If you’ve followed my blog for a while, this will be a diversion from my usual material. Last summer, I wrote about a favourite film for the Barbara Stanwyck blogathon. Since that review, I’ve discovered a massive league of classic film bloggers who regularly write about their passion for all things vintage and celluloid. When I read about an upcoming blogathon on the subject of classic spy films, I decided to add my voice again with a little known favourite in that genre. Without further fuss, here’s my contribution. I promise not to give away anything crucial to the plot so that you can see the movie for yourself. To read more blogs in the series, click on the Snoopathon banner at the end of this post. ~C
James Bond has become the stereo-typical spy – well dressed, flashy cars, technological gadgets, beautiful women. We happily suspend our belief for the sake of entertainment. But in “After Tonight” (1933), we see a different portrait emerge of the true spy: Ordinary, plain, working menial cover jobs. During World War 1, the successful secret agents were commoners. They were efficient because of the cloak of plain sight.
Most spy films have an engaging beginning, a cinematic hook to set the break-neck pace for the story ahead. “After Tonight” starts out in a curious and rather innocuous way – with a Foreward. The first snippets of plot dawn in one of my favourite places – cinematically and in real life – a bustling European train station. World War I is raging and notices have been posted that Germany is mobilizing and standard railway schedules cannot be assured in the days ahead. Foreign nationals and tourists are advised to leave Luxembourg as quickly as they can. A young woman stands in black, arguing about currency for a ticket to Vienna with an exasperated ticket agent.
Clearly attracted to her, she is approached by an unnamed man, willing to give her change for her ticket. The two travel together to Bern until the train is stopped at the Austrian border, and she abandons her smitten and bewildered new companion in the rain. We soon discover that her discarded travelling partner is Rudy, an Austrian Captain. He is trying to dissolve a Russian spy ring bringing secrets to the Germans. And Karen, his train station muse, is K-14, a competent spy in the group he seeks. Moved to the front as a nurse, Karen is reintroduced to the good Captain and the two begin a romantic relationship.
Gilbert Roland & Constance Bennett as Rudy & Karen.
Image courtesy valentinovamp.com. Used with permission.
There are creative story-telling techniques that I like in this film. My favourite is how war secrets are smuggled – they’re written in books, sewn into clothes, in modified jewelry and coins, even in a cotton ball in a patient’s ear. The audience reads the codes as they are written, mysterious and baffling at first. But then the information slowly fades on screen into the clear translation in the same handwriting. It effectively makes the viewer feel like we too are trusted with cryptic confidences.
The film is short, around 70 minutes. Apparently it was cut originally from 85, so I desperately wish I could see the deleted scenes. But the condensed duration contributes to a quick pace. There are witty one liners and innuendo. The ending of the film is unexpected, resolving quickly in a way I didn’t predict.
The Charleston Daily Mail- Sunday November 19. 1933
This film provides poignant reminders of the injustice of war, of the dangerous times that called for desperate measures. In one scene, Karen overhears the firing squad death of a man to whom she has passed secrets. Rudy does not know her role as a spy and isn’t aware that she is directly connected to the death she is witnessing. With pity, he expresses that he is sorry she had to hear it. “It seems so terribly unfair, he was doing the best for his country. Just as you’re doing, and I.” she responds. “Yes, but he probably sent hundreds of men to their death” he justifies. “So does the man behind the machine gun,” Karen retorts, “but he isn’t shot when he’s caught”.
The plot involves regular use of circles as a symbol of confidence. When Karen’s allies reveal circles to her in their jewelry or on paper, she knows they are trustworthy and loyal to the same cause. And this movie itself itself carves a perfect circle, winding up back in a train station forming an impeccable arc. It tells a charming and personal story that gives new essence to the words in the Foreward.
I love history, especially that of the World Wars. I wouldn’t have wanted to wanted to live through those precarious times, but from the protection of the future, that era is fascinating. The roles of ordinary people in those conflicts is a compelling thing.
There are espionage films that tell stories with more flash and sophistication, but I enjoyed this film. It’s romantic and suspenseful, creatively weaving an intriguing tale of the sacrifices of war, both by soldiers and by civilians, with great risk and “without glory”.