Saturday 16 April 2011

Diplomatic Courier (1952)

Not really a delirious film, this one, but I'm a sucker for train movies and this one has some interesting credits so I thought I'd scribble down a few observations.  DIPLOMATIC COURIER was directed by Henry Hathaway and was released in 1952.  It stars Tyrone Power as the titular hero who gets mixed up in all sorts of intrigue in post-war Trieste while on a supposedly routine assignment.

It's diverting enough but is unexceptional; it has too much in common with too many better films to really stand out in its own right. It has a similar ambience to THE THIRD MAN (1949) but doesn't have the moral dimension; it has a similar plot to BERLIN EXPRESS (1948) but doesn't have the charm.  Part of the problem I think is that you don't really believe Mike Kells (Tyrone Power) is ever in that much peril.  From the outset you're aware that not only is he a government agent (albeit a courier) but he is one of the best in his field.  On top of that he has the support of the US military almost from the moment he steps off the train in Europe.  For these films to work you need to believe that the hero is a) actually in danger and b) has no-one to turn to.  Neither of those is true of this movie. 

Too much of the action is driven by the military, reducing Kells' status to little more than a pawn.  That's probably more realistic but we're talking about escapism here.  Films like this need a lighter touch, dare I say a more Hitchcockian touch.  Espionage films at this time were still basically adventure stories with thrilling action and romance taking place in exotic locations.  The cynicism and drudgery of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965) was still some way off.  Hathaway's film has more in common with the war movie than it does with the spy thriller and its attempt at greater realism harks back to Hathaway's earlier THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945).

Tyrone Power is solid but no more as the increasingly ineffectual Kells.  I think by this time his good looks and natural athleticism had started to fade; he would be dead just six years later, aged only 44.  By contrast, Patricia Neal was in the very early stages of her career and combined genuine ability with striking looks; she went on to many better films.  Karl Malden brings some Method intensity to his supporting role as the helpful Sergeant and there's fun to be had spotting Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin in uncredited minor parts.  In some ways this film could be seen as the changing of an era in Hollywood, with the studio-based star system giving way to uncontracted artists who valued acting talent above star quality.  Hathaway continued directing well into the 1970s but remained a pretty conservative film-maker.  One other point to note is that the film is based on the novel Sinister Errand by Peter Cheyney who wrote the novel on which Godard's ALPHAVILLE is based.

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