Ah, my sometimes dubious adventures in late-night Internet film viewing. I decided to watch a movie called Diplomatic Courier simply because it had the most boring title I’ve ever seen; and my curiosity was piqued (it was based on a novel called Sinister Errand; as titles go, not much better). I even looked up what a “diplomatic courier” is; per Wikipedia, it’s “an official who transports diplomatic bags.” Wow, can’t you feel the excitement popping off the page? So what’s this movie about, I thought: The Perils of Pouching? Voyage to the Bottom of the Embassy? It’s In the Bag? (although there’s already a film called that, fortunately not about couriering…)
The movie, which came out in 1952, stars Tyrone Power, whom I’ve always found to be a rather dull and humorless screen presence. When young, Power was a staggeringly beautiful man, but he seemed to try to belie his eye-candy looks by a throbbingly earnest mien–I may look like a louche lollipop, he seems to say, but honest, I’m a serious actor. In his post-WWII career, he started to lose his looks and to age onscreen; he thickened and stiffened round the middle and his face puffed out and sagged. He looked like a cannoli deprived of the cream. I bet Power liked that; I bet he got tired of being the resident Fox pretty boy. And he worked hard at being taken seriously as an actor: he toured with Charles Laughton in theatrical readings; he fought to make Nightmare Alley, in a role for which he was too old and stolid (it’s a part made for someone like the sleazily overripe young Paul Newman), but in which he managed to inject some depth and pathos; he got mussed up in gritty westerns (Rawhide) and even played villains (Witness for the Prosecution). Now he glared at his leading ladies, and his voice, always deep and resonant, took on an edge—of weariness and a kind of fed-upness with the world. In a late-1940s empty-calories comedy with Gene Tierney, That Wonderful Urge, Power looks bored and irritable. He knew he was well beyond such fluff at that point.
And Diplomatic Courier suits Power. It’s a terribly earnest film, about Cold War doings, made in that semi-documentary, cold-oatmeal-for-breakfast style, of denuded glamour and dankish lighting. The underlying message of such low-key flair was to let American audiences know how grim and serious were their law enforcement and government agencies (hence all those scenes of teletype machines rattling away like tommy guns), and that criminals and communists might as well throw in the towel and come out with their hands up. The film’s plot is also serious and no-nonsense: Power engages in some literal bag-carrying as he transports a briefcase of documents to a meeting place somewhere in Europe (rear-projected backgrounds in trains and cars), where he’s to hand them over to an agent. Lots of to-ing and fro-ing making connections and keeping to a schedule proves exhausting for our hero, and while flying on a plane he falls asleep on Patricia Neal’s shoulder.
Right here the film picked up interest. Neal is young, cool, and lewd; sexy as all get-out, dressed to the teeth in furs and diamonds, and purring in a Kentucky-bourbon-aged-in-the-wood voice that could entice a saint. She is gorgeous, GORGEOUS, with bone structure to kill for and come-and-get-me eyes. And suddenly—I wanted something different: I wanted the story to dump its dull transfer-of-papers plot, I wanted Power’s character to go off with Neal’s (she invites him to accompany her to the Salzburg festival—Mozart! Music! Melody!) for a kind of long, sweet, tease trip across Europe—light and amusing and slightly melancholy, something very French and sophisticated. To hell with the international intrigue. Just look at Neal’s sloe-dark eyes and listen to that slow-sax voice. That, I thought, was the real action.
And my god, Neal tries. She keeps running into Power and tempting him, but Power, who looks too earnest for such frippery, keeps on doggedly with his mission. He runs into spies (a young Charles Bronson is one), military police (a lean and mean Lee Marvin is one, bringing some needed energy to the film—I bet HE would have run off with Neal), and then smack into dull, earnest Hildegard Neff, who’s a double agent, but her heart belongs to America, and she’s really serious, you see, about her duty to America and freedom and democracy, so serious that she’s dressed like a frump. Ah, c’est la guerre froide. Neal, it turns out, is the real double agent, who’s been trying to lure Power away from his mission, but he’s too serious for such luring. Lordy, why couldn’t this have been made in the 1960s with Sean Connery? He’d at least have bedded the willing lady, had a little fun in the hay, and then caught the spies and be the hero. Power just looks—well, earnest and serious and dogged to the last. I know I can’t blame him for the script and direction, but couldn’t he have looked a little wistful when Neal bats those bedroom eyes at him? The film ends with him rolling down a hill locked in Hildegarde Neff’s arms and then staring at her. “This is the first time I’ve seen you as a girl,” he says, earnestly and seriously. Thanks, Tyrone.
After all that bag-passing, I decided I wanted something with action, suspense, speed, thrills—you know, excitement! Which I thought I would find in Short Cut to Hell. Now there’s a terrific title—live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. Alas, I was suckered. A 1957 Paramount B-product, the film’s noted for being James Cagney’s one and only directorial effort. Cagney even introduces the film, announcing, quite earnestly, the names of his two young stars who, he assures us, you’ll be hearing from in the future. I don’t remember who they are, so I’ll have to look them up one day on the IMDB. (If any readers have heard of them since, do let me know.) As a director, Cagney covers the basics, such as letting us comprehend which side of a door people are on or which direction people are running in. Considering who was behind the camera, I’d have expected some more snap-crackle-pop, but Cagney keeps it slow and earnest. Which I just didn’t need.
The film is a remake of This Gun for Hire, and what’s wrong with it is that it doesn’t have Alan Ladd. Say what you like against him, Ladd (oh so beautiful, oh so sad and haunted) had Screen Presence. The young man in Ladd’s role, chosen, I assume, by Cagney, is tiny and thin and looks like a small boy playing at cops and robbers. He has a certain askance gaze that seems to convey something, but I wasn’t sure. The girl in the Veronica Lake role (no, Veronica’s not here, either, that’s another thing wrong) is large and hearty and gritted-teeth cheerful (meaning my teeth but not my cheer). I suppose Cagney chose her because she seemed so healthy and good-humored, a contrast to the glum little fellow she co-stars with. She looks solid enough to have taken him with a good right hook, and I suppose she didn’t because he has the gun, but, honest, I think she could easily have taken that, too. Instead, she persuades him to let her go to some audition she’s scheduled for (I was getting confused here, but the hour was late and the YouTube print was lousy), and she sings her audition song, in a nothing-to-write-home-about voice, and she wears a dowdy little black dress, and all the men there say how wonderful she is, and then I turned it off because I was falling asleep. I recommend the film for insomnia sufferers.
The film’s one asset was Yvette Vickers, who bounces across the screen with more pizazz than the two stars we’re sure to be hearing from. She has a scene entering the hired-killer’s room where she bends over so we can get a good look at her ass, which is trim and cute and shaped like a Valentine heart. That’s the one Cagney directorial touch that stood out for me. Vickers does her usual intense-tramp bit, and she’s lots of fun. If I were that contract guy, I’d have taken her instead of the sturdy singer. Indeed, I’d have taken both Vickers and Neal and gone off for a holiday someplace where there are no diplomats or bags or hired guns or hefty gals or future stars, and have had a ball. Sometimes, movies should give us a bit of fantasy—just to keep us awake. Please.