In the past I’ve done a few write-ups on those thrillers that take advantage of the devastated world of post-war Europe. The uncertainty evoked by time and place, the dreams of a better future coupled with the knowledge that the dangers of the past are no further away than a glance over the shoulder, is a strong foundation on which to build tales of intrigue and deception. In the late 40s and early 50s, as the chill of the Cold War was spreading, there was an abundance of such movies. I think the appeal of these pictures, despite the patriotic trappings required by the contemporary political climate and the inevitable loss of immediacy with the passage of time, lies in their ability to tune into the despair and disillusionment of those displaced and damaged by war and the subsequent carving up of a continent. Diplomatic Courier (1952) is one of the lesser known examples of this sub-genre, despite its boasting a strong cast. This film is not without its flaws but, taken as a whole, it remains a slick and atmospheric espionage thriller.
It starts off with one of those voice-of-God narrations, extolling the virtues of dedicated government agencies, which I tend to find irritating but quickly settles down to telling the story in a more traditional way. In short, a coded document originating in Romania needs to be passed to a courier in Salzburg for transportation back to the US. Sounds simple enough in itself, and thus our courier, Mike Kells (Tyrone Power), is promptly dispatched to do the business. Of course, things don’t quite run according to plan and Kells’ contact winds up dead on the railway line outside the city, without having completed the exchange. The circumstances leading to the murder aren’t clear as they were preceded by a series of cat and mouse shenanigans aboard the train involving a couple of heavies (one of whom is Charles Bronson in a blink and you miss him role) and an unidentified blonde. Kells now finds himself high and dry, and his only lead is the blonde, a Czech refugee called Janine Betki (Hildegard Knef), on her way to Trieste. His only option is to travel to the Italian city, track down Janine, and hope that she can lead him to the missing document. Again, the errand seems uncomplicated yet Trieste is a nest of spies and assassins, with danger lurking and ready to pounce within its ruins and darkened courtyards. Trying to run down one female in an unfamiliar and hostile locale ought to be problem enough, but Kells faces the added complication dealing with the attentions of an amorous American pleasure seeker, Joan Ross (Patricia Neal), who he met after falling asleep on her mink clad shoulder en route to Salzburg. What emerges is that both these women have a central role to play in the mystery, the question though is which one, if either, can be trusted.
The whole thing moves along at a brisk pace under Henry Hathaway’s direction, but I do feel the script could have used some tightening to cut down on the kind of disposable dialogue that just serves to slow the momentum. Also, there are a few too many convenient arrivals at crucial moments. Having said that, Hathaway, aided by cameraman Lucien Ballard, creates some nice images and takes full advantage of the European locations. The best scenes are those with Kells blundering around Trieste following up clues that frequently leave him even more confused than ever. By this time, Tyrone Power had left his swashbuckling days behind him and was exploring more varied roles. I thought he was pretty good as the messenger boy thrown in at the deep end and unsure of who’s really on his side, apart from a faithful but hyperactive Karl Malden. Both Patricia Neal and Hildegard Knef gave strong but very different performances – the former oozing a kind of feline sexuality, while the latter tapped into a credible blend of vulnerability and grit. Of the two, I’d say Knef produced the the better work, probably due to her character benefiting form greater depth. I mentioned earlier a fleeting appearance by Charles Bronson, and it’s also worth pointing out that’s there’s a small part for Lee Marvin in there too.
Diplomatic Courier is available on DVD from Fox in Spain – the only release of the movie anywhere that I know of – in a pretty good edition. The print is quite clean and crisp, but there is a fair bit of grain in evidence early on. Actually, I can’t work out if it’s genuine film grain or some kind of digital noise; I have a hunch it’s the latter but I’m not expert enough to call it for sure one way or the other. Whatever, it fades after the first ten minutes or so. The Spanish subs are removable via the set up menu, and the extras are limited to a gallery and some text based cast and crew info. This was my first viewing of the film, a total blind buy, and I enjoyed it a lot. I did have some issues with the script, but the acting is good overall and the direction and location photography are very stylish. Yet another picture that deserves a wider audience.
7 thoughts on “Diplomatic Courier”
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A better film than most critics at the time gave it credit for. Nice write-up on your part.
Thanks, it’s another one that’s not all that well known either – quite odd when you look at the names in the cast and crew.
Your critique of “Diplomatic Courier” couldn’t be more accurate. It’s an enjoyable film with a somewhat sloppy script. I agree that there are too many “convenient arrivals at crucial moments” and a frenetic Karl Malden needs a sedative. And how does Tyrone Power jump from a speeding vehicle and land standing up on his feet? Those scenes of Kells “blundering around Trieste” were actually shot by the second-unit crew with a double for Tyrone Power. Hathaway worked entirely on a set. He did such a good job of blending the second-unit footage with realistic sets that later directors who wanted to shoot on location in Europe were told by Fox executives, “Hey, look what Hathaway did.” I was very impressed with Hildegard Knef’s performance as the tormented double agent.
I watched “The Man Between” (your review was excellent) a day after “Diplomatic Courier”. I think this is clearly the more ambitious film. It has so much that is admirable – Mason’s and Bloom’s performances, the John Addison score, and Carol Reed’s inventiveness which is more daring than Hathaway’s direction. Plus, “The Man Between” was actually shot on location. Yet, I felt there was something off-kilter about it. I just read on IMDB that “Carol Reed always felt that the script for this film wasn’t quite right and was constantly trying to get it rewritten during filming. At one point, he approached Evelyn Waugh to do a rewrite, but Waugh refused, claiming he couldn’t understand the story.” Still, it is an impressive effort. The tragic ending is made more poignant by the fact that it is the boy who loves Ivo who inadvertently causes his death. James Mason had an extraordinary career in film. He boasts a rich and diverse resume that few actors can match.
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Thanks. It’s so long now since I last saw this that it’s all rather sketchy in my memory. I didn’t know about the second unit taking care of the location work as it’s all so seamless.
The Man Between isn’t a perfect film either but I feel it’s a better one. I’m not sure that the direction is what creates the difference – both Reed and Hathaway were excellent filmmakers – as much as what drives the script. That story does get a bit convoluted but, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter as the foundation of it all is the relationship at the core. All the relationships are of interest and handled with a lot of sensitivity, but the Bloom/Mason dynamic is strong and develops wonderfully in the third act.
I “like” your reply.
My favorite Hathaway films are “Niagara”, “Kiss of Death”, and the underrated “Rawhide”. I was reading excerpts of one of Hathaway’s biographies at Google Books and he said that James Mason was all set to play the Joseph Cotten character in “Niagara”. However, his daughter, Portland, told him that she was tired of seeing him die at the end of movies, so Mason withdrew. Hathaway said that Cotten was rather “flat” as George Loomis and that Mason would have brought more sizzle to the relationship with his wife, Rose. Be that as it may, I always thought Cotten was perfect as the depressed, cuckolded husband.
Alas, for poor Portland Mason, one year after “Niagara”, her father walks into the sea as Norman Maine and also meets a waterly death as Captain Nemo.
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I’m not sure what my favorite Hathaway movies are – he didn’t make too many poor ones – but I feel Garden of Evil would have to be either at the top of the list or very near to it.
Niagara is excellent, and looks great in Hi-Def. I also think Cotten is ideal in that part. Mason would have brought too much pep to it all and that wouldn’t have worked half as well.