Thursday, December 20, 2012

Cat Burglar vs Nazis

The B-movie universe had several former criminals who now solved crimes instead of committed them. The best of these was Boston Blackie—played by Chester Morris in 14 films made by Columbia Pictures during the 1940s, Blackie would regularly be accused of murders he didn’t commit. He’d go on the run, track down the real killer and thus clear his name. Morris brought humor and charm to the role of Blackie and most of his films had well-constructed plots.

Blackie’s chief competitor in the burglar-turned-detective business was also in a series of films produced by Columbia Pictures. Michael Lanyard—aka The Lone Wolf—was played by several actors over the years after his original appearance in a 1914 novel. The best known films from this series are those starring Warren Williams,  made between 1939 and 1943.

The Blackie films and the Lone Wolf films were very similar in their formats—both were always being falsely accused of a crime, both had comedic sidekicks, both were regularly pursued by a determined cop with a dumb partner.

But as World War II progressed, Michael Lanyard went in a different direction. The Blackie films acknowledged the war effort, but Blackie still solved home-grown crimes.

The Lone Wolf, though, took a more active part in fighting the Axis. The last few films had Lanyard worked for Allied Intelligence.

Which finally brings us to today’s subject. Passport to Suez (1943) was Williams’ last Wolf film. It’s set in Alexandria, where Lanyard finds adventure before he even has time to eat his dinner. His butler Jamison is kidnapped and Lanyard is blackmailed by the Nazis into stealing some secret military plans.

Lanyard, though, is not a traitor and plans on trapping the spies. But the spies know Lanyard will “betray” them—in fact, they are planning on it. The villains’ real plan is to steal the plans they really want while Lanyard is busy stealing the plans they could care less about.

Tossed into this mix is a femme fatale, three free-lance spies respectively known as Rembrandt, Cezanne and Whistler, and a former American racketeer who now owns an Alexandrian night club.  All are played by talented character actors who give these roles real personality. Sheldon Leonard as the night club and Louis Merrill as one of the spies are particularly memorable. It’s also fun to see an impossibly young Lloyd Bridges playing a bad guy. (He had played a villain in an earlier Lone Wolf film also.)

It’s a fun story, playing out in a way that leaves Lanyard and Jamison on the run from British intelligence while trying to catch the Nazis. It ends with Lanyard pursing some escaping enemy spies in a machine gun-equipped biplane.

That ending makes me wonder if the film-makers might have been thinking back to the original 1914 Lone Wolf novel, written by Louis Joseph Vance.  That novel also ended with some airborne action in what might possibly have been the first ever dogfight in a work of fiction. This movie doesn’t quite have the same thing—Lanyard is making strafing runs at an automobile rather than firing a pistol at another plane. But all the same, that scene might have been inspired by the novel.

The solid plot is backed by some effective direction (Andre de Toth was the director), most notably a brief but effective scene involving an exchange of pistol shots in a pitch-dark room.

Passport to Suez is a fun entry in the Lone Wolf series. It’s more action-packed than most of the previous films, but the action fits the feel of the story quite nicely.

Besides, its always satisfying to watch a biplane make a strafing run.

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