Sunday 6 November 2011

Background to Danger (1943)

BACKGROUND TO DANGER is an American espionage thriller that was directed by Raoul Walsh and released by Warner Brothers in 1943.  It stars George Raft, Brenda Marshall, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Turhan Bey.  Set in Turkey during the Second World War and based on a novel by Eric Ambler, it's about an American caught up in the middle of  a Nazi plot to provoke the Turks into joining the war on their side.

I got on to a bit of a Greenstreet & Lorre roll back there in August and they certainly do their bit to liven up this exotic tale of spies, Commies, Nazis, agents provocateur and cheerfully pro-US locals.  It's all very much in the wake of CASABLANCA and while entertaining enough it doesn't have that films stature.  And that's partly because there's a massive Bogart-size hole right in the middle of it, into which steps the second-rate George Raft.  They both made their name playing tough gangsters but Raft, unlike Bogey, never transcended those parts to become a proper actor.  In fact, he didn't really make much of a go of playing the good guy, as can be seen in BACKGROUND TO DANGER.

George Raft as Joe Barton
I think the problem was that in playing tough gangsters didn't require Raft to do a great deal of acting as he grew up in Hell's Kitchen and, notoriously, was on good terms with many underworld figures.  When required to be charming or heroic he just didn't seem quite the same; or rather he came across as a slightly shifty hero, one in whom you couldn't completely trust.  I suppose what I'm trying to say in a ham-fisted way is that Raft was good for playing hoods and not much else.

I love the maps you get at the start of these exotic movies, to clue in those punters who don't know where Europe is
However, that serves Raft well in this picture because being a WW2 espionage movie morality comes in shades of grey.  While the villains are still signposted clearly - Nazis are rotten to the core - the good guys take some figuring out.  So as well as shifty Raft you also get Peter Lorre in one of his trademark roles where you're never entirely sure whether he's a suave traitor or a snivelling hero.

Peter Lorre as the wonderfully named Nikolai Zaleshoff
I liked the spycraft stuff - particularly the laborious method of getting past the cigar store which fronts the local OSS outfit - and it's performed with gusto but I suppose in the end it's all too obviously a CASABLANCA cash-in and therefore you can't really help but compare it unfavourably.  Raft is no Bogart, as I've said, and Brenda Marshall is definitely no Ingrid Bergman so much of your attention is drawn to the supporting characters.  Greenstreet and Lorre are terrific obviously but also worthy of note is Turhan Bey, an American / Turkish / Czech actor who relied on his boyish charm and exotic good looks to carve a niche for himself in Hollywood in the 1940s.  He's still alive, remarkable enough, aged 89 and no doubt regaling eager interviewers with tales of the Golden Age of motion pictures.

Turhan Bey in his tobacco shop / OSS cell
Film anorak notes - Don Siegel is credited with 'montages', which could mean anything but which I take to mean basically second-unit photography and the sharply edited mini-sequences which set the scene.  Also another credit for make-up wizard Perc Westmore.

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