Saturday, February 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: 13 Rue Madeleine

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I think I was misled by the Netflix description of this 1947 movie, which promises an espionage thriller about World War II American spies searching for a hidden rocket depot while rooting out a traitor amongst their ranks. And that is what it's about, sort of, only in this really stilted, stentorian way, and only in about the final third. Mostly the movie is a sort of ultra-patriotic, extremely hokey tribute to the efforts of U.S. military intelligence during WWII, complete with relentless narration that sounds like something out of an old educational film. The early parts of the movie are basically a lecture about the greatness of American spies, complete with illustrative examples that the movie tries to pass off as characters.

Eventually the narration dials back a bit, and we get to the plot, although the characters remain broadly drawn tools for instruction rather than people. Top-billed James Cagney is a supporting player until the last third of the movie, when he suddenly takes center stage as the badass spy who's going to nearly single-handedly take down the Gestapo in France and secure some French scientist who is involved in building missiles. It's not exactly exciting, especially because the only real villain, the German undercover agent who was working within American intelligence, is completely flat and boring, and barely gets any screen time after he reveals his true colors.

I suppose this movie existed to serve as propaganda as much as entertainment back in the post-war period, and it certainly doesn't skimp on the hagiography. But it rarely generates any suspense or thrills, and consistently values dull procedural details over character development or plot twists (we learn the identity of the German double agent when ... Cagney tells his superior). The title address is the location of the Gestapo headquarters in Le Havre, but it again makes the movie sound more mysterious and daring than it really is. This one is definitely best left as a historical curiosity.

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