Foreign Intrigue (1956)
“The most startling spy-hunt ever filmed!”
Director: Sheldon Reynolds
Cast: Robert Mitchum, GeneviÃ¨ve Page, Ingrid Thulin
Synopsis: When a reclusive, enigmatic millionaire dies suddenly on the Riviera, his press agent begins to investigate his employer’s shady past.
The very first scene of Sheldon Leonard’s Foreign Intrigue gives a clue to its schizophrenic nature. It begins like some lush romantic drama, with a middle-aged man strolling through the sun-kissed gardens of an opulent mansion. Walking inside, he places a red flower in the midst of an arrangement of yellow ones before moving into the library, where he climbs one of those ladders on wheels to select a particular book. Then, as he begins to leaf through it, his face contorts and he slowly slides down the ladder before crumpling to the floor. Talk about a shift in tone…
The man we see die is the fabulously wealthy Victor Danemore (Jean Galland), and although Foreign Intrigue might be described as a spy thriller, Danemore wasn’t killed by some fast-acting poison coating the book he selected, but by a common old heart attack. But his death marks the beginning of a mystery for Danemore’s press agent, Dave Bishop (Robert Mitchum, once again sucking in his stomach for all he’s worth). Four times in quick succession the news of Danemore’s death brings forth the same words from the people who approach him about the subject: “Did he say anything before he died?” Those words coming from Dominique (Genevieve Page), the dead man’s wife, are understandable, even though the marriage was strictly one of convenience (“You wrote the dialogue, I was the scenery” she wryly remarks to Bishop once the news has sunk in). But when two strangers on separate occasions, and then Mannheim’s doctor, ask the same thing, Bishop grows suspicious.
The doctor has received a letter from Mannheim (Frederick Schreicker), a lawyer in Vienna asking for confirmation of the cause of Danemore’s death. When the curious Bishop phones Mannheim, the lawyer reveals that he is in possession of an envelope which is only to be opened if Danemore died under mysterious circumstances. If the millionaire died of natural causes then the envelope and its contents are to be destroyed unopened. Bishop confirms the nature of Danemore’s death but asks Mannheim to delay destroying the envelope until he can get to Vienna and have a look at it. Mannheim is agreeable to this request, but he receives a visit from Dominique while waiting for Bishop to arrive, and by the time Bishop gets there, Mannheim’s growing cold and stiff on his office floor.
The movie’s been doing pretty well up to this point, and will do for a while longer before losing its way a little. Dominique is an intriguing character; obviously a little flighty, she and Bishop might have been carrying on behind Danemore’s back, although it’s never really clear. For a while it looks as though she’s going to provide some kind of doomed love interest for Bishop, especially when we learn that her dead husband’s wealth was mostly illusory, but her character goes off in an unexpected direction when she refuses to accompany him to Paris. In Vienna, Bishop flees from the scene of Mannheim’s death and a growing band of locals and a couple of cops on the beat give chase (the cleaning lady I can understand, but exactly what all the others are doing hanging around a solicitor’s office around 9pm is a bit of a mystery). He looks certain to be caught until a character called Spring (Frederic O’Brady), one of the four people who were curious about Danemore’s last words misdirects his pursuers.
Bishop’s investigation eventually takes him to the home of an Oskar Lindquist, who has unfortunately passed on, but he is made welcome by Lindquist’s daughter, Brita (Ingrid Thulin), and it’s at this point that Foreign Intrigue stops being so intriguing and becomes something of a bore. It’s ironic that it seems to take forever for two people to fall head over heels in love so quickly, but that’s how it is — the entire plot comes to a screeching halt while Bishop and Brita engage in some entirely unconvincing wooing. Of course, the demands of the plot inevitably intrude on all the billing and cooing, but it never quite gains the same momentum, especially once the source of Danemore’s mysterious wealth is uncovered, and struggles to overcome an insistent low-key musical score that proves almost fatally distracting.
Foreign Intrigue is one of those movies that has all the ingredients required for a taut, suspenseful thriller, but for some reason it never quite gels. That doesn’t mean there isn’t much to admire, though. Director Sheldon Reynolds creates an appealing atmosphere, flirting with the conventions of Noir while declining to immerse the story in it. Having said that, the final scene is straight out of a Chandler novel; established with a high shot at night looking down upon a solitary street lamp whose pool of light illuminates a narrow cobbled street corner, it features a host of shady characters, including the obligatory femme fatale, melting into the shadows as the trench-coat wearing villain of the piece approaches. The offbeat ending might prove a little off-putting for some, and is certainly unusual for the era, but the cynic in me can’t help wondering whether Reynolds wasn’t angling for a reprise of his TV show of the same name which had come to an end the year before this movie was released.
(Reviewed 6th January 2014)