingly play the naïve fish-out-of-water American in London. Ilona Massey’s industrial strength soprano is rather heavy listening in a couple of arias she undertakes, and her emoting isn’t any too involving either though she looks stunning in a succession of Gwen Wakeling gowns. Basil Rathbone walks away with acting honors in the picture: his hale and hearty manner is tremendously appealing from the start, and his disguise midway through the film is initially hard to penetrate unless one is looking for it, abetted with a wonderfully snappy bit of vocal dexterity, too, qualities that had already done him well in two Sherlock Holmes films and would serve him with ever greater opportunities in the twelve Holmes outings in his future. Speaking of Holmes, three mainstays from his Holmes films pop up in International Lady all in rather important roles: Frederic Worlock plays Sir Henry, head of the Scotland Yard foreign office while Martin Kosleck offers his creepy presence as Nazi Bruner while, of course, George Zucco (who had been one of Rathbone’s most notable Professor Moriartys) offers convincing menace as Webster. As Hitchcock would do in 1942’s Saboteur, International Lady has another upper class American family as enemy agents in disguise, here played by Gene Lockhart and Marjorie Gateson as Mr. and Mrs. Grenner, most effective casting. Look quickly to see a young Clayton Moore as an FBI agent.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Apart from vault footage of the Blitz which offers grainy textures, weak grayscale, and some scratches, image quality is close to first-rate. Despite occasional flickering, the picture is wonderfully clear and clean with deep blacks, appealing white levels, and excellent contrast. The movie has been divided into 7 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix offers very appealing fidelity overall. Dialogue has been well recorded and has been mixed astutely with Lucien Moraweck’s background music and the various sound effects to provide a fine period soundfield. There are no problems with era-related anomalies like hiss, crackle, flutter, and pops.
Special Features: 0.5/5
ClassicFlix Trailers (HD): The Little Rascals: Volumes 1 and 2, T-Men, Tomorrow Is Forever.
While its action is only sporadic and its budget is low, Tim Whelan’s International Lady offers a goodly amount of entertainment bang for the buck. ClassicFlix has remastered the film to look near pristine, and fans of the stars or the spy genre might want to give this one a try.
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