Secret Agent (1936)

Alfred Hitchcock. One of the most deathless names among the great directors, and deservedly so. He introduced many cinematic storytelling techniques, and his amazing camerawork and timing can still take your breath away.

If you want to see his most classical masterpieces then (with a few exceptions) you must unfortunately go elsewhere than the Internet Archive. But if you are interested in digging deeper into his copious production, then the Archive offers many a forgotten gem (and some that should perhaps best remain forgotten). One of the best, and one which is almost never remembered today, is Secret Agent.

Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre and John Gielgud in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936)

Thematically, Secret Agent shares many features with the non Hitchcock thriller Dark Journey (1937), which I have previously reviewed. Both are spy stories made shortly before World War II, set during World War I, and mostly taking place in a neutral country (Switzerland in the case of Secret Agent). The main thematic difference is that the love story here is not between agents from different sides.

The plot of Secret Agent is somewhat problematic and may actually be one reason why the film is no longer very popular. The beginning, about a person whose death is faked in order to provide a good secret identity, is elegantly told but leaves only a really, really thin layer of credibility, if any. The ending is also somewhat blunt and not entirely satisfactory.

But in between, there is ample opportunity to enjoy Hitchcock’s indisputable genius. Ironically, for a film which is rich with interesting and groundbreaking use of sound effects, Hitchcock gives several nods to the silent film which saw his own beginnings as a director.

Psychologically, the film holds many interesting dimensions, and the actors interpret them excellently. Not least Peter Lorre in a spectacular role as an assassin who is in equal measures jaded and naive.

This film is best enjoyed if you love Hitchcock and want to start exploring some of his lesser-known films. Secret Agent deserves better than obscurity.

Escape through Swiss chocolate factory in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936)

Secret Agent
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Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 26 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, Madeleine Carroll
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×616)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,017 M)

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Shoulder Arms (1918)

Charlie Chaplin is uncommonly well represented at the Internet Archive. I have found no less than 68 of his films there, out of a total 85 (as an actor). Most of those 68, however, are shorts and for that reason I will probably not write about them here.

Chaplin’s early career coincided fairly well with World War I. He started out as an actor in 1914, and in that year alone made 35 appearances (more than two fifths of his total output!). 20 of those he directed himself.

Today it happens to be exactly 95 years since armistice was signed by Germany, which in effect ended WWI. Chaplin, by that time a world famous star, had released Shoulder Arms a few weeks previously. In spite of his popularity, this was a very bold move. Many advised against making fun of a war that had killed millions and caused unmeasurable suffering. In fact, Chaplin himself had his doubts, but decided to press on.

Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder Arms (1918)

The entire thing proved to be a stroke of genius. Critics and audience immediately took the film to their hearts, and it was Chaplin’s greatest success to that date. It is still today a very funny film.

Chaplin plays a grunt in the trenches. First there is a very brief section set in boot camp (a little too short; lengthening this part would have done the film no harm). A large part of the film is set in the trenches, and Chaplin really manages to act out a diverse range of situations on what would at first seem to be a very limited stage. The props seem a bit cheap at times, but since this is a comedy, that is no real problem.

Much has already been written on the subject of why Shoulder Arms was so successful, so I feel that I have very little to add. What I can say, however, is why I like it myself. Chaplin was always good at charicatures, and this film is certainly no exception. My favourite is the almost midget-like German officer who uses every trick in the book to get at least a piece of respect. But Chaplin’s charicatures are never nasty, but warm and humane. This warmth must have been felt 95 years ago as well.

While I am no expert, i believe that the version at the Internet Archive is probably the original, not the re-release edited by Chaplin himself in the 1960s.

This film is best enjoyed for what it is: a light comedy on a very serious subject.

Charles Chaplin in Shoulder Arms (1918)

Shoulder Arms
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Year: 1918
Running time: 44 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (593×480, not counting black border)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.3 G)

Q Planes (1939)

The more British 1930s mysteries I see, the more I come to enjoy them. I have previously reviewed Non-Stop New York (1937) here. Certainly, there was a major Hollywood influence in British film, but the Brits had their very own distinctive style. There is lightness and elegance here, and at the same time often thematic forebodings of the coming war.

One enjoyable example is the nice spy thriller Q Planes, released just months before the outbreak of World War II. The enemy in the film is very vaguely defined, but with the political situation being what it was, it is not difficult to imagine what the audience was supposed to conclude.

Valerie Richardson, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier in Q Planes (1939)

The plot of Q Planes should be paid as little attention as possible. Major Hammond, who is working for some unspecified spy agency, tries to investigate experimental military planes that have been disappearing in various countries all over the world. His superiors are convinced that these are only a series of accidents, but Hammond sees a pattern. When test pilot Tony McVane loses one of his best friends in yet another “accident” he, too, becomes involved, as does the beautiful reporter Kay. Then there is the usual bit about an engine-stopping ray gun and somesuch.

While this may seem promising, there is really very little else to the plot. The film’s strengths, rather, lie in the nice characterizations (especially Ralph Richardson’s Major Hammond) and the snappy dialogue. The big star, by all rights, should have been Laurence Olivier as McVane, but he plays the second fiddle to Richardson, both in terms of screen time and performance. Still, it is very interesting to see him in what must have been one of his last British films before his Hollywood breakthrough.

Aviation buffs will be disappointed to find that there is very little here in terms of aerial action. Mostly some studio shots of the test plane’s cabin and planes standing on the ground.

This film is best enjoyed if you have at least a basic understanding of the political situation just before World War II.

Valerie Hobson and Laurence Olivier in Q Planes (1939)

Q Planes
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Directors: Tim Whelan, Arthur B. Woods
Stars: Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Valerie Hobson
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (699 M)

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939)

Sometimes you wonder just why you do a certain thing. As I write this, for example, I have just spent most of last week in a make-shift dojo, training ju-jutsu at the annual Swedish summer camp. I was very much out of practice before the week started, and come Friday I felt like I was going to die, or at least fall apart.

Ju-jutsu (which can also be spelled “jujitsu,” “jiu jitsu”, or a great many other variants; but never “jujutsi” or “jui-jitsu”) is a martial art that had its peak way before the martial arts became popular on film in the 1970s. Consequently, there are only a handful of movies where ju-jutsu is an important element. Mostly it is only mentioned in passing in dialogue.

Such mentionings can be very interesting, however. They tell us something about how ju-jutsu is and has been perceived in popular media. It turns out that the most common movie usage of the word “ju-jutsu” (regardless of spelling) is to explain someone’s expert fighting skills, but it is almost as common that another martial art is mistakenly identified as ju-jutsu (implicitly suggesting the other art’s superiority). The oldest example I have found of this latter use is in Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, in this piece of dialogue after having rescued a man from being beaten up:

“I’m deeply grateful. It was wonderful!”
“Being very simple. Judo, often miscalled by foreigners ‘jiujitsu’.”

Peter Lorre and Robert Coote in Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939)

Mr. Moto was originally a character in a series of novels. In the 1930s, the character became a series of films, although quite different from the books. Peter Lorre, an excellent actor who was often given roles much below his ability, here plays a Japanese agent of the International Police – an early James Bond of sorts. Caucasians who play Asians are very rarely convincing, but Lorre does a good act.

The film begins as Mr. Moto arrives at Port Said, Egypt. He soon becomes involved in trying to reveal a plot to start a world war between England and France(!). The story is full of logical holes (in particular in the light of later historical events), but thanks to good dialogue, some charming supporting characters and Lorre’s splendid acting it nevertheless turns into a pleasant little mystery, well worth watching if you enjoy 30s mystery films. (But of course you do!)

The martial arts in the Mr. Moto series should not be compared with those seen in the later martial arts boom, or in more recent high-budget ventures such as The Matrix (1999). It consists chiefly of spectacular but poorly executed judo throws such as seoi nage, tomoe nage, or the odd kata guruma (see the image below).

So what about other uses of the word “ju-jutsu” in films? Turns out there are very few. I have seen a couple of cases where it is used to emptily boast that someone is a good fighter, and once as a deliberately bad pun (Not Another Teen Movie (2001)). On film, ju-jutsu is essentially only available to the good guys. The only exception to that rule that I am aware of is in the strange and unique propaganda movie Stage Door Canteen (1943), wherein we find the following wonderful line:

“They can talk all they want about the Jap jujitsu, but a marine will tell you it doesn’t work against a roundhouse right to the jaw.”

Concerning Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, this film is best enjoyed if you have an hour and a quarter to kill and need some light entertainment.

Peter Lorre's stunt double executes a kata guruma in Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939)

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Norman Foster
Stars: Peter Lorre
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (505 M)

The General (1926)

On this day in history, 150 years ago, the battle of Gettysburg began. Whether it was a heroic fight for a noble cause, or a terrible slaughter (about 50,000 dead; almost ten times the population of the town where I live), there can be no doubt that it was an event that shaped the history of the world, in such a way that the consequences can still be felt.

There are surprisingly few interesting movies about the American Civil War on the Internet Archive. One of those few happen to be Buster Keaton’s The General.

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

The General is based on the true story of a band of of Union spies who stole a train and drove it through Confederate territory, causing as much damage as possible. They were followed by the train’s conductor with two other men, and this is where Keaton takes off with his story. Keaton takes the role of the train engineer Johnnie, who desperately wants back his train, and also his girlfriend who happened to be on board when the hijacking was made. He has to go through fire and water (literally) to do so. Keaton adapted most of the story to fit the needs of a comedy, but otherwise he went to great lengths to make the details (such as the locomotives) historically accurate. Interestingly, the Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase (1956) is based on the same events, but tells the story from the Union perspective.

Perhaps the most memorable parts of The General are the many amazing stunts and effects, not least the scene where a steam locomotive crashes into a ravine when a bridge falls apart. This was apparently the most expensive single scene to be filmed during the entire silent era, and the locomotive is actually real. It remained there on the bottom of the ravine for decades.

It is very difficult to imagine The General without the stunts. The success of this film builds very much upon the body language and amazing timing of one of the all-time greatest of film comedians. If you have never seen Buster Keaton before, then this is a very good place to start. In my opinion, Keaton has made even better films, but even so it is one of the greatest comedies of the silent era.

When you have finished watching this film, you should take a look at the fantastic blog Silent Locations, which has a post about the film. Make sure to follow the link to the complete presentation about the film. Amazing stuff!

This film is best enjoyed after having been to a good railway museum (such as the one in Kennesaw, Georgia, where the real The General still stands).

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

The General
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Year: 1926
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPG4 (933 M)

Dark Journey (1937)

Sweden is a small country, at least in terms of population, and very much less significant than we would perhaps sometimes like to think ourselves.

As a Swede, it interests me very much to see how foreigners’ prejudices about us are reflected when Swedes or Sweden are¬†mentioned in popular media. Not only is it amusing to see what others think about us; it is also sobering to realize that our own prejudices are probably quite as gross and exaggerated.

Sweden is quite often mentioned in foreign movies (an entire web site, Alla Talar Svenska, is devoted to the subject). In fact, if we had to give out all the Nobel prizes that have been awarded in movies, the Nobel committee would go broke in a matter of minutes. But it is rare indeed to find a foreign film where most of the action is set in Sweden. British Dark Journey (1937) is such a film.

Vivien Leigh in Dark Journey (1937)

Dark Journey was made at a time when Europe was preparing for the coming World War II. The dark clouds were plainly visible, yet it would not do to openly criticize a foreign power. But it was perfectly acceptable to make a historical movie, so several World War I dramas were made around this period. Thus could the Germans be made the enemy without actually pointing a finger.

Vivien Leigh, before she became famous in Hollywood, plays French girl Madeleine who owns an expensive clothes shop in Stockholm. She meets Conrad Veidt who plays a German agent on a mission for his country. In spite of their countries being at war, the two start to fall in love. Entaglements ensue, both at the personal and international levels.

Dark Journey is not a remarkable film by any means, but it is not bad either. From what I can tell, several sets and situations actually reflect what upperclass Stockholm might have looked like in the 1910s (though except for some mood-setting shots of Stockholm just at the beginning, nothing is filmed on location). The actors deliver what they are expected to, and the story is original enough to keep the interest up all the way to the end. The best thing about it may be the excellent soundtrack by Richard Addinsell. Too bad this was probably never released on record.

This film is best enjoyed with a few glasses of ice-cold punsch, a Swedish liqueur which was popular at the time when this movie is set. As far as I can remember, “Sk√•l!” is the only Swedish word spoken in the film.

Vivien Leigh and Conrad Veidt in Dark Journey (1937)

Dark Journey
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Victor Saville
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Vivien Leigh
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×616)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)